Time for a Jailhouse Holiday

Time for a Jailhouse Holiday
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Prisons as guest houses

THE DARKENED GLOOM of a lockup setting in three jails of Maharashtra is giving birth to a somewhat delirious idea. If it comes to fruition, the authorities of these correctional facilities won’t just lock away crooks and offenders and keep them away from the rest of society. They will, at least they hope, lure some part of the rest of society to get behind bars.

Prisons in Thane, Ratnagiri and Sawantwadi are currently conducting feasibility studies to assess if they can use some portion of their jails to host guests. The idea, according to the authorities, is to give curious people the opportunity—for a fee—to momentarily experience life as a prisoner, from wearing a prisoner’s uniform and eating and working within the premises like other inmates, to being locked up inside a cell. This spot of tourism could be for a few hours or an entire night. The modalities are still being worked out. The authorities say that there is every reason to be optimistic about its success, given how few people have actually seen the insides of a prison, other than what they encounter in the wild imagination of a Bollywood film.

The authorities involved are tight-lipped about the exact details of the plan. Nitin Wainchal, Superintendent of Police of the Thane jail, claims they are currently examining which—or if all—of the three jails can offer such hospitality services. “Give us a few weeks, we should be ready to make an announcement then,” he says.

The original inspiration behind the idea is a similar concept that was floated by the Sangareddy District Central Jail in Telangana’s Medak district last year. This was done after this jail, believed to have been built by the Nizams in 1796, was closed down and converted into a museum. “We used to showcase products made by prisoners here, pictures of the jail and things like that,” says Santosh Kumar Rai, the officer in charge of the facility. “And then we began to wonder why not open it up to outsiders. People are very curious to see and understand what a prisoner’s life is like, their day-to-day routine.”

For Rs 500, a visitor to the District Central Jail in Sangareddy gets a prison-made bar of soap, an inmate uniform, a thin mattress that he can roll out in the luxury of his tiny cell, and above all, the experience of 24-hour rigorous imprisonment. The tourist behind bars is entitled to a pitiful dinner of rice, lentils and curry—and, if he gets lucky, a bowl of curd—by 5 pm. He is then locked up inside a cell at 6 pm and woken sharp at 5 am the following morning. Breakfast is equally meagre, and later during the day he must undertake laborious tasks, either tending to the garden on the permises or cleaning up parts of the museum, as assigned.

But despite these rare attractions, unavailable to most citizens, the authorities lament that rather few people have shown enthusiasm so far. Only fifteen people, most of them infotech-sector employees from Hyderabad, have checked into the prison since it was thrown open. Of these, five developed cold feet and refused to spend the night. The last guest who showed up was sometime in February. “We were expecting more people. Maybe it is a little far from Hyderabad (about 70 km). So maybe it is a bit too far for people to travel,” Rai surmises. “But we are not giving up. We think there is scope, we can get more people. The problem is, we have not been able to promote it much. So we are now going to be [involving] Telangana’s Tourism Department, and we will get them to promote this idea to attract tourists, foreigners and people visiting from other places,” Rai says.

A team of jailors from the three Maharashtra jails visited the Sangareddy prison recently to study how the concept was implemented. Rai, however, does not think the three jails will be able to implement the idea, since these jails are overcrowded with prisoners. “I think it is quite impossible,” he says.

So what is really the idea behind jail tourism? Is it a way to generate more funds for the upkeep of the prison? Or perhaps aimed at generating a public relations buzz? According to Rai, while it is a form of adventure tourism that provides a new kind of thrill to those who want an extraordinary experience, the jail authorities admit they have a more important aim. “We are really giving a message to society. If something goes wrong, if you screw up or do something incorrect, you will have to go through all this again—and for a much longer time.”