January 2012
#Prisons , 1386 Views
Made in Tihar

Text: Laura Quinn
Photographs: Tenzing Dakpa

Delhi’s tihar jail has a brand of prisoner-made products to call its own. but what does having a prison enterprise like this really mean?

Soon after Ranveer* was sent to jail, he assumed a new identity. To the jail authorities he was an “RI”; in jail lingo, that means he was sentenced to rigorous imprisonment. As an RI, the then 28-year-old, convicted of murder, was mandated to do hard labour, eight hours a day, for the duration of his life sentence.

Imprisoned at Tihar Jail, the monolithic prison complex located in west Delhi, which houses about 11 000 convicts and undertrials across nine, separate jails, Ranveer’s mandatory labour at first involved electrical servicing work, similar to what he had done on the outside. But he was soon transferred to the prison’s on-site factory, for the opportunity of a new role and a paid wage. Given some welding equipment and on-the-job training, he was set to the task of building metal frames for tables. Despite being paid work, building desks was repetitive and physically demanding. The monotony wore him down.

“The work wasn’t interesting, I got into fights and did a poor job because I was bored,” he says about his time in the factory. “That work was just time pass, there was no benefit from that.”

In 2010, after serving 16 months of his life sentence, Ranveer was acquitted of his charge and released. Seated in a coffee shop in Connaught Place in late October, Ranveer is a slight man in a fitted red and white check shirt. Chatty in a somewhat frenetic manner, he’s eager to share his Tihar experiences. After struggling to find employment, the now 30 year old is relieved to have gone back to his original trade of electrical servicing. Since his release, he hasn’t used any of the skills he picked up at the Tihar factory.

Engaging prisoners in factory work is one of Tihar’s many initiatives intended to aid prisoner rehabilitation. In other words, these are programs which aim to keep inmates occupied throughout their incarceration, equip them with vocational skills and, ultimately, help prepare them for re-entering society when they are released. Over the last two decades, the endeavours have included yoga, dance workshops and art therapy. But the Jail Factory, around since 1961 and now comprising six units and a baking school, has increasingly become a driving force of the Tihar rehabilitation story. It seeks to provide inmates with a more productive alternative to the existing prison maintenance tasks, such as cleaning, cooking and gardening, that otherwise make up the inmates’ mandatory labour.

Unlike the other initiatives, inmates working in the factory are not only trained, but are also paid a salary for their employment. It’s there that prisoners churn out stationery and desks for government departments, and shoe uppers in a unit run by the jail’s sole private partner. But the prison also sells products to the public under its own brand name, TJ’s, around since 1994. Tihar Jail’s brand of inmate-made products has grown to now include offerings ranging from textiles, to baked products and spices, to furniture, which Ranveer built in his time there. In recent years, the authorities have sought to expand the reach of TJ’s. Behind this brand is an ambitious undertaking to combine the ideals of prisoner rehabilitation with the difficult task of running a financially viable business.

The Jail Factory is located on the compound of jail number two, one of the prison’s two convict-only jails. The compound has few of the trappings one might imagine of prison life. The courtyard walls are muralled and painted bright pink. The lawns are well kept. S M Bhardwaj, the jail’s Superintendent, is keen to show the library, computer room, aviary, herb garden and hair salon, where inmates were trained by hairdressing baron Jawed Habib, who owns a chain of salons across the country. In the new music room, Bhardwaj instructs an impromptu keyboard-bongo jam session, which is begrudgingly obliged to by two inmates. For the outsider, visits are restricted to these more cheerful places; areas like the barracks, where up to 50 inmates are locked up each night, are off-limits.

After walking through an ornamental bonsai garden, the entrances to various units of the factory are identified by large, blue, industrial signage. Of the 1 000 odd male convicts comprising jail number two, about 700 are employed here, on the factory floor as well as in supervisory and administrative roles. Jobs are allocated according to relevant experience and educational level. The majority of Tihar’s inmates haven’t completed tenth standard, while about five percent are university graduates.

In one unit is the shoe-upper factory where Rupesh, 36, is responsible for supervising 70 inmates on the factory floor. Before his conviction, Rupesh was an army contractor. Brought forward by Bhardwaj, he wears the standard white prison uniform and carries a clipboard under one arm.

