Providing free legal aid to the prisoners and their affected families is one of the primary areas in which VARHAD works effectively. We believe that every individual irrespective of any differences based on class, age or sex must get ‘a free and fair trial’ which is also a constitutional right and a 5 privilege for any citizen living in a democracy. It is also imperative for the smooth functioning of our Criminal Justice System (CJS).
VARHAD works towards this end by offering legal aid, speedy trials and guidance to the most deserving under-trial prisoners. We do this in consultation, and with the involvement of the prisoner’s relatives to avoid the psychological break down of the prisoners.
There are 67% of the prison population all over India on waiting for trial in the court of law. The statistics depict the pathetic condition of the accused in Indian legal system having one of the reasons behind the unavailability of proper legal aid to the deserving candidate(s). Interestingly, though according to Indian law, it renders them innocent until proven guilty but there is so much torture/agony in between especially for a person belonging to a poor and marginalized background. In absence of effective justice system, they are kept behind bars for months and years in waiting for the justice.
Our experience since more than a decade in the field tells that the majority of the prisoners languishing in prisons are either first-time offenders, petty offenders or altogether innocent. They suffer in jail not because of the crime they have committed but because of ignorance of the legal procedures, illiteracy and poverty. For example, as per the rules of the CJS, under trial prisoners can be released on bail or on a personal bond. But the poor can not able to avail this facility. Late Krishna Iyer, a retired justice has appropriately endorsed this point. He said, “The bail system is highly loaded against poor.” Sadly, the poor are automatically disqualified from using the bail system since the court considers only money or assets, as surety. Therefore, a large number of prisoners are not even represented legally, as they cannot pay the expensive fee for the advocates. Most of the times, the family of the prisoner sells their livelihood to engage private lawyers, and they are still unable to see the cases to completion. This results in the prisoner’s entire family being doomed to exploitation and hurled towards the world of crime.
Though the state has a system for free legal aid to poor prisoners, it does not function properly. Lawyers are not keen to represent those who cannot pay and do it half-heartedly. With the fear of losing their cases, even poor people are reluctant to avail legal aid through the State Legal Services Authority.
In such a complex situation, VARHAD works towards strengthening the state legal aid services so that needy get competent advocates for their cases, wherein the state picks up the expenses. We also coordinate with the advocates for improved functioning of this system. In one of its milestone achievements, the VARHAD has formed a network of quality advocates across the eastern Maharashtra (consisting 11 districts), who are very sensitive and interested in representing the poor 6 prisoners. The advocates associated with us provide their services to poor prisoners (referred by us) and charge minimum compensation (only to cover expenses) from us. The client, who in this case is the prisoner, doesn’t pay anything to the advocates within the VARHAD network. This network extends through the lowest courts to High courts. In a very regular way, this organisation provides legal aid to hundreds of under-trial cases as well as convicted prisoners yearly, who are not in a position to pay for the appeal in the High Court.
VARHAD supports legal aid from imprisonment to acquittal in the following stages:
a) Bail:This is immediate relief against cash/surety, and therefore cannot be availed by the poor. This process is also riddled with delays and lot of formalities.
c) Appeal to Higher courts.
d) Personal Bonds: As per the law there is a provision which came in being owing to the landmark judgment of the Supreme Court, where the court can release prisoners (who have committed petty offences) on Personal Bonds. Again it is unfavourable to the poor people.
VARHAD hugely promotes and supports these exercises, which are hugely beneficial in helping the prisoners to interact with their families and friends. Our social workers visit to these families of the prisoners and their neighbourhood time to time to understand the ground situation and to counsel accordingly. Based on the facts derived from the field, VARHAD appeals for the release of these prisoners. This support prompts the courts to release the ‘deserving prisoners’ without surety and without the presence of an advocate. It is a big achievement for us to be instrumental in the release of about 100+ prisoners every year by this method. Thus, VARHAD is the first NGO to have the honour of enabling release of prisoners without surety.
VARHAD counsels and helps the prisoners and his/her family to understand the parole and the furlough, which are legal rights of prisoners as per Prison Manual. We encourage the release of the prisoners on these laws and coordinate the same with the prisoner’s family, prison, police, judiciary, the revenue department and other concerned agencies of the state administration.
The organization works on policy level decisions in sync with the above departments to ensure that maximum convicts take benefit from the above legally offered facilities. A huge promoter of Parole and Furlough, VARHAD truly believes that these well-thought-out legal tools help prisoners retain their optimism and faith in the CJS.
