Thanks To This Psychologist Repeat Offenders Reduced From 80% To 1 % In Eleven Telangana Jails

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There was a time when Prasant (name changed) was dreaded by everyone in his locality. He has been in and out of the prison more than once on charges of bank robbery, till the prison authorities got him enrolled in the rehabilitation programme Unnati, conducted by psychologist Prof Beena Chintalapuri. The cognitive reformation initiative has transformed Prasant into a completely new person, who has just received his first paycheck at a day job and is willing to open a bank account like a free citizen. He falls short of words to express his gratitude towards Beena Chintalapuri, who was selected as an Ashoka Fellow in 2017, for her extraordinary work in bringing down the number of recidivists (repeat offenders) from 80% to 1%.

Beena Chintalapuri describes how the mindset of small-time criminals are shaped by their surrounding environment, and how her organisation, Unnati, is transforming their mindset to dream in positive colours.

No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank

Who are the repeat offenders?

“The general trend in most prisons show a higher proportion of repeat offenders. These are mostly petty criminals with records of theft, robbery, looting, property offence, drug dealing etc. The prison registers revealed that these prisoners were mostly young men, who would go out on bail, commit similar crimes and return to jail. For many, this pattern had almost turned into a routine,” narrates Beena. These prisoners generally serve short sentences between three months to three years.

  1. Due to an increased number of recidivists, there has been a 74% increase in the prison population.
  2. Overcrowded prisons are affected by unhygienic living conditions, which has resulted in the death of around 12000 prisoners in five years

Most of them were addicts who spent the money on alcohol or drugs. A considerable percentage of them belonged to low-income and less educated background, where the unhealthy environment was not conducive to help these directionless youngsters focus on a bright future.

After their release, many of these people are ostracised by their families or neighbours. They fail to regain their old jobs or businesses. People start branding them as ‘prisoners’, driving them to the path of crime again.

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The need for Unnati in Telangana Jails

When Beena was approached by the Director-General of Prisons, Telangana, to help in the rehabilitation of the prisoners, he specifically asked her to target the recidivists, who were turning out to be an uncontrollable menace. “Life convicts usually get reformed since they spend a prolonged time in prison. But, these recidivists with short jail terms were harder to tackle,” explains Beena. After interacting with them, she analysed their personalities closely to devise a detailed series of modules, targetting the common negative aspects of their behaviour.

“Most of them had wronged under peer pressure, the influence of alcohol and drugs or in a fit of rage. Many belonged to loving families, but the parents being illiterate, failed to propel the child towards a good career,” she informs. She knew that mere advice would fall to deaf ears. Hence, she made everyone narrate their experience in front of others in the batch, and prodded them to reflect and understand the darker nuances of each story. “That was how we attempted to change their thought process and perception of a crime,” she adds.

Started in 2015, the Unnati project has been launched across eleven prisons in Telangana, changing the lives of around four thousand prisoners.

Where are they now?

Most of the rehabilitated prisoners want to resume their old jobs or businesses and for others, the prison administration extends all possible support. Many of them who are out on parole were given employment at petrol pumps and gas stations.

“If I had not joined Unnati, I might have remained a monster and committed more murders out of revenge,” shares one of the rehabilitated.

One convict, who has served a long-term sentence, reveals, “When I first came in here on a murder charge, I felt burning rage that provoked me to think of shooting everyone. The training helped me let go of that toxic rage, and I can vouch that I will never be tempted to touch a gun again.”

Over a hundred former prisoners attended the recent conclave of Unnati, only to express their heartfelt gratitude.

A few days ago, Beena received a wedding invitation from one of them, who used to be an infamous goon. “I will have a lovely wife and a new family now, I am never again walking down the dark road,” Beena recalls him promising.

How Unnati achieved the impossible

Unnati is quite different from the regular rehabilitation programmes practised at most prisons in the country. Here the primary motto is to help the repeat offenders reset their life views, to transform anti-social tendencies into optimistic life goals. “They should start dreaming fresh dreams,” expresses Beena.

One of their highly effective exercises include the interactive sessions with life convicts. The inmates who have the potential to positively influence others, are identified and are trained to be volunteers. They describe how a moment’s mistake had robbed their lives of everything they treasured. Their narratives about the hardships of prison life, the trauma of their families, the pining wish to change the past and the guilty conscience that erodes their souls – these motivate the young offenders a lot. “It’s a beautiful life out of these iron bars. Do not come back here,” the life convicts plead the youngsters.

