Out of jail, life is a roller coaster for these released prisoners

What is life like for those who get out of prison after serving life sentences? Akshatha M spoke to a dozen newly released convicts and shares a story rarely told.

Lawrence, in his late 30s, is seeing the world with the curious eyes of a child. As he looks around, he wonders how the world has changed and how different it looks. “The value of money is no more the same. In 1990s, I used to spend a good whole week with just Rs 100 in the pocket. Now everyone talks in thousands and lakhs. Strange!” he exclaims.

In the last 19 years of his life, Lawrence was completely cut off from society — he had spent nearly two decades of his life languishing behind bars.

Convicted in a murder case, Lawrence originally from Shimoga district, was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1997. During his jail term of 6,900 odd days, he came out on parole to be with his family, only twice, for a short span of 105 days.

He spent his days inside the prison with the hope that he would one day walk out of the jail. But, when the day of “freedom” finally arrived, he was overly anxious worrying “what next?”

Lawrence is one among the 375 prisoners who were prematurely released by the Karnataka government on January 26th, 2016, on the basis of good conduct.

Lawrence (left) and Subramani (right), life convicts who were prematurely released from the jail are trying to build their lives. Pic: Akshatha M

It has been over two months since the release. Lawrence is still struggling to come to terms with reality. Reintegration with the modern world has not been easy. Like many other released prisoners, he is making desperate attempts to find a new job and start life afresh. “I have an ailing mother and a younger brother in my hometown. Now that I am released, I have the responsibility to look after them. But, where do I get a job? I neither have money nor do I know which job will I fit into,” he says.

He expresses his desire to stay away from his hometown to avoid unnecessarily getting into trouble. “I want to avoid the mess. I came to Bengaluru today with the hope of finding a job. But, I can’t stay here for long in search of job, without a roof over my head,” he says.

When several prisoners go on parole for three months every year, Lawrence didn’t opt for parole, to stay connected with family and society. When I ask why, he says he had none to give the surety. “Till 2006 the parole amount was high (Rs 6,000) and convicts had to produce two persons for surety. My family could not afford to pay the money. Then, I gradually lost touch with the society. I went home on parole only twice in 2011,” he recalls.

While talking about beginning a new life, he says he is keen to run a canteen and live a decent life. “I am a very good cook you know! I can cook for even 1,000 people,” he grins. His co-inmates who too were released along with him agree. They recall him cooking for the entire lot in prison in Belagavi Central Prison during festivals.

But, the challenge is the investment required for the canteen. “I wish the government would help us to get loans so that we can be financially stable,” he says.

Old Blore prison for representation purpose. Pic: Akshatha M

‘Skills training not useful’

After his release from the jail on September 17th, 2015, Shrinivas (35), a murder convict has settled down back in his village in Channapatna taluk in Mandya district. He and his father Venkate Gowda were convicted for murder over a property issue. After spending 15 years in jail, Shrinivas and Venkate Gowda were included in the batch of 252 prisoners who were prematurely released by the State government in last September for good conduct.

It has been six months since the release. Post-release, the biggest problem they face is the lack of financial support. Shrinivas and his family used to cultivate 3-acre land in a village in Channapatna. But, after the duo was booked in murder case, the family abandoned their property and home and migrated to a nearby village, as the rival party would constantly harass them.

Now that he is back at home, how has life been? It has not improved much. His father and mother are suffering from health ailments, so they cannot work. Shrinivas and his younger brother work in fields as daily wage labourers. “I had undergone a few skill development programmes while in jail like making handloom, carpentry etc. But those skills are not of use in the modern society,” he feels.

Financial burden apart, a ray of hope came to Shrinivas in the form of marriage. He got married to a girl from nearby village in a simple wedding ceremony recently. “The society accepted us as we are. Villagers knew that we had not committed the crime and they speak to us affectionately. The girl whom I got married to has no issues with my past,” Shrinivas says. In a changed world, amidst financial instability, the wedding was one thing that brought him cheer.

He intends to work hard and start a better life. “The house where we are living now is ruined. I want to earn and build a new house,” he says.

Broken familial ties, forgotten identities

When Jyothi (name changed), was released from the Bengaluru Central Jail in last September after a long-term imprisonment, she came out unaware of what to do, with no support system. She had lost her family ties. Her husband, who too was convicted in the case, absconded after he went on parole in 2008.

With none to look forward for, the only bond that had remained is her 14-year-old daughter, who was looked after by an NGO when Jyothi was in prison. During one and half decades of prison life, Jyothi says she has not gone on parole even once, because she had none who could give her surety. Narrating how lost she felt once she was out of jail, she says she was in a state of confusion. “I didn’t know what to do, how to get a job. None would give me a job. They would ask for my identity proof which I didn’t have,” she says.

The major challenge before her was creating an identity. “I did not have any ID proof. I had to begin everything from scratch. I applied for Aadhaar and got it done after a lot of running around (she had to pay a bribe of Rs 500 to get Aadhaar). Now I should apply for voter ID and open a bank account as well. I want to earn and look after my daughter who is suffering from a medical ailment” she says.