At a smaller but a significant level, where the above tools are not availed, VARHAD also offers a support system to prisoners by assisting them in sending letters to family members and making visits to their homes on the prisoner’s behalf. In this way, we connect prisoners with their families 7 maintaining the emotional bond in such distressed situations. These innovative methods adopted by us also somewhere help in maintaining the belief in the justice system and discourage the prisoners from adopting violent/illegal means again such as escaping from prisons etc.
This is our second major area of activity. Working with (nurturing) the families of prisoners with special emphasis on the development of C.O.P. (Children of Prisoners). We work with these children through a three-pronged approach:
A) Nursery School (Balwadis) As per the law of our country, children of convicts are permitted to stay with their imprisoned mothers until the age of six years. In such circumstances, VARHAD works towards protecting these children from the negative impact of prison life. This undesirable impact includes violence, abuse, abusive language, threats, fears, and unimaginable living conditions.
VARHAD initiated the liberation of these very children by opening Balwadis for the children of prisoners. These Balwadis function as a full-fledged school and efforts are being made to impart allround education to the children. With this initiative, children are taken care of personally and a loving atmosphere is provided. Their needs like food, clothes, bags and books are also provided by us. Presently the organisation is running two Balwadis, (i) within the prison premise of Central Prison in Amravati, and (ii) district prison in Akola.
As a positive development and a testimony to the honest work being done, even the staff working in the prison are sending their own children to study in these Balwadis. This move indicates that our efforts through Balwadis are getting acceptance widely. This is a real positive change, which will empower these tender minds throughout their life.
VARHAD believes that it is a responsibility of the state to safeguard the childhood of these innocent children of the women prisoners, admitted in these Balwadis by supporting all the needs and activities. The only sure-proof method for all-round development of a child is to put them in the good care of the dedicated and trained staff of these Balwadis who should be well trained. VARHAD’s efforts to ensure the state’s support for Balwadis brought a positive result, and we have been garnered permissions to open state run Balwadis, and Crèches (at the expense of the Govt. of Maharashtra) in all of the eight central prisons of the Maharashtra.
B) Financial Help for the Education An individual’s imprisonment brings a rippling negative outcome on his/her children even if they are NOT in prison with them. In some unfortunate cases, there are such children without care whose all the adult members of the family are in prison for mass crimes. In this situation, the innocent children suffer the most.
There is no debate that education of a child is an indispensable component of a healthy childhood. In a very responsible way, we work to prevent the negative impact of parents’ imprisonment on children by our educational support for the children of prisoners. In some sad cases, when there is nobody to take responsibility for the child VARHAD arranges residential educational facilities for the children. In coordination with genuine, socially responsible private and state-run institutions, the education of such children is offered free of charge by the organisation. They are kept in balgrihas, ashram schools or private hostels in towns such as Akola, Amravati, Buldana and Nagpur and the guardianship lies with the organisation. Every year, more than fifty children are supported with the above-mentioned free-of-cost residential facility. VARHAD also provides educational support in the form of study material and school kits to these children.
C) Integration with Families
To integrate prisoners’ children with their families, we work in the following two ways-
(a) Mass Meeting- The emotional bonding between parents and children is very important for the psychological well-being of both. Every month, VARHAD arranges for mass meetings of prisoners with their children in the jails. In every meeting, we accompany cultural events, picnics and games.
One-to-One Meeting- VARHAD also facilitates meetings of children with their parent/s inside prison walls which provides a direct human touch and feel access to parent/s and children.
D) Balsangopan Scheme
Due to our lobbying and amicable support from the government agencies, VARHAD has been involved in the implementation of Balsangopan scheme started in 2008 by the Dept. of Women and Child Development, Govt. of Maharashtra. In the scheme, a sponsorship money of Rs. 425 per month for each child of the prisoner(s) is provided to the family/person/guardian willing to adopt or take responsibility for such child. The scheme allows a maximum of two children from every such family to be supported by the state until the age of 18 years. In our credits, it is one of our big achievements that the scheme will function until the year 2025 and many children of prisoners will be benefitted by this.
In India, the women are considered as a vulnerable part of the male-dominated society. This vulnerability multiplies for those woman coming from the economically as well as socially degraded communities. This secondary status of women in male-dominated countries stigmatised them to the nadir point if they are imprisoned. It in fact leads too much psychological disorder for women to think positive in their whole life.
What is the worrying in such a scenario is that most of the times the family of female prisoner breaks the relationship, and disassociates from her in the name of safeguarding its reputation in the society and keeping away the imprints on other family members. Thus, for a woman prisoner, the life becomes highly traumatised due to loss of any social security and contacts with her near & dear ones, which forces her often to take drastic steps such as suicide or violent attacks on others.