When asked about the factory work, Rupesh answers impassively, “[It’s] very helpful, it keeps people busy and learning.” But eight years into a life sentence for murder – which in India means serving at least 14 years – Rupesh says he still intends to return to his previous employment upon release, if he can.

According to the jail authorities, recently revised wages mean someone skilled like Rupesh can earn Rs 99 per day, while unskilled workers are paid Rs 70. Earnings are spent on daily supplies inside the prison (hair oil and combs are apparently popular purchases), sent to family members outside, or saved up in preparation for release. Twenty-five percent of each prisoner’s earnings are deducted for a victim support fund which, according to officials, the prison management distributes to victims as it sees fit.

When Ranveer joined the factory earning money was a motivation, but the Rs 1 000 he says he earned each month for the tiring work was a disheartening drop from the Rs 10 000 he earned outside. What he received mostly went to his mother, whom he supported before going to jail. After nearly two months of working on the desk assembly line, he returned to doing electrical work for which he was not paid. It was less exhausting and he figured if he had to come to terms with being in prison, he could at least do work he wanted to do.

Inside the weaving unit of the factory where TJs textiles are produced.

Ranveer, however, believes there is value in the factory work for inmates who don’t have vocational skills before entering prison, or are serving very long sentences. He believes their threshold of interest in factory work is greater than their willingness to give up as they can develop a craft so that they have something to survive with once they leave jail.

“There’s a lot to learn,” says Ranveer. “[A prisoner] knows that he’s not going to starve. He can actually come out of jail and [do] something productive.”

It’s this hope that prisoners are equipped with employable skills upon release that is cited as one of the central goals of the TJ’s initiative on its website. Moving through the different units, TJ’s signage is scattered throughout, but it’s once inside the bakery unit that the TJ’s brand becomes most apparent. Inside, steps have been taken to create a proper, standardised food production setup. Here, workers combine their standard issue prison whites with hygiene caps and plastic gloves, as they hand-pack namkeen, potato chips and rusk cakes. Taster portions of various baked goods sit on neatly laid out trays. Certificates hang on the white walls boasting various quality standards that the factory has achieved; government mandates on hygiene as well as working conditions and hours are adhered to, according to Bhardwaj. The mood is sombre and the prisoners quiet, but a splash of colour is brought to the factory floor by the cherry red and sunshine yellow TJ’s packets piled at the end of the production line, ready to be dispatched to various outlets across the city.

An inmate employed in the weaving unit.

In the administrative block of the prison, Director General Neeraj Kumar, a career policeman who stepped into the role of head of Tihar nine months ago, sits in his expansive office flanked by official flags and members of his administrative team. Part of his portfolio involves managing TJ’s, which he is seeking to expand.

“Our ambition is that our [TJ’s] products should be available at every shop, at every mall, and that you can buy [them] from anywhere,” he says.

The music room of jail number two.

Currently, the majority of TJ’s products are sold through government grocery stores, outlets within Delhi’s courts, and one-off exhibitions and melas. Along with private partnerships and government contracts it’s proven to be a small but reliable distribution network for the brand, contributing to the factory revenue, which according to the annual report, is a projected 15 crore for the current financial year.

The meeting room where inmates meet their visitors.

“Our capacity is huge because we have captive manpower,” says Kumar. There are almost 2 000 convicts housed in Tihar’s male convict jails, two and five, most of whom are eligible to work in the factory. “All of them want to work, because it keeps them occupied, otherwise they’re wasting time all day.”

And to create more jobs, the prison will need to sell more TJ’s products. The challenge, Kumar says, lies in securing markets and identifying demand. Which is why he’s recently begun the process of contracting professional distributors in an attempt to get TJ’s products into mainstream retail chains across the National Capital Region.

“Obviously we cannot run at a loss, it has to be a profit-making activity,” says Kumar.

A prisoner stands in the jail courtyard.

Tihar doesn’t publish figures for profit and according to the prison’s Law Officer, Sunil Gupta, making a profit isn’t the main objective for TJ’s, but he adds that any profit created by the bakery cycles back into the NGO running this facility, and all other profit goes to the government treasury.

As a brand, TJ’s is perhaps most discernible by its bright, retro “TJ’s” logo and the colourful packaging of its products. The namkeen packs, for example, feature two, smiling, blonde cartoon faces – one a Manga-style visage, the other reminiscent of a character from the American comic strip Peanuts. At the bottom of the packets, in black, uppercase letters is printed: HELP IN REHABILITATION OF A PRISONER. The sunny packaging, says Kumar, is intentional. And it certainly distances itself from negative prison stereotypes.

