Save a prison, build the nation

Rehabilitation: Save a prison, build the nation

Each class has a mix of students. While some are sharp, others take time to understand. Therefore, students in the same class can be on different levels of the course.

There is no person alive who cannot make a new beginning — L. Ron Hubbard

This statement could not be more applicable to a class of prison inmates attending Criminon rehabilitation programme at the Karachi Central Jail. Prisoners young and old, some hardened by tough years of the jail others still in hope to live a life of freedom, all have one thing in common — they do not want to return to the prison and to the life of crimes they never knew why they got into.

Running successfully in the Karachi Central Jail since 2007, the Criminon programme is organised under the Society for the Advancement of Health, Education and Environment (SAHEE) an NGO run by Saleem Aziz Khan and Azhar Jamil, that has benefited more than 500 prison inmates in the past six years.

Assembled in neat rows of six desks, with four students each, SAHEE runs two classes in Karachi Central Jail and enrolls 100 students every year. Each ‘student’ goes through an extensive four-step course under supervision of his instructor. One instructor is assigned for a group of seven to eight students in each class. Currently, eight trained instructors guide their students and help them understand. Serving their term in prison, these instructors are from senior batches of Criminon and undergo a rigorous multi-level training course by SAHEE.

What inspired Saleem Aziz Khan, a retired military officer, to start the Criminon programme?

“I came to know about an Asia-Pacific Corrections Conference being held in Australia a few years back. I was unclear about the word “corrections”, and was told that it had to do with prisons.”

Saleem Aziz was intrigued. Having moved from Islamabad quite recently, and seeing the deteriorating security situation in Karachi, he wanted to work for jail reforms and the Criminon programme was an opportunity that he availed.

“I met Prison Department officials, who were quite open to the concept of starting this programme — there being no real correctional activity going on at that time. I applied for a permission from Criminon to initiate it in Karachi Central Jail. The then Superintendent of KCJ, Mr Nusrat Mangan, arranged a meeting with 50 literate prisoners who were our first willing batch of students.”

Interestingly, prison records tell only one prisoner returned out of 500 prisoners who participated in the Criminon programme in the past five years. And this is what keeps SAHEE motivated.

Just sending a person to prison without correcting him is not a logical action.

The only need assessment done by us was that there was no real correctional activity in jails across Pakistan. Prisons in Pakistan lack proper corrections system which can help a prisoner get back into mainstream society; instead they get influenced by hardened criminals. This, and harsh prison conditions, makes many prisoners commit themselves fully to a life of crime. Ours was a small step in that direction and it has paid off well.”

AG* has been associated with Criminon since 2008. One of the successful pass outs from the first batches of the programme, he became an instructor after his death penalty turned into life sentence. He explains, “Each class has a mix of students. While some are sharp, others take time to understand. Therefore, students in the same class can be on different levels of the course. Our task is to guide them and ensure they understand what they are reading.” What has motivated this science graduate all these years to continue instructing his fellow prisoners and see them move on, he tells, “All these years, I have seen a lot of prisoners who were imprisoned for crimes that were avoidable. Every person had his reasons to committing wrong, but in reality those were petty issues which could have been avoided if they knew how to channel their energies towards positive things in life. Not all prisoners are criminals; most times it is a slight slip that brings them to jail. Watching my fellow prisoners breaking free from the shackles of anger and confusion is a liberating feeling.”

In its attempt to promote Criminon programme in other prisons of the country, SAHEE is currently training a few inmates from Hyderabad, Larkana and Sukkur jails. Once trained, these instructors will go back to their city jails and train their fellow prisoners.

Saleem hopes this pilot can expand and be replicated throughout prisons of Pakistan. “Karachi jail authorities have been very helpful in initiating this step. I hope we can get more funds to expand this programme in other prisons to address the critical need of rehabilitation of thousands of prisoners languishing for years.”

SAHEE is also in the process of training prison staff and plans to broaden these trainings for police officials as well.

The Criminon programme also runs a literacy class for prisoners who do not know to read or write. These classes are conducted in Urdu and Sindhi and have been of great advantage to Criminon. Enthusiastic and eager to learn, a majority of students from literacy class enroll themselves for the Criminon programme thereafter. “After passing my Urdu literacy class a few months back, I was happy to read and write basic Urdu. When I entered Criminon, it was an enriching experience to be able to read and understand what the course books said. It was a life changing experience. Had it not been for my training to understand what I was reading, I would have not been the person I am today,” beamed MR, who is currently training to become an instructor.

During a casual conversation during the visit, this scribe asked inmates if Criminon had affected them in anyways and how was the experience so far. Many of them were candid about their experience. SA from Hyderabad jail is currently undergoing the final step of the programme. He believes Criminon has taught him to be patient with himself and with people around him. “First thing that I am doing after completing my imprisonment is to teach my wife what I have learned at Criminon and then educate my daughter so that she can raise a better generation,” SA confided.

For 25-year old TM, Criminon has brought a change in the way he used to see the world. “Criminon has taught me how I was unable to face a problem and always sought easy ways to get out of it. During step II of the programme, I learned how to sift through my problems and learn to solve them instead of shying away from them. I find pleasure in reading now and it is the most interesting and long-lasting habit that I want to take home.”

“What Criminon teaches us is not rocket science. It is basic common sense and moral values that unfortunately our education system does not address. In schools, all we focus on is rote learning. Our education system fails to teach ethics and basic principles of life like honesty, kindness and tolerance for each other. Seldom does it help us differentiate between good and bad,” explained 35-year-old LH.

Senior instructor AR believes educating a mother is equivalent to educating a nation. “Had our mothers been educated, they would have been able to raise us in a more stable and nurturing environment. Governments in Pakistan have not done much to promote female education. We have thousands of ghost schools all over the country. The situation is bleak in rural areas. There is a need for greater reforms to make Pakistan a country where every child has access to quality and free education.”

Prison authorities have been a great support for the smooth running of the Criminon programme all these years. Present Senior Superintendant Kazi Nazir Ahmed endorses the efforts of SAHEE and stresses for implementing such rehabilitation programmes all over Pakistan. “Besides the Criminon programme, Karachi Central Jail is running a few recreational classes like the arts and painting class, music and computer classes. However, with a prison population in Karachi Central Jail at 4460 it becomes imperative that we address the mental well being of the inmates. What is needed is an expansion of rehabilitation programmes like Criminon. Such programmes can expand only with proper funding and material resources. We are happy to provide space and logistics, but there is a larger need to fill in the funding gaps.”In the past six years, expenses of the Criminon programme have mostly been incurred by friends and family with the exception of a 15-month funding by UNODC in 2009. In contrast to an average 8-10K for each student in Karachi Central Jail, the cost of the programme goes to a considerable high for training prisoners outside Karachi. SAHEE envisions implementing the same programme for women and juveniles. “The greatest challenge that we face is lack of funding sources. With constant monetary support, we would be able to expand and replicate Criminon to many jails outside Karachi,” Saleem added.

In a society where our value system is fast eroding, it is high time we work towards inculcating peace, tolerance and civic responsibilities. If our large population in jails remains neglected, prisons will become nothing but criminal colleges. We must all work towards making prisons correctional facilities.

*Using initials for names to protect identity.

Published in Dawn, May 26th, 2013