Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Population

PAKISTAN: Behind Bars, Music and Art Free Prisoners

Zofeen Ebrahim

KARACHI, Pakistan, Nov 8 2010 (IPS) - It’s an odd group of 30 men, all of different ages, crammed together in one room. There’s a man who used to run a computer shop. Another is an ex-car dealer. There’s a tailor and beside him is a truck driver.

Inmates express themselves through art. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Inmates express themselves through art. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Not one of them had ever held a paintbrush before. But it is art that has brought them together today – as well as the fact that they are all inmates in Karachi’s Central Jail.

“I was a little scared of them in the beginning,” admits Sikander Ali Jogi, who teaches them. “But in just 10 days of interaction I realised they were like you and me.”

It’s not hard to see the reason behind Jogi’s initial fear. After all, among the inmates are notorious convicts like the killer of ‘Wall Street Journal’ reporter Daniel Pearl and extremists who attacked the U.S. consulate in this southern Pakistani port city in 2006.

Their current ‘home’ also happens to be the largest among Sindh province’s 18 prisons that is supposed to have a maximum capacity of 1,800. And yet it now has over 3,400 prisoners who are packed into just about any space available.

This, however, is also precisely why Jail Superintendent Nusrat Mangan thought of providing inmates a means of escape, even as they remain behind bars: art, along with a criminal rehabilitation programme called ‘Criminon’.

The idea behind Criminon, says instructor Wasim Akhlaq, is to “restore the person’s self-respect”. Aside from better communication skills, the inmates are taught anger management, positive thinking, and other self-help therapy.

The courses are a great complement to the creative classes, which used to include music as well. Superintendent Mangan firmly believes art is therapeutic, too, and can “turn a convict into a man”.

“While some prisoners turn to prayers, some ventilate through art,” he says, “and we provide them the space to do so.”

The way Mangan sees it, most of his wards need to be “treated”, not penalised. He says music, painting, and drawing bring out “the finer qualities in a person”. “He becomes sensitive to relationships,” says Mangan, “and makes one more tolerant towards humankind.”

Unfortunately, the music classes lasted a mere three months; some prisoners broke into the music room and destroyed all the instruments. One inmate tells IPS, “The excuse given by the (perpetrators) was that music is not permissible in Islam.”

Says another prisoner, who is among the art students: “There are some extremist elements in our barracks who don’t like us painting human figures.”

“The jail is a microcosm of our society and our city,” says Mangan, acknowledging the presence of extremists in his jail and their tendency to be disruptive. “Just as these people have mixed in our society, the same is true here. (But) we can’t ‘excommunicate’ them because they need to be reintegrated into society when they (are) released.”

In fact, Mangan indicates that these inmates are the ones who most need the kind of outlet he is offering. Instead of placing them in isolation, says the jail official, he would rather “kill (their) idea with an idea”.

But for those whose crimes are not driven by ideology, the thinking is that art and especially Criminon would lessen the risk that they would commit an illegal act again once they are set free.

“Once a person enters prison, chances of a ‘downward spiral’ of repeating an undesirable behaviour – called recidivism – increases manifold,” says Saleem Khan, executive director of the Society for Advancement of Health Education and Environment (SAHEE), which started Criminon.

An internationally recognised form of therapy, Criminon is said to help reduce recidivism to as low as 10 to 15 percent.

“We are told by the prison authorities that the number of repeat offenders at the jail is also about 10 to 15 percent,” says Criminon instructor Akhlaq.

At the very least, Ghaffar Alavi, who was meted the death penalty, now says that the course made him realise that it was his “anger that got me into jail”. And with his sentence commuted to a life sentence, Alavi says being “more at peace with myself” will make it easier for him to bide his time behind bars.

Art teacher Jogi also says that he has seen a marked difference in his students’ behaviour and physical appearance in his two years working at the jail. He attributes this to art, which he says “brought peace and solace” to these inmates.

Jogi’s students have created a wide range of artwork – from pen sketches to calligraphy, to vivid landscapes and portraits in watercolour and oil. One prisoner from the extremist hot spot of Swat Valley in north-west Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province even does sketches of oppressed women.

In the meantime, Superintendent Mangan is bent on bringing back the music classes. He says he will revive these “at any cost” and is now looking for charitable individuals or groups to donate musical instruments.

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  • Asad Ali Jogi

    Good work , Jogi Sikandar Ali , You are proud of Jogis