Jyothi had completed her graduation (B.A) through a correspondence course while in prison. After the release she was looking for a job that would suit her qualification. “While searching for the job, I realised that I should prepare my resume and I did it. I got a job in an organic store, but was forced to quit the job after I took a few days leave when my daughter was hospitalised. Now I am jobless,” she said.

Asked about her future plan, she says, “I learnt tailoring while in jail. I want to take it up as a profession. But to purchase a power machine I need to spend around Rs 15,000. I will think about it when I have enough savings,” she ponders. She did not get any financial support from the government as she expected. “If I had got a small loan amount, I would have opened a tailoring shop by now.”

A positive gesture for good behaviour

In a positive gesture towards reformation of prisoners, the Karnataka government recently released life convicts who have completed 14 years of jail term. The prisoners were released in two batches. While 252 prisoners were released on September 17, 2015, another batch of 375 of prisoners were released on the Republic Day, from various prisons across the State. Of the 375 prisoners who were released on January 26th, 98 were from Bangalore Central Jail.

Bangalore Central Jail at Parappana Agrahara.

All the prematurely released prisoners are murder convicts (convicted for an offence under Section 302) and were sentenced to life imprisonment. The government had set criteria for prematurely releasing the prisoners — they should have completed a minimum 14 years in the prison, have a record of good behaviour during their term and parole and there would not be any threat to society if they were released.

Premature release is not applicable to the prisoners convicted for offences related to communal incidents, terrorism, drug offence, gambling, rape, forgery, dacoity, women and child trafficking etc.

The last time, State government ordered for an early release of prisoners was in 2006. After a gap of nine long years, one more such release came in 2015.

Prisoners released, but not rehabilitated

While the walk to freedom should have been a happy moment for these prisoners, in reality it was not so. When Citizen Matters spoke to over 10 released prisoners, all of them found it tough resuming their lives outside the prison and adjusting to the society. It was a transition period in their lives. But, there has been no counseling, guidance or financial support provided to them. The immediate challenge ahead is to rebuild / maintain the family ties, fighting the social stigma and find employment.

For someone like Subramani who was imprisoned for 15 years and was released in September, life took an interesting turn when he was on parole. He fell in love with a girl and got married to her nine years ago. “My wife trusted me and married me. I used to go out and work whenever I was on parole. But after I returned to jail, she had to face the toughest times of her life. There was a time when both of us decided to commit suicide and were stopped by a fellow inmate” Subramani recalls.

Admitting to have committed the crime, he sobs uncontrollably in between his sentences. He explains the unavoidable circumstance that led to the murder, the dark days when his sister was raped and father committed suicide.

After the release, he chose to live in Bengaluru, while rest of his family lives in his hometown at Kolar. Subramani earns his livelihood by driving a truck. But, he doesn’t have a driving license yet. “I am using my brother’s DL. I was told to pay Rs 5,000 to agents to get the driving license. How can I afford it?” he asks.

Financial instability v/s social stigma

Most of the released prisoners Citizen Matters spoke to conceded that they did not face much of social stigma, but their major concern was financial instability. In fact, many of the convicts have already found their soulmates or are ready to be married. Like Shrinivas, even Manigopal has decided to start a fresh life with his newfound love. “It is not like we want to hide our past from the society. We might have spent years of our lives in jail, but now we too want to live a normal life,” Manigopal says.

The released prisoners say they are changed individuals. Some of them claim not to have committed the crime, while some admit the mistake for which they say they have regretted enough. “Now, all I want is to support my family and educate the children. I only wish I get some financial support so that I can stand on my feet,” says Swamy, who hails from Channarayapatna in Hassan district.

Most of the released prisoners are pinning their hopes on the government for their  rehabilitation. “During our release, prison officers had assured us that the government will help us financially to start a new life. But we haven’t heard anything there after. Providing loans with subsidised interest will help the released prisoners to a great extent,” says Swamy who intends to open a fertiliser shop in his village.

In need of helping hands

Even though the government has not done anything to support the released prisoners, there are some people who offer hope. Honnegowda, a released life convict himself, is trying his best to help the released prisoners. Honnegowda spent 14 years in jail in a murder case before his release in 2006. Post release, he began a new life and got settled. He drives a goods auto for his livelihood.

Honnegowda, a life convict, was released from prison in 2006. He runs a goods auto and leads a happy life with his family in Bengaluru. Pic: Akshatha M

“I underwent a lot of hurdles after I was released from the jail. I had to begin my life from scratch. When none were ready to extend financial support during my difficult days, I somehow managed to avail Rs 1 lakh loan with high interest rate from a private finance. With that money I purchased a rickshaw. My life is stable now. I have even bought a car recently,” he says.

Having experienced all the problems of rebuilding the life, Honnegowda, now extends a helping hand to those who are in need of help. “I am doing my best to get jobs to the released prisoners. Mistakes happen deliberately or unwittingly. Sometimes convicts may not be the real culprits. Doesn’t everyone deserve a second chance?” he asks.

Tales of released prisoners make one thing certain: they lack financial support. When they are struggling to build their lives, why hasn’t the government taken up prisoners rehabilitation issue seriously? What is that the government and Prisons Department supposed to do to help them? Will once a criminal, always be a criminal or should they be given a second chance? – In the second part.

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