Social commentator and branding expert Santosh Desai is of the opinion that the TJ’s brand is falling short by giving its rehabilitation ambitions such a back seat to what he describes as its “generic cheerfulness.” Because TJ’s products aren’t distinctive from similar products in the market, he believes it’s even more important that their packaging and advertising more overtly reference their unique origins within Tihar Jail.

“Not acknowledging that, and not making that an intrinsic reason why people would respond to a brand like this, I think is missing a trick,” he says. In the past, advertising for TJ’s has been sporadic, and the brand has largely relied on its bright packaging to attract customers. However, Kumar is now working with a top Indian advertising agency on a more consolidated campaign. One of their first efforts was a recently-released, simply-designed newspaper ad for TJ’s’ range of spices. It depicted spices laid out like prison bars with text inviting customers to “try our spices” and “help prison inmates support themselves.” It’s a much more explicit reference to Tihar and its prison workforce than previous efforts.

Inside the library, which is managed by an inmate.

But branding is not the only challenge TJ’s faces in trying to compete in the open market. One of Kumar’s recently appointed distributors is S K Kukreja, who has been selling TJ’s products to retailers in Gurgaon since September. He believes that the quality of the products is good but getting people to try them is proving to be a struggle.

A major barrier for retailers, he says, are the margins that TJ’s products offer, which are less than half those offered by competitor brands. “I have success at maybe five percent of the retailers I visit,” he admits. He’s increasingly speaking to corporates and NGOs, using a corporate social responsibility angle to get distribution inside institutions, rather than relying on private retailers.

The jail’s hair salon where inmates are trained in hairdressing.

Another hurdle is the prejudice towards prisoners that he frequently encounters. “I tell them these products are from Tihar Jail and some people say, ‘Tihar Jail? No, no, no.’ They don’t know what the prisoners do in there, or how they make the cookies. ‘[They ask] is it hygienic or not?’ ” he says. “There are myths about prison and right away they say no.” If the barriers Kukreja describes are common, then it appears that TJ’s’ business model will need to rely on goodwill rather than economics to reach the kind of demand that Kumar is hoping for.

As a model for prisoner rehabilitation, through training, employing and hopefully preparing inmates for jobs outside the jail, the TJ’s factory initiative is linked to the belief, widely held by prison administrators and NGOs, that employment after jail can protect against recidivism. As Kumar says, “Without jobs they will go back to crime so the society has to take this call [to employ ex-prisoners].”

The legal aid centre.

A 2009 report published by the Bureau of Police Research and Development, which looked at rehabilitation and reformation of released offenders in India supports this belief. It referenced a clear link between employment and reduced recidivism but found that the vocational programs currently available in prisons are not adequately preparing prisoners for employment after release. According to the report’s findings, this is because of the difference in the kind of employment available inside prisons compared with what’s realistically available outside, as well what is described as a lack of follow-up services.

But for former prisoners, employment is only a part of the complex nexus of social issues that face them on release. Rohit Kumar, Project Director of Dehli-based NGO Family Vision, which supports in the social reintegration of ex-prisoners, describes how once someone is released, after the hiatus from normal society the world in which they now navigate is simply a different place. “That transition time is a pretty tough one, it takes months if not years [for ex-prisoners] to even find their footing,” he says.

Outside jail number two.

Vijay Raghavan, Associate Professor of the Centre for Criminology and Justice at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, leads projects for undertrials with the Centre. He says that vocational training alone isn’t helpful, citing social discrimination against ex-prisoners as a barrier to gaining employment. “For people who have faced social stigma and have had a traumatic past, it’s not very easy for them to get reabsorbed into the private sector immediately,” he says.

For Ranveer this discrimination was experienced first hand during his struggle to find employment after release. “People say, ‘he’s been in jail, why are you giving him a job?’ It’s like [a] stain on your character,” explains Ranveer.

“I haven’t even told the people I’m working for now that I was in jail,” he says. “Every person goes through a dark time in their life and that’s what I feel about what I’ve been through.”

An inmate’s painting; Tihar’s rehabilitation efforts include art therapy.