BANGALORE, INDIA – S.V. Ramesh is a prisoner at Bangalore Central Jail in India’s Karnataka state. But thanks to a rehabilitation initiative, he also spends time outside the prison taking acting lessons.
He has performed in some seven plays, with roles including Mahatma Gandhi.
“I was trained to be like Gandhiji,” he says, using the respectful regional suffix. “I changed myself completely for the role. I left eating meat, I would walk barefoot, and I would walk fast. I molded myself into the character.”
He thanks Hulugappa Kattimani, a famous theater artist and play director from Karnataka who trains prisoners like him in acting and casts them in his shows.
“He has transformed [me] to perform – one who has no artistic background,” Ramesh says through a translator. “And it’s a great opportunity to perform and rehabilitate in a different platform.”
Ramesh, who worked as a farmer before he came to the prison, says that the opportunity to participate in Kattimani’s plays has made him forget that he’s in jail.
“When the audience responds and claps for your performance, that moment you forget that you are a prisoner,” he says. “It is escapist into a different world.”
He says that his elder brother came to see one of his plays. His brother was astonished by his acting skills and happy for this opportunity to thrive while in prison.
Doctors say that prisoner rehabilitation efforts are often inconsistent here, increasing their chances of returning to crime. To fill this void, several nongovernmental organizations and individuals are working toward the rehabilitation of prisoners in India through activities ranging from counseling to acting. Prisons are also promoting training for prisoners in trades such as baking and clothing design and building factories for them to earn money through these skills, though budgets for rehabilitation remain small.
There are 370,000 prisoners in India’s 1,400 prisons, which have the capacity to hold only 320,000, according to a 2010 report by the Ministry of Home Affairs’ National Crime Records Bureau. Prisons spent just 3.2 percent of their 2010-2011 budgets on vocational and educational trainings for inmates and 2.2 percent on welfare activities.
The rehabilitation of prisoners in India has been inconsistent, says Dr. Pratima Murthy of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Bangalore, who has done a study on prisoners’ mental health.
“Not very consistent involvement is there,” she says.
She says that society needs to do more to challenge and to empower prisoners.
“Society has not applied their mind adequately,” she says.
If society doesn’t effectively rehabilitate prisoners, their chances of going back to crime is higher, she says.
A handful of prisons, organizations and individuals are aiming to change that.
Kattimani directs plays in which prisoners act alongside other actors who are not in prison. He says that acting channelizes the inmates’ creativity in a positive manner.
“Everyone is an actor,” he says.
For Kattimani, teaching the new actors can be challenging. But he says it’s