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It is kid gloves for fresh offenders

Tamil Nadu moves to insulate young undertrials from hardened criminals

The cells look old and rudimentary, but something new is happening at the Saidapet sub-jail here.

What instantly catches the attention of a visitor is the youthful appearance of its inmates. They are all in the 18-24 age group.

The sub-jail is now a dedicated facility for fresh offenders involved in petty crimes such as theft, brawls and chain snatching. Rather than remand them to regular prisons, where they might mingle with hardened criminals, the city courts are sending youth to the Saidapet sub-jail.

It all flows from a circular of the Madras High Court.

The jail authorities were advised to go in for reformatory programmes. The circular directed magistrates in Chennai to remand first time undertrial prisoners, except those arrested for heinous or violent crimes including murder and rape to the Saidapet sub-jail. About 120 inmates are lodged there. Authorities have simplified the formalities, allowing parents and kin to sit with the accused in the visitors hall. “We removed the iron mesh that separates them. Parents cry and hug their sons,” a prison official said.

The Tamil Nadu Prison Department has roped in Prisoners Reform Intervention Support Mission (PRISM), an NGO, to engage the inmates. The mornings begin with yoga and meditation. Post-lunch, they play volleyball, chess and carrom.

“I was so afraid when I was remanded. Prisons that we see in movies flashed in my mind. But this is like a hostel. I miss my family and repent for my mistake,” said an inmate who was arrested for stealing milk packets in residential areas. Many offenders are college students or office-goers. One man, an MCA student, is linked to the ‘free biryani’ attack in Chennai. “I don’t know why I am here. Partymen took me ostensibly to see DMK president M. Karunanidhi in hospital, to be followed by a biryani. I neither saw him nor ate any biryani. I was just a spectator.”

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