Just the thought of visiting any jail anywhere conjures up pictures of a dark and gloomy prison, much like ancient medieval concrete dungeons, where hardened criminals, terrorists and murderers languished in captivity, forgotten by time itself.
My reveries of this nature were instantly shattered as I passed through the heavily-barricaded gates of Karachi Central Jail (KCJ) and drove through a tree-lined driveway that led to the jail’s pre-partition, British-built structure which — aside from the barbed wire fences and heavy presence of prison guards — looked more like a historic university campus.
According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, there are currently 74,944 prisoners in 97 prisons across Pakistan, where the official capacity is only 42,617. KCJ holds up to 5,500 prisoners, 80 per cent of whom are Under Trial Prisoners (UTPs), while the rest are convicts serving their sentences.
It is commonly understood that numerous societal factors contribute to the endemic levels of crime in our society: poverty, illiteracy, discrimination, the lack of economic opportunity, gangs and drugs are only some of the most widely recognised of these.
It is also increasingly understood that prisons themselves have become crime-generating machines. Harsh conditions, over-population, the presence of gangs, religious extremists and other pressures lead to socialisation into lifestyle patterns which afford immediate survival but are inimical to a crime-free life upon release — all these and a host of additional factors have combined to create the revolving door of recidivism.
But in 2007, Saleem Aziz Khan — a retired military officer, who runs an NGO called Society for Advancement of Health, Education and the Environment (SAHEE) — approached KJC with a proposal for an experimental rehabilitation programme for inmates which has been used in several countries around the world.
“I came to know about an Asia-Pacific Corrections Conference being held in Australia a few years back,” explains Khan. “I was unclear about the word ‘corrections,’ and was told that it had to do with prisons.”
Khan was intrigued. Having recently moved from Islamabad to Karachi, he saw firsthand the deteriorating and worrying law and order situation in Karachi. He realised he wanted to work for jail reforms, which is when he came across an international rehabilitation programme called Criminon designed specifically for prison inmates.
“I met with 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,” he says. “I applied for permission from Criminon to initiate it in KCJ. The then Superintendent of KCJ, Nusrat Mangan, arranged a meeting with 50 literate prisoners who were our first willing batch of students.”
The Criminon programme was established in 1972 in New Zealand. From that point until well into the 1980s, it was delivered as an on-site rehabilitation programme. Centres were implemented in prisons, in juvenile halls and in court-related community facilities.
A major change in Criminon’s activities occurred in 1989 when a Los Angeles area volunteer, hearing an ex-offender tell his successes through the programme, developed a new approach which enabled Criminon to rapidly reach into prisons, including maximum security facilities, which were previously inaccessible to virtually all rehabilitation programmes.
The courses consisted of a series of cognitive-behavioral courses designed by author L. Ron Hubbard, who worked for the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) as a senior officer in the late 1940s. Hubbard discovered that every criminal career began with a loss of self-respect and he designed his courses to help prisoners adopt new approaches in their thinking about goals, interpersonal conduct, the impact of antisocial behaviour and decision-making skills.
The full range of courses took some years to develop as there was an evolution involved in learning what prisoners needed and in codifying the course materials to satisfy those needs. But since then, the Criminon Programme has been condensed into a four-step process.
Currently Criminon reaches into more than 2,500 prisons in the United States and throughout the rest of the world. More than 10,000 prisoners have completed one or more Criminon course and 7,000 are currently enrolled in a Criminon course.
The programme starts with the ‘Communications Course’ which consists primarily of a series of drills and exercises. It has been found that when an individual’s communication skills are raised sufficiently and he or she has confidence in the ability to deal with even contentious and upsetting matters through verbal communication, that individual tends to use those skills to handle life situations and to verbally resolve interpersonal problems, with a greatly diminished reliance on force, negation or avoidance.
The ‘Communications Course’ is followed by the ‘Learning Improvement’ course, otherwise known as ‘Learning to Learn.’ This course is designed to increase the reading and learning skills of the individual. The course provides the participant not only with increased ease in understanding and ability to utilise the information in subsequent Criminon modules, it also enables the individual to learn and understand other information, whether in school or educational programmes, on the job or for vocational advancement.
The third and pivotal course is called ‘The Way To Happiness.’ Hubbard found that unless an individual understands how to act in a social manner, unless he or she deems doing so to be personally important and unless they feel themselves to be an individual capable and worthy of living a decent life, that person will be inclined towards maintaining a “criminal moral code.” Through ‘The Way to Happiness’ course, the participants are aided in regaining their own sense of self-respect and worth and are brought to an understanding of how to conduct their lives in a manner that is responsible and in harmony with others. ‘The Way to Happiness’ course helps the participants to understand, adopt and put into use a set of common sense values and guidelines.
