Indian Jail Rehabilitates Young Inmates Through Wood Carving

Since 2010, the program has taught 120 young men wood carving as they await their trials regarding charges of having links to Maoist insurgents.

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Indian Jail Rehabilitates Young Inmates Through Wood Carving

Former inmates (left to right) Ramesh Potai, Ghasiram Bhusandi and Meyaram Dugga display a framed, wooden idol they carved of Hindu god Ganesha, the remover of obstacles.

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KANKER, INDIA – After three years awaiting his trial, Kalyan Majhi, 36, left the district jail in 2013 in Kanker, a district in Chhattisgarh state in central India. But his time in jail was not lost, thanks to a pilot program that teaches the art of wood carving to inmates.

Majhi says he had been arrested on charges of being a carrier and campaigner for the Maoists, an outlawed group in India. Maoist fighters killed 24 people in an attack on Saturday in Chhattisgarh, according to The Associated Press.

The court released Majhi because of a lack of evidence during his trial. He now plans to pursue wood carving after it sparked personal growth during his time in jail.

 “Learning wood carving has brought some changes in me,” he says. “I feel peaceful. When I finish a piece of art, I feel a deep sense of satisfaction.”

Wood carving also reduced his dependency on alcohol, he says.

“Earlier, I used to drink a lot,” Majhi says. “Now, I don’t want to touch alcohol. Maybe it is because of this craft.”

The benefits of the craft have inspired him to change his profession. Before he went to jail, he had driven trucks for a living. Two days after his release, Majhi asked his former teacher for a few tools and stencils so he could start a wood-carving business.

“I don’t know when I will be back on the road again, driving a truck,” Majhi says. “Maybe soon or maybe never. But what I know is that there was a void in my life, and I am going to fill it up through this wood carving.”

The jail’s wood-carving program aims to teach a life skill to young inmates arrested on charges of links with the Maoist insurgency. For many of these men, this program also helps them to survive their time in jail. Inmates also learn to build trusting relationships and to reconnect with their cultural roots. Some former inmates even have started their own wood-carving businesses after their release from jail. The government is considering making the pilot program a formal offering at all state jails in order to promote rehabilitation of the young inmates.

During the past three years, 120 young men have learned wood carving in the jail, says Ajay Mandavi, the program’s teacher. All had been arrested on charges of having links to the Maoist insurgency.

The Indian government banned the Communist Party of India (Maoist), the major outfit in India with the aim of overthrowing the government, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs. It labeled it a terrorist organization under The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967.

The jail’s wood-carving class started in 2010, Mandavi says. The Chhattisgarh state government provided 50,000 Indian rupees ($925) in funding. The district government recruited Mandavi, a master wood carver honored in 2008 by the former president of India for his excellence in art, to lead the program.

Across India, several state jails offer vocational classes for the inmates, including soap making, rug weaving and gardening. The wood-carving workshop is a pilot program to see what kind of behavioral changes it can generate among the inmates.

Laxmikant Pandey, the jail superintendent, says the program is going well.

“It is running smoothly, and the boys seem to be learning well too,” he says.

Mandavi conducts classes from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day in one of the barrack’s narrow verandas, he says. The inmates sit on the floor among pieces of wood, cans of polishing oil and numerous iron tools.

Under the watchful eyes of Mandavi, the aspiring artisans practice. They have carved clocks, sculptures of gods and goddesses, human figures, dollhouses, fish tanks, and even a work featuring the words of the national anthem.

Many of the pieces take a group of four to five inmates months to carve together, a visible sign of their interest, patience and craftsmanship, Mandavi says.

For many inmates, the program helps them get through their difficult and uncomfortable time in jail.

Ramesh Potai, 30, a former inmate, says that learning wood carving helped him survive jail for the three years he waited for his trial. Police arrested him in 2009 on charges of being linked with the Maoist insurgency, he says.

“It was like living in a hellhole,” he says, “and the only reason I could survive it is because of the craft I learned.”

