For all of the 11 years Arjiram spent in a conventional Indian prison, the numbardar — the man who conducts the daily roll call — never once called his name. “He used to just count our heads,” says Arjiram, who was convicted of murder. The sense of anonymity was so intense, he says, “I began to even forget my name”.
Such indignities defined Arjiram’s experience while incarcerated, piling up one by one in a years-long process of dehumanisation. His experience was typical of prison life in India: cramped, unclean facilities; a lacking of acknowledment, and sharing bug-infested blankets on crowded floors.
Then, in 2014, Arjiram’s life as a prisoner suddenly changed when he was transferred to a different kind of correctional facility: Sanganer open prison.
Though the people held at Sanganer are technically incarcerated, they can leave during the day and travel within the city limits. Almost immediately upon arrival, Arjiram’s sense of self-worth improved. “It didn’t feel like I was in a prison,” he explains. “I could go out and work and come back, and the best thing was they trusted me.” After being faceless and nameless for more than a decade, he felt like a person again.
According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, there are 88 open prisons in India — most of them in Rajasthan — where the model is being pioneered. India’s open prisons, which are state-owned and run, are defined by minimal security, where prisoners are free to come and go as they please. At Sanganer, the prison is open for up to 12 hours a day. Every evening, prisoners must return to be counted at roll call.
The focus is on reform rather than punishment; self-discipline is encouraged. On a practical level, letting prisoners go to work also allows them to earn money for themselves and their families, build skills, and maintain contacts in the outside world that can help them once they’re released.
This model has deep roots in India. One of the earliest open prisons was established so its inmates could help construct a dam in Uttar Pradesh in 1953. Over the next couple of decades it evolved as a rehabilitation-oriented system, promoted in particular by Sampurnanand, who governed Rajasthan from 1962–1967.
Today, while open prisons are not the norm across India — they house less than three percent of the prison population — they are growing in number. India joins an elite group of countries that offer open prisons, such as Finland, a place often celebrated for its forward-thinking justice system. But Finland is a small, wealthy country of just over five million people with relatively little violent crime — it registers only a few hundred murders a year. India, on the other hand, is home to 1.4 billion people and tens of thousands of murders, rapes and assaults. Its sheer size would seem to make its open prison system improbable, but it works.
Getting into one of India’s open prisons is similar to getting parole: it depends on a prisoner’s behaviour, motivation to reform, and physical and mental fitness.
But they’re not only for those convicted of petty crimes. Hari Singh (not his real name) was convicted of murder and, after serving time in a closed prison, was moved to Sanganer five years ago. Before incarceration, he worked in construction. “Now I ride an e-rickshaw and earn 600-700 rupees (US$8-9) per day,” he says. “I spent eight years in the closed prison where we are shut out from the world and there was constant worry about everything. Here, we lead a stress-free life — kamao aur khao (earn and eat).”
As well as allowing prisoners to support themselves, open prisons require far fewer staff, and their operating costs are a fraction of those in closed prisons. And while there is little reliable recidivism data available in India, Scandinavian countries with open prisons have among the lowest recidivism rates in the world.
But the most visible benefit of open prisons is their humane conditions. As in many countries, prison overcrowding is a major problem in India, with profound implications for physical and mental wellbeing. Open prisons help solve this.
“Colour is the one thing we miss in a traditional prison,” says Pooja Chabra, who was transferred to Sanganer from a closed prison in 2015. As soon as she moved there, Chabra started planting flowers. “I planted some marigolds outside my residence,” she says, “which suddenly provided colour to my otherwise colourless life.”
Chabra found more than just colour at Sanganer — she found love. It was there she met fellow prisoner Kishan Devagowda. “I am living the second phase of my life here and these are possibly the happiest years of my life,” says Devagowda.
Single women are not typically allowed in open prisons, but some have found ways to get themselves transferred into them regardless. In some cases, a group of single women will declare they are a family. “We decided to become each other’s family — life changed from that moment onwards,” says Geeta Sharma, who was sent to Sanganer along with her “family” of other single women.
India has other types of open prisons, as well. The open prison at Cherlapally, Hyderabad in Telangana is spread over 48 pastoral hectares. Inmates are paid to tend crops, fish and raise chickens. While offering somewhat less freedom than Sanganer, Cherlapally prison nevertheless allows the people there to build skills, have family visit and generally live a more typical, less confined life.
“The prisoners work on the farms,” says a deputy superintendent at Cherlapally, who asked to remain anonymous. “They learn new techniques of cultivation, which will enable and prepare them for livelihood after their release.” The Telangana State Prisons Department even set up an outlet called “My Nation” in the recently-held All-India Industrial Exhibition at Hyderabad, selling such items as bedsheets, towels, doormats, steel cupboards, stools, and cleaning and bakery products, all made by the prisoners who were paid for their work.
Smita Chakraborty founded the prison reform organisation Prison Aid and Action Research (PAAR) in 2018 after more than a decade of working with incarcerated people. Perhaps more than anyone else, she has pioneered the concept of open prisons throughout India. “If they can think of a parole system,” she says, “they can think of an open prison system, too.”
Thanks to this advocacy, in 2017, the Supreme Court ordered the national government to encourage more open prisons, and so far, 30 new open prisons have been built across India.
Chakraborty points out that fewer than one percent of those in India’s open prisons are habitual offenders; the vast majority are nonviolent and pose little threat to society. What’s more, hardly anyone “escapes” from an open prison. The trust-based model appears to foster a meaningful level of mutual respect between the state and those under its supervision.
If anything, the open prison model has been criticised for being too conservative, particularly as to which prisoners it will accept. What some critics see as unnecessarily strict eligibility criteria mean that many prisoners who likely pose no threat remain stuck in closed prisons. As of 2021, India had the capacity to house just over six thousand people in its open prisons, but was housing few than half that number.
If solving this problem lacks urgency, that may be because of the public’s relative indifference to the plight of prisoners, who are often viewed as socially irredeemable. But as open prisons become an increasingly visible part of India’s justice landscape, that may change. “There is a possibility that this concept could emerge as one of the major reforms of the 21st century,” says Ajit Singh, ex-director general of prisons in Rajasthan.
ABOVE LEFT Arjiram and his wife at Sanganer open prison
ABOVE RIGHT Pooja Chabra with her flowers