Re-imagining Higher Education in the Jail

The purpose is to help inmates explore their passions, gain practical skills, and re-ignite self-esteem

Words by Manish Jain

Interview with Manish Jain, co-founder Shikshantar, by Lena Hoplamazian

A new innovation in rehabilitative prison practice is being developed in Udaipur. The Swaraj Jail University was started six months ago by Shikshantar, Art of Living, Gandhi Ashram-Moved by Love, Edible Routes Foundation and Navgurukul in partnership with the Udaipur Central Jail. For an inside look into the initiative, Manish Jain, co-founder of Shikshantar, answered some of my questions.

What is the concept of the Jail University? The Swaraj Jail University project began in October 2018 with the purpose of prototyping a self-designed learning program in the Udaipur Jail. The purpose is to help inmates explore their passions, gain practical skills, and re-ignite self-esteem and life vision in the face of the numerous challenges of incarcerated life. The inmates are invited to design their own personalized learning programs based on their interests and needs. Everyone is a teacher and a learner in the Jail University. It is inspired by our last 20 years of action-research in Shikshantar and Swaraj University.

Society has not yet found a powerful way to deal with those who commit crimes except to banish them from our hearts and minds. But for some such as Mahatma Gandhi, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela and many other social leaders, their time spent in jail was a period for tremendous learning, transformation and growth. The project is foremost about making the jail into a exciting learning space which can re-establish the dignity and compassion of the inmates, and help them return to society as positive social leaders in their communities.

We have seen many inmates being ostracised by their communities, their families, their friends, bosses, neighbors. Their physical time behind bars is followed by a life behind society’s bars. It is oftentimes actually more difficult for them when the come out because of the stigma and judgement associated with being in jail. The Jail University not only tries to introduce inmates to new skill sets, but also tries to work with them to heal themselves and see new life and career possibilities. Love, creativity and forgiveness are powerful tools for this.

It is important to note that we are constantly co-evolving the program with the inmates based on their gifts and talents, rather than trying to ‘fix’ them or ‘fit’ them into a pre-formulated training curriculum.

How did the Jail University begin? I was invited by the Jail Superintendent S.S. Shekhawat and Indira Talreja, yoga trainer from the Art of Living, to start this project. Indiraji has been tirelessly engaging with inmates in the men’s jail for the past 12 years and sharing the transformative power of yoga and mindfulness with them. She wanted to have more activities and interactions for the inmates so that they could have additional life options after coming out of prison. Shekhawatji has an amazing vision for transforming the prison system and liked the idea of Swaraj University. So I agreed and invited my friend Diken Patel from Gandhi Ashram-Moved by Love to help me in initiating this. We both thought it would be an excellent opportunity for our own personal spiritual growth.

For the past six months, a small team from Shikshantar has been going to the Udaipur Central Jail and spending roughly five hours per day facilitating workshops and interacting with the inmates and guards. At first, we spent several weeks just listening to the stories of the inmates inside their barracks. We asked them about their lives and learning interests while trying to build a container of love and friendship with them. We had a major breakthrough when we noticed two inmates doing haircutting in one corner using some old tools. This sparked our first real activity in the jail which was a haircutting salon project run by the inmates. We provided them with proper professional equipment. We learned that cutting our hair, beards and nails is an intimate act which deeply impacts our daily self-image, sense of dignity and energy. The other thing we did was to offer a wall mural painting workshop hosted by community artists Amit Dhyan and Arun Sharma during which we painted 10 large wall murals with the inmates. We found some excellent artists amongst them and started transforming the physical environment of the jail. Everyone could feel a new type of energy emerging in the space.

What does the project look like on the ground? We have established longer term hubs like a Computer Academy and a Music Academy which are running daily. The Computer Academy is supported by our friends from NavGurukul who facilitate workshops around basic computer literacy and have introduced web designing, sound mixing, and graphic designing. Many inmates are exploring their interests with the help of self-learning tutorials.

Music is a powerful way of healing and creative expression. The inmates in the Music Academy have formed a band which is practicing sufi and classical music. They have already written and recorded several songs with us. You can listen to some of them here. We are planning to set up a recording studio in the jail.

Several inmates participate in daily yoga and mindfulness sessions. Based on the learning interests of the inmates, we have also been offering shorter workshops such as photography, charcoal illustration, storytelling, basic counselling and listening circles, and permaculture design-organic farming. There is also a team of inmates who are creating a organic farm and permaculture demo center in the jail with the help of Edible Routes Foundation. You can find keyhole garden, compost pits, banana circles, food forest there. It is really beautiful.

