Sumanti Sen is an English Literature graduate who believes "there's just one kind of folks. Folks.".
"Paap se ghrina karo, papi se nahi."
Aruna Sareen, 74, a prison reform expert, is turning a leaf in the lives of 50,000 prisoners and counting. She teaches 'The Art of Living' prison programs, a rehabilitative training programme that aims to end the cycle of violence and despondency, relieve stress symptoms, and empower them to be assimilated with mainstream society post their release from prisons.
Among her students, Sareen has serial murderers, rapists, drug peddlers, petty thieves and even those who sold poisonous illicit liquor, among others. She also has come across hundreds of cases where people are in prison for wrongful cases and continue to suffer mental assault from vested interests, because of lack of resources to fight for justice.
The effectiveness of her programmes reflects in lesser conflict among prisoners in the Jabalpur Central Jail. Criminals out on parole return on their own without having to be caught and sent back. Sareen currently focuses on working with 'hawalatis', and repeat offenders in police custody.
After so many years of changing the lives of prisoners, it is not uncommon to find tens of transformed prison inmates, who have got back their normal lives and smile thanks to Sareen, line up outside her house to meet her.
"I have learned much more from them than they have learned from me. After coming here and teaching in jails, I learned from my experience that it is important to get rid of this aversion to the criminal. In some ways, we are all trapped in the jails of our minds," Sareen tells The Logical Indian.
"These inmates are desperate and restless to get out of jails, but we don't seem to share similar restlessness to truly know ourselves and get out of the prison of our own prejudices," she adds.
But what does it mean to teach meditation and keys to happiness to a bunch of criminals who have committed ghastly crimes? How does she keep judgment at bay? How does she find acceptance among them? How does she pierce through their cynicism?
How does she look at the nature of crimes they have committed, such as rapes and murders? Has she ever been attacked by any of them? How does she handle their catharsis? What keeps her going at this age?
"To be honest, my association with the prisoners never happens on a personal level. I consider this as my job, my duty -- it is something I enjoy doing," Sareen says.
"When I talk to them, I look at them like they are ordinary human beings who need help, and not as murderers and rapists. I have never felt threatened by any of them, and I feel at peace when I am told that my interaction with them has improved their mental health in any way whatsoever," she adds.
Programme participants have reported the following:
• Normalised sleep patterns
• Reduced depression and anxiety
• Increased confidence in having self-control
• Increased energy and clarity of mind
• Increased resilience to daily stresses of life
• Decreased interpersonal conflict
• Improved immunity and physical well-being
• Freedom from past traumas
• Greater positive outlook about the future
• Decreased apathy and lethargy
Work began in 1999 in association with jail authorities of prisons in Madhya Pradesh, when Sareen and her husband Colonel Sareen found out that such programs like The Art of Living's Prison Smart could be offered in prisons.
"Those in prison should come out of the guilt, yet realise they have made a mistake," says Sareen. "When they are released from prison, they will face the same circumstances that drove them to commit crimes crime. The aim of the programme and the assistance of volunteers is to help them conquer those very circumstances and overcome them."
There are about 4,000 inmates of various ages in Jabalpur prison. Different programmes are conducted for them according to their age.
In January 2016, a three-month skill training program began for women prisoners. Around 30 women convicts and undertrials are being trained in association with the Polytechnic College, Jabalpur. The training through the Polytechnic College was encouraged by Principal Rao, now in Bhopal. In his tenure, he had dedicated a resource for jail training. Approximately 10 such trainings have been conducted in the last 15 years.
An exam is also facilitated in prison in beautician's course, food preservation, stitching, applying mehndi, tractor repairing, electrical, managing labour. Diplomas are awarded to those who pass by the Polytechnic College. Similarly, Rani Durgavati Vishva Vidhyalay Jabalpur certifies yoga instructors, if trainees pass in the exam conducted for them.
Certificates for about 100 disabled prisoners have also been procured, to help them avail schemes when released. Able to connect an inmate's need with an interested donor, Mrs Sareen was also able to provide prosthetic limbs to more than 20 inmates.
Presently, the program is conducted in more than 10 prisons in the state including Jabalpur, Gwalior, Indore, Bhopal. Sagar, Ujjain, Vidhisha, Chhatarpur, Narsinghpur, Mandala, Hivani, Hoshangabad, and Satna prisons.
In 15 years, Sareen has seen community members associate with the programmes she teaches in and contribute in.
"When delinquents were released from homes, Brahmanand (a lawyer and volunteer) would ensure that they go to school," she says.
The cycle of crime can be broken if doors to other opportunities are opened for released inmates, Sareen says.
Usha Raj, welfare officer, Jabalpur Jail appreciated the work done by the Art of Living. "Earlier prisoners who leave on parole and would not return. After Arunaji has been coming here regularly, reporting is done by prisoners themselves," she says.
Health issues like tuberculosis and addictions have also reduced inside prison after the practice of these breathing techniques by inmates. Aruna Sareen has reached to more than 50,000 inmates in Madhya Pradesh and more than 8,00,000 such inmates have been benefited by the prison programmes all over the world.
"When these prisoners see me, they greet me like any friend would. They ask me how I am, they smile at me. I have learnt to keep my judgement at bay. They need help, and I am happy to help," Sareen concludes.
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