India: an oasis of knowledge within Tihar prison walls

From computer applications to English, inmates are learning and imparting new skills to each other at an institute opened recently on jail premises. In a small classroom with 10 desktop computers, a group of prisoners stands around Rahul Chaudhary as he explains the use of fonts while formatting a Microsoft Word document.

Chaudhary (29) was sent to the prison two-and-a-half years ago on the charge of rape on pretext of marriage and is undergoing trial. A graduate in computer application, he teaches nearly 70 inmates at Oasis Centre for Learning inside Central Jail number 4 in Tihar.

“I started teaching the inmates how to use a computer a few months after I came here. Now things have become much more organised. I teach three batches and each class is an hour-and-a-half long. For me, it’s something meaningful I am doing with my life inside prison,” he said as his second batch of “students” prepared for the class.

The Oasis Centre for Learning is located opposite ward number 6, amid lush green trees. The institute has been running for a few months but was formally inaugurated on September 25 with several courses being run by Indira Gandhi National Open University and National Institute of Open School.

Both the students and the teachers here are inmates, said jail Superintendent Rajesh Chauhan. “At the institute, inmates are encouraged to appear for Class X and XII examinations, various certificate, graduation and post-graduation courses. At present, we have 752 students enrolled at the institute. There are also smart classrooms for them,” he said.

For the inmates, attending classes at the institute is a way to pass their time inside the prison and more importantly, learn something which they could not when they were “free”.

Roop Singh, a 25-year-old undertrial who’s accused of rape, is among the most active students in the computer class and also a “fast learner”. He has been attending the class for the last two months. “Kuch knowledge milegi… bahar jaake hamare kaam aaegi (I will get some knowledge which will benefit me when I go out),” he said, adding that he has already learnt most applications of Microsoft Office. “I never felt the need to learn computer application when I was outside, but it always intrigued me.”

Advanced classes

After graduating from the basic computer class, the inmates can take advanced class in the next room. Inside the classroom for the advanced course, four inmates were seen sitting on chairs in front of computer screens. A white board on the wall announced their specialisation — ‘CorelDRAW, photoshop and PageMaker’.

Among those inside the classroom were two inmates who made headlines this year. Ruslan Petrov Metodiev, a Bulgarian national who was arrested for allegedly skimming and cloning cash cards across Europe and other countries and was held for targeting ATMs in posh Khan Market, was trying his hands at an image-editing software. “I want to learn photoshop because back home in Bulgaria I sell furniture online and it would help me,” he said in a broken English.

The second notorious inmate was Ashu Pal, a murder accused who allegedly chopped his wife’s body into pieces and dumped them into a septic tank in Prem Nagar on September 21. He has allegedly confessed to the crime.

Interestingly, Ashu Pal is not a student but a teacher who excels in hardware assembly and installation.

In a meek voice, he said he has 10 years of experience in assembling hardware, including computer and its parts, and that’s the reason he decided to teach the same inside the prison. “For the first two-three days, I didn’t know what to do but I was counselled and I decided to teach. It feels good.”

Craze for English

On the first floor, Avinash (40), an undertrial rape accused who has been lodged in the jail for over six months, was teaching motor binding to another inmate.

The class next door is possibly the most popular among all. The room was full of students attentively jotting down points in notebooks kept on their laps.

“What do you see in front of you? A, E, I, O, U. These are vowels…” said 34-year-old Rahmatullah, an Afghanistan national convicted under the NDPS Act two years ago.

Addressing a class of over 30 inmates eager to learn English, he went on to teach noun, pronoun, adjective, verb, adverb and other parts of speech through a power point presentation he had created. It was a smart classroom.

Sharing his story, Rahmatullah said when he was first produced before a judge five years ago, he did not know either English or Hindi. “I still can’t communicate in Hindi properly. When I came to Tihar, I got to know that one Ravi sir taught English to a couple of inmates and I joined them. Two years ago, I recorded my statement in front of the same judge in English and he was shocked,“ he smiled and the inmates clapped.

As Rahmatullah randomly picked inmates and asked them questions, some of them answered with enthusiasm. One of them was Ashok (29), a bespectacled man wearing a checked shirt and beige trousers who was arrested on murder charge in 2014. He was a Class V dropout when he came to the jail and now, he is preparing for Class XII examination next session.

Talking about the motivation to learn inside jail, Ashok said, “In the barracks, there are all sorts of people… negative ones too. But only those who really want to learn and do something with their lives come to the class to study.”

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