The fourth and final course is called ‘How To Deal With Ups and Downs in Life.’ This course helps differentiate between social and anti-social behaviour and the consequences of following each pattern of behaviour. This enables the individual to spot within himself, and to set aside, negative modes of social interaction. Following ‘The Way To Happiness’ course, this course helps the individual become aware of such ingrained behaviour patterns and, importantly, it sensitises the individual to such behaviour in others, thereby enabling the individual to avoid falling back for support upon negative associates who often encourage new criminal activities.
SAHEE currently runs two classes at Karachi Central Jail, and has been enrolling between 100 to 125 students every year, since 2007. Assembled in neat rows of six desks, with four students each, every student goes through an extensive four-step course under the supervision of an instructor. One instructor is assigned for a group of seven to eight students in each class and each student learns at his own pace.
Eight trained instructors guide their students and help them understand the exercises of each course. Serving their term in prison, these instructors are from senior batches of Criminon and undergo a rigorous multi-level training course by SAHEE.
Laiq is a 36-year-old soft-spoken and mild-mannered individual, who doesn’t come across as the hardened criminal that people might imagine. Brought to jail on charges of dacoity, he has been part of the programme for four-and-a half years.
“By going through these courses, I’ve reached peace of mind,” he says. “Negative influences at home and not being told the difference between right and wrong led me to be influenced by the wrong kind of people.”
As he speaks, his voice is laced with a hint of regret.
“These are things I wish I had learned as a child,” he laments. “I think 70 per cent of all crime would go away if people learned these things early on in life. I hope to get out of jail and teach other people what I’ve learned here. It has changed my life.”
The Criminon programme also runs a literacy class for illiterate prisoners. These classes are conducted in Urdu and Sindhi and have proven to be quite successful. Contrary to what many people may assume, a significant portion of inmates are enthusiastic and eager to learn and a majority of these students enrol themselves for the Criminon programme thereafter.
Shehbaz, a 38-year-old prisoner was arrested on terrorism charges in Punjab and has been under trial for the past 10 years, while also undergoing psychiatric treatment.
“My education started here in jail,” he says. “I’ve learned to read and write and am now going through the Criminon courses.”
He described the first exercise where students are made to sit facing each other and become comfortable in simply making eye contact as a defining moment.
“I wasn’t used to looking people in the eye,” Shehbaz explains. “I used to get severe headaches before. The negative environment that I was in was affecting my health. But the courses have been able to show me how to tackle my problems and deal with them using common sense. I am able to take responsibility for my mistakes and correct them. Since starting the courses, the headaches have also gone away.”
Khan says that the success of the Criminon Programme is evident in one simple statistic. Out of the 500 prisoners who participated in the course and who were released from captivity, only one has returned to jail, which is why he hopes this pilot can expand and be replicated throughout prisons in Pakistan.
“The Karachi jail authorities have been very helpful in initiating this step,” he says. “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,” says Khan.
In its attempt to promote the 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. SAHEE is also in the process of training prison staff and plans to broaden these training sessions for police officials as well.
In a country where bureaucracy often impedes any attempts to change existing mechanisms, the prison authorities at KJC deserve a lot of credit for being open to the Criminon programme. Present Senior Superintendant Kazi Nazir Ahmed endorses the efforts of SAHEE and stresses the need for implementing such rehabilitation programmes all over Pakistan.
“Besides the Criminon programme, Karachi Central Jail is also running a few recreational classes such as an art and painting class, and music and computer classes,” Ahmed says. “However, with a prison population in Karachi Central Jail at almost 5,500 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 large need to fill the funding gaps.”
In the past seven years, the expenses of the Criminon programme have mostly been incurred by friends and family with the exception of a 15-month donation by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in 2009. In contrast to an average of Rs 8,000 to 10,000 for each student in KJC, the cost of the programme is considerably higher for training prisoners outside Karachi.
With the Karachi Operation ongoing, police are claiming arrests of criminals across the city in the hundreds. The question is, given the acute space shortage in jail, where will they go? Also, what happens to these apprehended criminals who spend years in jail, only to be released later as even more dangerous and hardened criminals than they were when they were apprehended?
In a society that has become increasingly cynical, we need more people like Saleem Aziz Khan, who instead of assuming the worst, has acted and proven that rehabilitation is a realistic goal. Whether it can be successfully applied across the country remains an open question. The only thing missing then, is the will to try.