Graffiti painted walls and neatly manicured gardens can come as a shock in the Tihar jail, but what surprises the most is the transformation of criminals into artists at what is Asia’s largest prison. “Karagiri”, a combination of the word Karagar (prison) and Karigari (art), is an event, which was organised this week by the Tihar Jail for inmates to showcase the artistic talents that they discovered during their time in prison. As many as 100 odd prisoners from jails across the country were brought together to organise the cultural event for the inmates and by the inmates. The best paintings drawn by the inmates will now be displayed here at a three-day exhibition.

Speaking about the “Karagiri” programme, Pradeep Sharma, Deputy Superintendent of Tihar prison, said, “We are organising a three-day exhibition in Delhi where the best paintings done by the inmates will be showcased. The inmates have informed their families about the exhibition and they too will be able to see for themselves the transformation these people have undergone through art. They are convicts who have been in prison for years now. Their art is proof that they have come a long way.”

Sharad (name changed), an inmate, said, “I never even knew that I could draw, let alone paint a whole canvas by myself. I have been in jail for 11 years now. I was convicted for murder. But at the time, circumstances were different. Today, I can read and write, but most importantly I can paint beautiful things. My canvas helps me express myself in a way I cannot with words. It will sound wrong to you, but prison is the best thing that happened to my life.”

Amidst strict security checks on the sprawling 400 acres of campus, the inmates of jail number two in Tihar are going about their designated tasks. Those who do not have an artistic calibre have found relief in other manual and industrial jobs. All the nine jails in Tihar have their own industries where things ranging from a five feet tall wooden model of India Gate to chocolate cookies are made. The prison authorities have trained the inmates in carpentry, pottery and baking with the help of experts from the outside world.

Inmates are able to earn, save and send money home from the work that they do inside prison. For some, their talent means a discounted year in their sentence. The price of the paintings, wooden carvings and pottery made by the inmates ranges from Rs 25,000 to Rs 250,000. However, most of them do not want to sell their wares. They are happy if their work is displayed in public spaces where the world can see them.

Sharma explained, “They are trying to send out a message to society that they have utilised their time in prison well. If what they bake, paint or create out of mud is displayed to the general public, it will force people to reconsider their prejudice against a convict.”

The idea of putting a criminal behind bars is to restrict his/her communication with the outside world. This could not be more apparent in Tihar. During an interactive session between Sudhir Yadav, Director General of Tihar, and some inmates, a convict-turned-pottery-artist, Rajiv (name changed) had one request to make, “I have left the paper on which my family’s mobile number is written in Jail Number Four. Sir, can you please help me get it so that I can call and tell them to attend the exhibition this week?” Jail Number Four is located only a few metres from Rajiv, but he cannot go there without permission.

However, restriction of movement within the prison campus differs for inmates. Those who have spent more time in the jail and have behaved well are allowed to move to a semi-open jail and eventually to an open-air jail where there are less restrictions on their movement.

Other than industry training, Tihar allows inmates to have access to telephones for five minutes a day to call family members. There is a barber shop, a naturopathy clinic, a yoga centre and a library with over 4,000 books.

Reflecting on the challenges in dealing with the inmates, Yadav said, “Crime is not a profession for every convict or undertrial. For some, circumstances or ignorance forced them to take law in their hands.

Nonetheless, a prison is a prison. For repeat offenders, reformation does not come easy and they are fewer in number here. At Tihar, we want to ensure that if someone is willing to give life a chance, then we should be able to create opportunities for them.”

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