By Zubeida Mustafa
TALKING about prisons, the chief justice of Sindh said last Saturday that more than retribution and deterrence the main purpose of imprisonment should be reform and rehabilitation. In Pakistan, where the prison system is by no means in ideal shape — Karachi jail has 6,000 prisoners when its capacity is for under 2,000 — the need to address the moral correction dimension is conspicuously inadequate.
To step into this unsavoury situation with the idea of bringing about reform is in itself an act of courage. Saleem Aziz Khan, the founder of the Society for Advancement of Health, Education and Environment (SAHEE), has nevertheless decided to meet the challenge. Along with Azhar Jamil, he launched the four-step Criminon Programme in the Karachi jail in 2007. The two now want to expand the project as they feel they are making an impact.
Having borrowed the concepts from internationally recognised and tried projects, Azhar defends the project as being “a secular programme that teaches common-sense values”.
Criminon helps prisoners look within themselves.
That prompted me to pay a visit to the jail to observe the classes. I feel that many of us would benefit from such teaching. Much to my surprise the visit turned out to be a pleasant experience. Talking to the participants made it clear that a programme based on introspection, as Criminon is, can be something novel for most people in a society where meditation and thinking are at a discount.
Based on four steps, it teaches communication skills, learning skills, ability to identify social and anti-social behaviour and methods of overcoming negative behavioural patterns. Each participant learns individually at his own pace. It is not a collective approach. Some manage to sail through the entire four phases in a month while others take four to five months. The prison offers suitable conditions to learn because there are no distractions of the kind one faces in everyday life. The prisoners also have sufficient time in hand to meditate on issues of a higher moral and ethical kind.
Abdul Ghaffar Alvi, the trainer, holds the classes with the help of supervisors, instructors and assistants he has trained from among the prison inmates. Altogether 1,500 prisoners have taken the course so far which is voluntary. Not everyone has to join. Nearly 12,000 policemen have also attended workshops, which should be of some value, given the propensity of the police to criminalise communities.
Saleem and Azhar quote the low rate of recidivism as proof of the success of the course — and the IG Prison, Sindh, confirms it. For me a better measure of the effectiveness of the programme was the response of the participants.
All of them appeared to have gained confidence and spoke of their raised self-esteem. A rehabilitation programme which would empower them with vocational and technical skills should reinforce the reform process and make it enduring once they are released. The jail administration runs skills training programmes for prisoners but they could be supplemented further.
The behaviour and moral code specified in the books are nothing unique. The course participant is exhorted not to murder, not to steal, not to do anything illegal. Azhar feels the first course on communication and anger management would benefit people generally as many of our problems stem from poor communication skills.
Given the criminal and anti-social environment we live in where unemployment is rampant and social justice virtually absent, it is not surprising that the mindset of many people has been corrupted. Not everyone is picked up for criminal activities but many have contributed towards vitiating the moral fabric of society. Hence there is a need for a massive clean-up programme in prisons and outside.
Saleem wants to expand his project to other prisons, police training institutions and even to schools. So far he has managed on a shoestring budget with contributions from family and friends. In 2008-9, the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime chipped in with some funding. But any expansion needs finances to train and pay salaries to trainers and to print the books as each participant is provided his own reading material to study from.
The caveat? The cost factor is one. Who will pay for the books and the training? Many non-profit schools that depend on donations for their survival may not be able to add this expense to their budget. The high-fee schools would not even be interested. Is the government that controls a big chunk of the education sector and that should integrate such programmes in its teachers’ training courses listening? One hopes that the DIG Sindh who spoke about new training strategies will be more responsive.
My greatest concern is for the ‘criminals’ who roam free — be they parliamentarians or political leaders. Many of them urgently need to be taught the ethical values that form the core of Criminon. How will they be roped in and who will pay for their reform?