When prisoners get Instagram likes

4 months ago 36
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A man sips morning tea as he reads the newspaper; another starts his mornings with surya namaskar; yet another strikes a pose with his

dog

. Just the routine stuff of social media, right? Except that the people telling their stories on

Facebook

and

Instagram

pages @openprisonvoices are prisoners serving life sentences — most of them for murder — at Rajasthan’s Sanganer open prison.
Run by the Rajasthan government, this is a jail where inmates are allowed to work, live and commute within city limits for 12 hours a day, leaving campus at 6am after the roll call and returning by 6pm for the evening attendance.
NGO Prison Aid and Action Research (PAAR) that works on prison reforms started the social media initiative in April this year. PAAR founder Smita Chakraburtti says there is a need to break taboos around criminals and spread awareness about the open prison system. “You can cage a man and break him, but you can’t reform him. The basis of an open prison is reformative justice, which is the way ahead,” she says.
Yet when the Insta and Facebook pages were started, Chakraburtti was sceptical. Not anymore.
Among the most active on the Insta page is 34-year-old Manish Agarwal. A real-estate agent before he was convicted in 2008, he was moved from Jaipur Central Prison to Sanganer in 2018. When he got out, it was the first time in 10 years that he saw a

smartphone

. “I had not used one before.

My family

was initially reluctant thinking I might fall under bad influence again but after a couple of months they relented,” he says. Since then Agarwal, who runs the family business of selling textiles, has been hooked to WhatsApp and Instagram. He hopes that their stories on social media will change people’s mind about prisoners.
The prison is run by a ‘bandi panchayat’ or council of prisoners and has a school, temple and an anganwadi. Some prisoners’ children go to private English-medium schools outside while those from outside come to the Sanganer school. The result is that ‘ andar ke bacche’ (children of inmates) and ‘ baahar ke bacche’ (children from the neighbourhood) study together, play together and visit each other’s homes.
The social media pages have made a lot of difference to their lives in the form of positive comments and likes, and a chance to recount their small accomplishments. Like fruit-seller Atul Samnesh who earns Rs 2,000 a day and has saved up to be able to buy a washing machine and an air-conditioner for his home.
For nurse Geeta, this is the chance to be an achiever. “I want to be able to see myself in a mirror and be proud of myself,” she says.

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