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.

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

This Psychologist & Her All-Women Counsellors Team Are Preventing Farmer Suicides In Telangana

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As we near the International Women’s Day 2019, we gear up to celebrate women in all walks of life. At such a juncture, Efforts For Good aims to highlight some incredible women achievers, who are uplifting marginalised communities and the lesser privileged gender, away from all the limelight.

In our third article of the series, we bring your attention to a harsh, undeniable reality of India – farmer suicides. The urban privileged section of the population might not feel any direct implication of the same, but the truth is that it wreaks havoc in the lives of our cultivators and their families.

Amid the prevailing anguish, depression and helplessness, a Telangana psychologist and her team are instilling hope in these distressed souls and saving their precious lives. In a conversation with Efforts For Good, psychology expert Shruti Naik shares her experience of working with the Kisan Mitra rural distress helpline, which aims to prevent farmer suicides. Presently active in Vikarabad, Adilabad and Mancherial districts of Telangana, the organisation has saved many lives with their active intervention and consistent support system.

No mental health issues, but high rate of suicides – why?

Shruti shares that the iron-willed and resilient farmers resort to suicide when they find themselves overwhelmed with the economic or social crises in their lives. “For most of them, the financial crisis at times becomes too much to handle. Neck-deep in debts or battling a crop failure, they choose to end their lives as they see no way out. We have seen so many people reaching for a bottle of pesticide to commit suicide,” she shares.

For most farmers, the financial problems arise because of moneylenders, who give them loans at interests as high as 25% or 30%, sometimes even 50%. Many small-scale farmers are unable to avail farm loans offered by banks and cooperatives due to smaller landholdings, so they approach these unscrupulous moneylenders who pressurise them for repayment, driving them to take their own lives.

For some, the finances plummet due to extravagance at daughters’ weddings, well beyond their affordable limits. At times, crop failure due to drought or the changing climate takes a heavy toll on them.

As an experienced psychologist, Shruti feels that the distress pattern differs a lot between the urban people in white collar jobs and the grassroots level farmers. “Most of the farmers do not have any persistent mental health issues or depression which evokes suicidal tendency in them. They are circumstantial sufferers. Life struggles corner them into a helpless situation. The thought of making his family and children suffer is too difficult for him at times,” reveals Shruti.

How Kisan Mitra helps farmers in distress

This is where the success of Kisan Mitra lies. There are probably countless helplines and services available for farmers in India, as long as farming technicalities are concerned. But, there was no help for them when it came to emotional support in times of extreme distress. That is why Kisan Mitra Helpline was set up.

The helpline was launched on the occasion of Dr.B.R. Ambedkar Jayanti, on April 14, 2017, by Centre for Sustainable Agriculture with the support from the district administration.

Centre for Sustainable Agriculture and Kisan Mitra’s team launched an awareness campaign which included flyers, posters, events such as suicide prevention week etc., while the agriculture department took up the initiative of wall writings in every mandal office to create and raise awareness among farmers and their family members. In addition to this, the field coordinators also visited many villages personally to interact with the community and distribute pamphlets and flyers about Kisan Mitra.

Shruti Naik leads a team of women counsellors who attend the distress calls. They have a network of field coordinators which includes a significant number of village women. Some of them come from low-income farmer families, so as first responders to a crisis, they are able to relate better to the farmer seeking help. “We are also empowering women farmers and reach out to them on a wide range of issues,” she informs.

Saving lives and dissolving woes

The team visits farmers in hospitals who attempted suicide and collates their personal details to follow up on his condition later. Thanks to their intervention, not only have several suicides been prevented, many issues of the farmers have been solved immediately with help from the government authorities. Shruti and her team also respond instantly in case they get the news of a farmer who is showing signs of severe distress.

“We once received a call from an Adilabad farmer who was devastated to see his field completely inundated due to sudden floods. A few of his neighbours confirmed that he was very upset and was sitting in the field with a bottle of herbicide. Upon their insistence, he called us and broke down while talking. We kept him engaged in the call while our field coordinator Rani rushed to the spot and the man could be saved,” she shares. They also helped him meet the collector, who settled a land dispute issue that was bothering him as well.

Shruti shares the incident of Mallappa, who was on the verge of suicide after the expense for his younger daughter’s treatment left him almost bankrupt, while a huge amount of loan had to be paid off. He was also not getting the official proprietary rights of a plot that rightfully belonged to him. Thanks to Kisan Mitra’s assistance, Mallappa is happier now, with his problems also been promptly resolved.

About Kisan Mitra Helpline

Mr Harsha, the state coordinator from Kisan Mitra’s core team says “Understanding rural distress and issues and attempting to solve them one issue at a time, as well as making wider policy corrections has shaped what Kisan Mitra is today.”

“Govt Order 194 of the State Government in 2004 stipulated that there should be a farmer distress helpline in every collectorate. We simply took the mandatory requirement of the helpline and tried to make it more comprehensive,” explains Divya Devarajan, former district collector of Vikarabad.

Later when Divya was transferred to Adilabad, she advocated for the launch of the service there as well. The service was launched in Adilabad in February 2018 and sometime later in Mancherial.

Recently, Kisan Mitra has also started advocating the importance of organic farming methods among conventional farmers and many are adopting the practice with success.

Efforts For Good take

Though the government keeps churning out hordes of beneficial schemes for the farmers, most of those are failing to abate the menace of farmer suicides throughout India. At such trying times, an emergency response helpline like Kisan Mitra is the need of the hour. Individuals like Shruti, who give up the allure of a profitable career in the city just to stand beside the people of the soil, are true heroes.

“It is not me alone. Our whole counselling team consists of women and we also have a dynamic field staff of which a few are women. Most of our counsellors and the field staff come from humble rural backgrounds who work with an extreme amount of dedication and empathy towards farmers’ issues,” shares Shruti.

Efforts For Good hopes the work of Kisan Mitra is replicated pan India and save thousands of our farmers every year.

Also Read: She Builds Biogas Plants In Bihar Villages To Provide Electricity, Fuel And Better Crop To Marginalised Farmers

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It's not how much we give
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- Mother Theresa Quote
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