VARHAD identifies and works to remove the despair of such women prisoners who have nobody to take care of them not only within the prison walls but also after their release. In their post-release rehabilitation, we work in two ways, (i) providing livelihood training by our vocational training centres inside the prisons, and (ii) facilitating in getting the education.
(i) Vocational Training for Livelihood
VARHAD imparts vocational training in sewing for the women prisoners irrespective of their age so that they can sustain after their release in a self-sufficient way. Our training staff workers encourage them to save money along with providing them health-tips for a hygienic life. The duration of the sewing course is six-months‘ in which the women learn to stitch 15-20 kinds of garments apart from the embroidery. Other than this course, we have started the livelihood training for these women in other fields as well, for example, wax making and incense sticks making etc.
For making them feel homely, we also organise programmes on special occasions such as women’s liberation day, Rakhi Din etc., in which they are allowed to participate in all the celebratory activities in the prison only.
VARHAD operates Adult Literacy Programmes (ALP) for the imprisoned women by providing them formal education within the prison itself. Due to our lobbying with the education department of Maharashtra, we have started successfully 4th standard board examinations inside the prison 10 premises only. Other than this we are used to approaching other authorities as well such as Municipal Corporations for taking initiatives in providing teaching for those female prisoners who are illiterate, and also for their children by establishing literacy centres within the prison premises. In this way, our efforts have brought many success stories by which many illiterate women and children are promoted to read and write from the scratch.
The board examinations have been conducted regularly since the year 2007 and will continue. Every year, around 15-20 beneficiaries get passed this exam owing to our initiative. The aim of this basic education is to help these women gain knowledge and much-needed confidence to assimilates in the mainstream society, once they leave the prison walls. There are also arranged many cultural and sports activities by VARHAD for their mental and physical well-being during their stay in prison. We encourage these women to take active participation in our sports and cultural activities.
After release from the prison, the people experience a lot of public-apathy, apprehensions and anxieties which hampers their routine life to be returned in a normal way. These people also can be seen victimised and their human rights to be deprived. To meet these challenges for the people coming back from the prison into society, VARHAD works in an intensive way by extending its maximum time and resources for their rehabilitation. We help these people in three ways.
1. VARHAD has its own “Rehabilitation Centre” for the released prisoners in Amravati, where we provide vocational training to create a decent livelihood for them. Here, we provide lodging and boarding facility for four families (of prisoners) who do not have their own accommodation or means of livelihood after their release. The Rehab Center has a farm where full-time employment for the released prisoners and their families is provided, at a given point in time. These families get free lodging, boarding, limited milk supply (for consumption) and also monthly stipend.
We have achieved this kind of self-funding infrastructure in terms of land, power and water to rehabilitate released prisoners, without any dependence on external factors. Our Rehab Centre houses both male and female prisoners without any preference or biases of any kind. We also provide accommodation and employment to habitual offenders from other cities (extradited prisoners) for up to a maximum period of six months. We take pride in the fact that our self-sufficient and fully functional Rehabilitation Centre has a perfect solution for complete reformation, employment, and long-term intervention of released prisoners, as well as hard-core offenders (and their families).
2. VARHAD also collaborates with small-scale industries to provide employment to released prisoners, who seek other vocation. Our consistent efforts have been to expand the numbers of the beneficiaries from this centre.
3. We help these people by encouraging them to form SHG (Self Help Groups) to improve their economic condition after the release.
In Pune district of Maharashtra, our partner organization Krantijyoti works for the women empowerment by providing various types of training for the women from the marginalized background. Except for vocational training programs,we also work for the education and sensitization of women through regular workshops and publication. With the help of SERA Foundation, VARHAD has been providing sewing machine to the needy women after their training in ‘Usha School’.
Other than this, we also organise many events related to youths and women in our library and hostel, and also in the centre of our co-partner NGO Krantijyoti in Pune, Maharashtra.
The educated youths preparing for the job oriented exams such as UPSC, MPSC, Banking, Railways, SSC, SSB etc. get our library and hostel facility free of cost in the main city of Amravati. In the library, we have sufficient infrastructure for their studies such as chairs, tables, books and a hall in Amravati. We have a corpus of nearly 1000 books for our students in it. Around 100 students (70 male and 40 female) from rural and backward socio-economic background avail this facility. Around 25 male youths stays in our hostel. In the coming years, we are planning to extend this facility to women also in our under constructed infrastructure. In last few years hundreds of students have been successful in getting the jobs due to these facilities by us and most importantly time to time guidance by the experts which we invite from different places.