NEW DELHI (Reuters) - A jail-based brand that includes crispy potato chips, crunchy cookies and formal shirts seems an unlikely route back to life in the outside world for inmates in South Asia’s largest prison.
Yet efforts by the Tihar Jail complex in New Delhi to transform the lives of its inmates and prepare them for a fresh start through vocational training in diverse fields has created the successful TJ’S brand of goods.
Herbal products and school desks are also among the many products being manufactured and sold, well enough that prison authorities have set up a website to boost sales still further.
Sanjivan Rai, who is serving a term in Tihar Jail for marijuana trafficking, said the skills he was acquiring would help him find employment outside to earn a living with dignity.
“We can start our own business once we get out of here. We can maybe start a small snack-making unit,” he told Reuters Television inside a bakery at Tihar Jail, as he took a break from frying potato chips.
“Even if we decide to seek work somewhere, whatever we learn here will only help us.”
Life outside jail is still tough for former inmates, since they have to counter the stigma of having been in prison, which is seen as a place for social outcasts and hardcore criminals. This makes re-integration into society virtually impossible.
The idea behind the TJ’S label was to break these taboos and channel the inmates’ energy constructively, while building their self-esteem, said Ram Niwas Sharma, Deputy Inspector General of the Tihar Jail complex.
“You are going to buy goods made by prisoners ...He is going to get wages, so in turn you are going to help a family out there. A few thousand people are working in prisons so this way their families are benefited,” he said.
“They are getting gainful employment, they are passing their time instead of idling around in the jail and they will be learning some kind of a skill and getting out of the jail with some worth(y) living conditions ...It is something which is good for the humanity.”
“Made in Tihar” products had a turnover of 110 million rupees ($2.45 million) last year, and this year it is expected to rise to 150 million, Sharma said.
Next year’s target is an ambitious 230 million, reflecting growing acceptance of the jail brand.
At first, the bakery began to help fulfill the jail’s massive food demand from its 11,500 inmates, who live in 10 prison blocks. But gradually operations were expanded to keep the inmates busy and channel their energies.
Mohammad Sajid, an inmate serving a life sentence, said that his newfound skills would help him once outside.
“The advantage of doing all this work here is that once we get outside, we can start earning through honest means and leave the path of crime,” he added.
Officials say vocational training is just one of the roles being fulfilled by the jail as it strives to play the role of a correctional institution. Inmates are also taught meditation and yoga for their overall growth.
Prison authorities said the products were finding favor with buyers because of their good quality and competitive pricing, as profit is not their driving motive.
They are currently sold at prison outlets and shops situated in various Delhi courts, but officials plan to make them more widely available through tie-ups with retail stores.
“The people who make these products, they get some work and employment, which keeps them busy and benefits them,” said Ruby Bagga, a customer at the Tihar shop.
“So instead of buying these products from somewhere else, why not buy them from here?”
Editing by Elaine Lies