Inmates fill the jail beyond capacity. Nearly 360 men live in five barracks with a total capacity of 65, according to a notice board at the jail. Most of the inmates are awaiting trial.

There were 241,200 inmates in Indian jails awaiting trial in 2011, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs. In Chhattisgarh, there were 8,275 inmates awaiting trial.

The overcrowded barracks offer the inmates little space to move around, former inmates say. They lay side by side in a single file, like sacks of sand, so they fit in the small room.

When the temperature tops 110 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer, the air becomes suffocating, and many find it difficult to breathe, Potai says.

Passing time is a struggle because the jail does not provide inmates with books, newspapers or reading materials, former inmates say.

Learning wood carving helped Potai pass the time and keep his mind off the physical discomfort and mental agony of being locked up with an uncertain future, he says.

This program also helps inmates build trusting relationships and reconnects them with their cultural roots.

Mandavi says trust between him and the inmates is an important element of the program. He trusts the students to use the sharp tools only for wood carving.

Although these classes put sharp tools in the inmates’ hands, there have been no instances of violence, Mandavi says. But, just in case, armed guards monitor the workshop.

These young men are not only learning life skills, but they are also reconnecting with their culture, Mandavi says.

“Over 90 percent of these prisoners are Gond, the largest tribal community in central India,” Mandavi says.

Mandavi, Mahji and Potai all hail from the Gond community. Wood carving is a traditional Gond craft, Mandavi says.

“Decades ago, the community considered it a sacred act to carve wooden statues and busts of gods and goddesses,” he says. “There was a deep sense of pride in preserving that cultural heritage, which no longer exists among our youths.”

Modern lifestyles and the Maoist insurgency have lured young people, Mandavi says.

“I’m hoping that these classes will help them feel that pride again and also revive the dying craft,” he says.

Some former inmates use their carving skills to start their own businesses, Mandavi says. At least 25 to 30 of these former inmates are currently still practicing the craft in their homes.

Potai plans to join three other men, who learned the craft in jail with Mandavi, to start a wood-carving business, he says. They had all been arrested on charges of connections with the Maoists.

Two of the men, Meyaram Dugga, 21, Ghasiram Bhusandi, 24, say that, had it not been for the wood-carving classes, they would have “gone insane” worrying about their health and their future while in jail. Instead, the program offered them therapy and a new trade.

“It not only gave us something constructive to do, but also showed me that once out of the jail, I could find an alternative living,” Dugga says with a smile.

Dugga says they are ready for their future in wood carving.

“When we met in jail and learned the craft together, we decided that once released, we would use our craft to earn a living,” he says. “Now, we are ready to do that.”

The men also find a market for their crafts while in jail. Inmates have gifted many of their carvings to visiting government officials, including the state governor, the chief minister and the head of the state’s police department, Mandavi says.

Government offices also place orders for inmates to carve wooden nameplates for senior officials, he says. The income from selling the crafts covers the expenses for the program’s materials.

Because it is a pilot program, it has not received additional funding beyond the original disbursement, Mandavi says. The program also lacks a strategy to support released inmates in pursuing the vocation after their release.

Mandavi says he is trying to get more state funding for the program, especially to encourage inmates to continue the craft after they leave jail.

“The government here is running several programs to rehabilitate the former Maoists,” Mandavi says. “I have personally requested the governor to include wood-carving classes into the program list.”

If the state governor approves the request, the government will provide an annual budget for the program as it does for other craft programs. This will enable the program to expand to all jails in Chhattisgarh and to help the inmates to practice the craft after their release, Mandavi says.

Mandavi says the governor’s reaction to this plan has been positive.

“He has shown interest and asked officials to submit a detailed plan,” he says. “We are hopeful of seeing this happen someday soon.”

This additional funding is crucial to establish a full rehabilitation program that gives these young inmates a future, Mandavi says.

“This skill of wood carving can cultivate patience and [the] ability to sail through the troubles of life, whatever they might be,” Mandavi says, “and help them live that life peacefully as artisans, away from the past violence and uncertainty.”

Interviews were conducted in Hindi.