We have had several creative friends coming through Udaipur who have volunteered with the project, and this has been a great way to get a lot of new energy into the space while also exposing inmates to a really diverse set of skills, ideas, career possibilities and life stories. There are about 60 convicted inmates who are actively participating in the first phase, and more are becoming interested after seeing their fellow inmates.

Why are you calling this a ‘University’? Many inmates have been failed by school and carry a negative self-image regarding their education. They are not inspired by the mainstream education system and its pedagogy. They don’t see a positive future for themselves. There is a mismatch between what is offered by the formal education institutions and how inmates learn. In fact, this crisis is with entire formal education system across the country. This mismatch kills one’s desire to learn, and oftentimes, one’s hope for the future. There has been no serious effort to respond to this crisis by the mainstream universities. So we wondered whether it would be possible to build the jail into a new kind of holistic university. Can the jail set a new model, based on self-designed learning, for higher education around the country? Can we make a better design?

Unlike most other universities, at the Jail University, the formal academic background of the inmates doesn’t matter. They don’t need to have a 10th or 12th certificate. We recognise that they already come with a lot of previous knowledge, experience, creativity and curiosity and we try to build on/engage with that. We don’t believe the inmates are ‘failures’; rather, it the larger system that has failed them. As I mentioned, the pedagogy in the Jail University is based on self-designed learning. Through SDL, we continue to see many amazing talents and dreams of inmates start to emerge, flourish and be shared. We also want to show that SDL is not only for rich or elite people.

SDL gives the inmates responsibility and autonomy over what they learn and how they learn it. We prioritize practical hands-on learning over textbook theories. We also believe sharing and collaboration with peers deepens the learning process. There is a strong sense of isolation in the jail and we are trying to build a feeling of connection and community amongst them. Having a supportive emotional space is important for deep learning to take place. We also believe getting inmates connected with outside inspiring resource people who are dedicated to social projects is a way for them to feel connected to a higher purpose. We hope that this will not only reduce the odds they’ll re-offend once they’re out but also that they will grow into positive social leaders in their communities. For example, I have a dream that some of the inmates can one day become leaders of the organic farming movement and other alternative movements in their communities across Rajasthan. Ultimately, the Jail University seeks to redefine an inmate’s perception of himself in society.

Inmates during the permaculture design-organic farming workshop with Edible Roots Foundation.

What’s next for this project? The Jail University is evolving very spontaneously as new ideas are coming up virtually every week. Since day one, we have been trying to build a foundation of trust, sharing knowledge and treating each other with care and respect. We are trying to encourage the inmates to take more leadership in managing the Jail University.

Our next goal is to establish regular centres of exploration on interest areas identified by the inmates such as a Computer and Media Academy, Health and Fitness Academy, Music and Arts Academy, Slow Food Chef Academy and Organic Farming Academy. We hope that more inmates will step forward as ‘faculty’ and share their knowledge and experiences with others in these areas.

We are trying to find more good work placement possibilities for the inmates once they are released from jail. I hope more companies and organizations can help give inmates a second chance. The Jail University is also part of the Indian Multiversities Alliance, which we hope can provide more in depth learning opportunities for the inmates.

We also hope that more friends will visit the inmates and share their skills and life visions with them. This is important to re-integrating them back into society. It is also a powerful opportunity for each of us to experience the spirit of compassion and forgiveness and to reflect more deeply on our own lives. I am super excited about the future of the Jail University.

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The Jail University, while uniquely executed, is not singular, joining a host of alternative prison practice initiatives around the world as society currently debates the ethics and methodology of imprisonment in the 21st century.

It is becoming more clear that rehabilitation needs to be prioritized over punishment. Research is finding that prisons prioritizing punishment are more likely to produce repeat offenders than prisons practicing rehabilitative therapy. For example, Norway has adopted a “restorative justice” system, emphasizing rehabilitation and the notion that removing a person’s freedom is punishment enough. Their recidivism rate is 20%, contrasted with the United State’s 76%.

The emphasis on isolation, shame, and violence, structural and physical, within the prison systems around the world must be shifted to a system which, instead of further ostracizing a criminal, prepares an individual to re-enter society a changed person. For more experiments in prisons from around the world, see:

This article was originally published here.

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