Prison Without Walls

Kerala's open prison draws on strengths of community life

One of the articles in The Ecology Of Justice (IC#38)
Originally published in Spring 1994 on page 48
Copyright (c)1994, 1997 by Context Institute

The tropical southern state of Kerala, India, has cleared the two greatest hurdles on the path to sustainability: low consumption and low birth rates. Without any significant increase in incomes, birth rates in Kerala began a sharp decline 80 years ago. Other characteristics of a high quality of life include high literacy rates, equal female status, the near absence of caste violence, low infant mortality, and longer life spans (see IC #26, p. 56).

Jim Merkel received the Gaia Fellowship to research low earth-resource use in Kerala. With principal investigator Will Alexander of the Institute of Food and Development Policy and Earthwatch Expeditions, Jim lived with a Malayalam family for two months in 1993 to learn first-hand about living a globally sustainable lifestyle.

In Kerala there live 280 murderers in a prison with no bars, no fences – where the guards carry no guns or clubs. When asked how the prisoners are treated, the head warden laughs and says, "We have to treat them nicely, they are all murderers."

In 32 years of operation, this open prison has had only one escape and one repeat offender. Kerala can add the open prison to its long list of radical achievements in social justice and sustainability.

Kerala’s open prison is situated on nearly 300 acres in the foothills of the Western Ghats, a mountain range separating Kerala from bordering Tamil Nadu. The area surrounding the prison is indistinguishable from typical Kerala countryside: lush green, dense tropical forest.

There are no fences or surveillance towers to contain this neat complex of humble buildings tucked into a jungle of rubber trees, edible plants, and flowers. The atmosphere is peaceful and relaxed. The day our Earthwatch group arrives for a tour of the facility is a Hindu holiday, and the music is loud and slightly distorted as it pours through loudspeakers into the prison yard. The men are relaxing, playing badminton or cards.

Our group wanders about stretching and looking for shade while our interpreter, Rudy, locates the head warden. Expecting a tense, controlled environment, I feel nervous waiting these long minutes without an escort. Rudy finally returns with the warden, a trim friendly Malayalam man, dressed in khakis.

More than 30 years ago, Kerala’s central government set up a commission that recommended open prisons focused on reform. In August 1962, Kerala’s first open prison was inaugurated. Currently, it’s the only open prison in Kerala, although Indian states Uttar Pradesh and Andra Pradesh also have this type of prison. Viewed as an experiment, the prison holds 280 of Kerala’s 5,308 prisoners. Now, with a solid record to build on, the open prison will be expanded into a nearby annex currently under construction.

Criminals consider being sent to the open prison a privilege. Every convict begins his sentence in a closed prison, and those who exhibit good behavior are transferred to the open prison. The open prison is known for treating prisoners with respect and entrusting them with responsibilities for work on the rubber plantation, personal chores, and cooperation within the prison community. Attempting to escape or committing any criminal offense after release will result in incarceration in a closed prison. To date, there has been only one repeat offender.

Benefits of the open prison include periods of freedom, during which most inmates spend one month out of six with their families. There are also special five-day leaves granted in the event of a family member’s death, wedding, or other important occasion. Prisoners are also permitted to have family visit them on weekends. The continuing involvement with their home community allows the family to share the burden of reform with the state. The open prisoner’s family involvement also allows the criminal to gradually heal the community’s wounds associated with their crime.

While in the prison, the inmates become part of a self-supporting community. This community does not include trained therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, or social workers. The wardens don’t rely on academic theories or technological innovations. On the contrary, the open prison reform program is down-to-earth practical. Indeed the reform program may seem too simple, being little more than a microcosm of the relatively healthy community life of Kerala. As I casually walk through the barracks and the kitchen, past the religious building, the rubber processing facility, and among the inmates, I realize this is more a village than a prison.

The implementation of this village concept strongly parallels principles outlined by Gandhi to guide the daily life of Satyagraha Ashram, which were written during his incarceration in India’s Yeravda Central Prison in 1930.

Gandhi’s principle for "Equality of Religions" teaches us to "entertain the same respect for the religious faiths of others as we accord to our own, thus admitting the imperfection of the latter." The open prison encourages the expression of personal faith at the mosque, church, or temple. The religious holidays that flow through the months in a steady stream in Kerala are all observed in the open prison.

Respect for diversity is further reinforced by the lack of caste recognition at the prison. This helps build a living experience of social justice with the engineer and the untouchable working side by side.

The prison is a self-supporting institution due to the inmates’ work – a concept supported in Gandhi’s thoughts on "bread labor." Gandhi wrote, "In the third chapter of the Gita [the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred Hindu text] we are told, that he who eats without offering sacrifice eats stolen food. Sacrifice here can only mean Bread Labor."

The prison inmates are required to work on the prison’s 200-acre rubber plantation, tapping rubber, preparing rubber sheets, or cultivating rice paddies. Each inmate works four to six hours a day and earns four rupees per day. The rubber they harvest and prepare for sale brings in an additional 3,000,000 rupees, about $100,000 US. This is more than enough to cover annual expenses for running the prison, and the excess goes back to the Kerala state government. Gandhi stressed that programs like the open prison should be self supporting. Giving back to Kerala is a source of pride for the prisoners.

Restitution was carried a step further by one former inmate who, upon release, raised 130,000 rupees to build a place of worship for the three main religious groups in the prison. The money was used to build a small religious building, which serves the prison community as a combination church, mosque, and temple.

"Those who are hard, tough guys, once they come here, they learn their trade, they earn their money, they become better citizens and they go back to lead a normal life," the warden says.

The healthy community life of Kerala – its spiritual traditions, human-scaled economy, self-reliance, and grassroots democracy – appears to leave little room for the roots of crime to take hold. And for those who do go astray, the community life in the open prison has proven effective in preventing crime from occurring again.

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