In the picturesque Himalayan mountains of northern India, the Book Café looks like a normal cafe. But it is part of a bold social experiment.
Jai Chand works at the café. On a rainy day, he takes orders from customers -- many of them young college students.
But he and others working at the café are unlike most employees. Found guilty of major crimes and sentenced to life in prison – they are convicts.
However, they are serving their sentences at one of India’s “open” prisons.
At the Shimla Kaithu Prison, a few prisoners, such as Jai Chand, can walk out of the jail without supervision. Then they return to the prison after a day's work.
“I hope I once again get the opportunity to be a part of society. I hope I too will be able to laugh and play with my children."
At first, some people worried about prisoners interacting with society and operating the café. But it did not take long for the Himalayan town of Shimla to quickly accept the prisoners.
College students are among the many customers who drop by the café for reasonably priced food prepared in the prison. Some take what they buy to eat later. Others stay and read from newspapers, magazines and, of course, books.
True to its name, the Book Café has shelves and shelves of books for customers to read.
VOA spoke with one of the students who goes to the café. Dressed in a sharp-looking suit, he says the customers find the café’s workers to be kind and normal.
"I could not believe that they ever had committed a crime. I think that they are normal persons and they are just leading their life."
Some distance away, three other life convicts sell rice and curry dishes from a food truck. Planning meals and dealing with customers has completely changed the life of one of these convicts.
Bhupinder Singh was found guilty of murder charges and has spent 18 years in prison. Singh says that working outside the prison has awakened him.
"When I was in jail only my body was living. I was mentally dead. Since coming here, now along with my body, my mind also works. I meet people. I can dream of a better future. When I am released, I have learned a skill that I can use."
The success of this work program has led to more prison convicts working outside of jail, says Somesh Goyal. He is the Director General of Prisons in Himachal Pradesh.
Goyal explains that they choose the prisoners for the program based on their behavior as well as their importance to their families. So, well-behaved prisoners who were also the main breadwinners for their families are the first to be selected.
He says the program is helping the prisoners overcome mental issues that often come from prison life.
The program, Goyal explains, gives the prisoners back their humanity. The prisoners say they feel more human and normal. Also, people in society with whom they interact, begin to see them as human and normal too.
"They interact with people; they meet family members; they can keep a mobile phone also. So, it helps them integrate with the society and feel human. And wherever they go and work, those people also think they're as human or as normal as people outside the prison."
Perhaps, with more programs such as this, other prisoners can reclaim a place in society once their debt to society is paid.
I’m Anna Matteo.
Anjana Pasricha reported this story for VOA News. Anna Matteo adapted her report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
picturesque – adj. very pretty or charming : like a painted picture
bold – adj. showing or calling for courage or daring
convict – n. a person convicted of and under sentence for a crime
interact – v. to act upon one another
sharp – adj. stylish, dressy
breadwinner – n. a member of a family whose wages supply its livelihood
integrate – v. to make (a person or group) part of a larger group or organization