In their addiction prevention classes, Unnati trainers ask the prisoners to calculate the amount of money they had spent on alcohol or drugs, which mostly turn out to be a large figure. Next, the prisoners are asked to share how they would have spent this money productively. “This automatically inspires them to lead a cleaner, healthier life,” she explains. Another training module addresses the common emotions a prisoner faces – ranging from anger to guilt and even depression.

The volunteers also meet up with the families and request them to stop ostracising their own boys after release. “We make them realise the power of positive support from family, and the response has been wonderful so far,” she shares.

Prof Beena Chintalapuri has also been approached to start a reformation programme for juvenile homes.

It is perhaps easier to advise a criminal about right and wrong, but it is a herculean task to bring a change in their mindset. With her exceptional skills, Prof Beena Chintalapuri has achieved that impossible.

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- Mother Theresa Quote

MyStory: “Two Months After I Joined IIT For My PhD I Was Diagnosed With TB”

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A person suffering from Tuberculosis (TB) not only battles the ‘Mycobacterium tuberculosis’ bacteria inside his lungs but also from the stigma attached to the disease. It weakens the patients in many different ways in their fight against the dreaded disease.  

My fight with TB was also filled with stigma. I joined IIT Kharagpur for my PhD in January 2015. Two months later, in March 2015, I was diagnosed with TB. I had to take sick leave from March 2015 that eventually lasted till June 2016. Initially, I did not respond well to medication. Further tests revealed that I had multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB). This meant that the type of TB I had was resistant to two or more of the antitubercular medication I was taking.

About a year after the intensive phase of my treatment, I felt better and applied for readmission to IIT in July 2016. A prerequisite for rejoining was that my faculty members had to verify my application. With the formalities completed, I resumed my education, but I felt that something was amiss. 

My guide indicated that he did not want his work to suffer on account of my illness. I also heard from a senior colleague that my guide had said that I would spread the disease like an ‘infested animal’. I was disheartened at being subjected to this indignity by my supposed mentor.

However, my primary concern was defeating TB, so I didn’t dwell on it. Today, as I reflect on it, I realise the reasons behind the stigma were ignorance as well as fear.

Even among the educated, there are misconceptions about TB. People think all forms of TB are contagious. Others believe the patient is infectious for the entire length of the treatment. Some even believe that TB spreads through touch. This breeds the fear of contracting the illness.

As we know, people stigmatise and discriminate when they fear. I felt the impact of the stigma on two levels – in my professional life and my personal life.

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Professionally, the reluctance of my supervisor to mentor me and his discouragement affected me. I could not decide whether I should wait for the IIT authorities to tell me to leave or drop out. That decision was made for me by luck when I found out that my CSIR grant application was never processed. 

This meant that I would have to pay for my education. Given the expenditure on my treatment, this was unaffordable for me. This was the final nail in the coffin. I was forced to drop out and could not go back to completing my PhD.

What I faced was not technically illegal. I was discouraged from doing my PhD, but it was still a form of stigma. The external stigma I faced led to depression and isolation. 

Eventually, I realised I had to fight. The treatment for TB is difficult, requiring strict compliance and the management of side effects, and these demands resolve. I began motivating myself. I began following a proper diet and completing my treatment to ensure I could recover. I also turned to books as they transported me to other worlds and helped with my isolation. I also focused on reviving my old relationships.

Gradually, things improved. I could not proceed on my desired career path, but I am an educator now. I constantly realise that I have a role to play in shaping young minds. 

Workplace stigma has tangible consequences. It affects an individual’s career, financial opportunities and their right to work with dignity. So what can we do to address this stigma? 

First, we need to sensitise people by educating them about TB, and the impact stigma has on patients.

Another measure is group counselling involving the patient, the employer and the immediate supervisor. Informal versions of these sessions happen in the workplace in the context of illnesses like cancer. Why should it be any different for TB? 

The goal of this session would be to ensure that the patient is in a supportive environment. 

Finally, at a systemic level, there needs to be a workplace policy on stigma mitigation and a mechanism where the patients can anonymously register their concerns about stigma at the workplace.

A person’s career or job is often their calling and a provider of financial security. Workplace stigma creates a hostile work environment, affecting a person’s ability to do their job and their financial security. Financial insecurity and stigma make it harder for the patient to fight TB both in terms of means and motivation. Therefore, addressing stigma in the workplace is critical to patient well-being and recovery but also to their right to work with dignity.

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Quote
It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote
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