Arrested Development – a comparative study of Delhi’s schools and prisons: Sajan Venniyoor


“Schools are prisons,” sang the Sex Pistols. “Another brick in the wall,” raged Pink Floyd, “Teacher, leave them kids alone!” Schools and prisons have been so frequently equated in the popular imagination that it has become a cliché almost never held up to scrutiny. But even a cursory study of Delhi’s schools and prisons belies the comparison.

Sure, Delhi’s schools and prisons are both dreadfully overcrowded. Delhi’s jails, built for 6250 prisoners, house 10500 on an average.  We cannot say with any statistical certainly just how overcrowded our schools are, as the Dept. of Education has no idea how many schools it runs or the actual number of teachers and students therein.

But in almost every major indicator of human development, the penal system far outperforms the public school system in Delhi.

Take medical care for prisoners, for instance. The Delhi government assures us that most prisoners are “from the lower strata of the society where various types of diseases are prevalent”, which may well be true of many school students, too. However, the 10,500 odd prisoners in Delhi are attended to by 78 Doctors and 127 para medical staff ‘for round the clock health care.” This doctor-to-people ratio of 1:140 is over ten times better than the situation outside prison walls, where India has just one doctor for 1700 people. And if these 78 doctors don’t make the cut, so to speak, “the best possible medical facilities are provided to the prisoners […] by referring them to Speciality or Super Speciality Hospitals.”

The Delhi government’s School Health Scheme, on the other hand, has 63 school clinics, each consisting of one medical officer, one public health nurse and two attendants. One pharmacist, though Sanctioned, is not Existing. Each clinic caters to ‘about 5 to 6 thousand children.’

Delhi Prisons have, among other things, a 50 bed hospital with medical, surgical, TB and psychiatric wards, with 24-hour casualty services, an operation theatre, dispensary, specialists in Medicine, Ophthalmology, Orthopedics, Chest & TB, Skin, Psychiatry, Radiology and Pathology, x-ray machines, a physiotherapy unit and an 80-bed drug-de-addiction centre in Tihar Hospital. They also have Ayurvedic and Unani centres.

Or let’s take playgrounds and recreational areas, where facilities for school children should ideally be as good as those enjoyed by convicts. When the Delhi Right to Education Forum, comprising over 15 organizations, inspected sixty schools in Chandni Chowk and East Delhi recently, they found that in the Central District – which incidentally contains the Union HRD Minister’s constituency – “none of the schools had any playground and there was no sports equipment.” An official from a Govt. Boys’ Senior Secondary School in Matia Mahal said, “As we do not have much space, we encourage students to take up only indoor games.” This, however, did not stop the schools from employing sports teachers, “but since there is no playground therefore no sports activity is undertaken.”

The teachers claim that 90% of the schools in the Central District have no playgrounds. There are some 50 government schools in this school district, with over 30,000 students.

While the school children of the Education Minister’s constituency play indoor games, Tihar Jail has facilities that many towns would find difficult to match, for sports ranging from cricket to volleyball, badminton, kabaddi and basketball, as well as indoor games like carrom and chess. In addition to regular inter-ward and inter-jail competitions, the prison hosts the Annual Tihar Olympics. According to their 2011 Annual Review, Mr. Kapil Dev was chief guest at a cricket match final played between the teams of Central Jails No. 2 and 4 on a very handsome cricket field within prison walls.

Indeed, in their Model Ward for first offenders, there is a recreation room “with facilities for indoor games, library and a TV for entertainment of inmates”, as well as space for yoga and meditation. Not to mention washing and bathing facilities and, it’s stated with quiet pride, toilets fitted with flushing system.

Delhi schools are deficient in washing facilities and toilets, either fitted with flushing systems or not. The Right to Education Forum found a “complete lack of hygiene facilities in the schools”, and very few functional toilets. As Saurabh Sharma from the NGO JOSH notes, with considerable understatement, “Twenty-five hundred students and just three or four toilets in a school is not a comfortable situation.” Just twelve or sixteen toilets in Delhi jails would not just be an uncomfortable situation, it could well provoke a prison riot. But not only is there an abundance of flush toilets in our penal system, the better class of prisoners have their own private cells with attached toilets. Also TV and ceiling fans and south Indian food, if you are a female detainee with the right connections.

The female prison, Central Jail No.6, has raised the bar so high that it has been awarded the ISO-9001 certification ‘for maintaining international standards in management of female prisoners’. I’m fairly sure no Government Girls’ School in Delhi is in imminent danger of winning that accolade.

But hygiene apart, the fundamental purpose of a school is education, and one could reasonably assume that Delhi government schools score higher than its prisons in imparting the three Rs. Sure enough, if we compare Delhi’s literacy rate to the rates in India as a whole, we fare pretty well with 86.34%, having improved by 4.67% in the last ten years.

About 1900 inmate students are enrolled in the Tihar prison study centre of the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS), and another 2640 in Tihar’s IGNOU study centre. This is a paltry number compared to the 1.7 million students enrolled in Delhi schools (2002-03), but then, it is also said that eighty percent of class 5 pass-outs from MCD schools do not know how to read and write their names. In contrast to this dismal school statistic, it is stated with utter conviction that “an illiterate person landing in Tihar Jail can look forward to being literate if his stay is for more than a week.”

Tihar officials see illiteracy as one of the major reasons for crime. “Those illiterates, who did not find employment, ultimately got dragged to criminal activities and landed in prison,” says the DG, Tihar Prisons. It’s true that, statistically, a disproportionate number of prisoners (66%) are either illiterate or haven’t had ten years of schooling. Of course, this could also mean that educated criminals manage to stay out of jail – witness the very small number of government servants in prison – or it may be that the same socio-economic conditions that get in the way of schooling could also lead to crime. One could just as easily argue that poverty leads to crime: 77% of Tihar’s convicts are, as they say, “from the lower strata of society”, i.e., earning less than Rs.50,000 a year.

The linkage between educational standards and criminality (“Lesser the literacy more is the crime” is how the Delhi government puts it) is probably more tenuous than we imagine. But if this linkage exits, one can’t help feeling it’s the Department of Education, not the Department of Prisons that should be addressing it. By the time someone is in jail, one assumes it’s rather too late.

In absolute numbers, there are 1.5 million children who are dropouts or have never gone to school in Delhi, and the gross dropout rate from Delhi schools is 69.06%. (At a little over 18%, recidivism is much lower in Delhi prisons).

The Delhi government makes a substantial investment in prison-based education. All expenditure on school fees is borne by the government, which also provides study material like note-books, pens etc free of cost to inmates. Educational activities are part of the reform programmes of Delhi prisons, and they take it very seriously. The Tihar library has more than 500 books on Gandhian philosophy alone, while many Delhi government schools would be lucky to have a library at all, even one under perpetual lock and key.

The rehabilitation grant given to released convicts, ranging from Rs.15,000 to Rs.25,000, is paid upon their release. The disbursal of scholarships by Delhi schools, even to Dalit and minority students, shows no such urgency. Along with an ‘enormous delay’ in the distribution of text books, funds for books and uniforms trickle in months after the schools open, and scholarships due for the academic session of 2009-2010 were received in mid-2011.

The mission statements of the Prisons Department and the Directorate of Education are remarkably alike. According to their Citizen’s Charters, the idea is to “reform/rehabilitate them by involving them in vocational, spiritual, educational activities so that they become useful citizens of the country after their release’ (Prisons), while it is “to create awareness about cultural heritage and human & moral values and to make the students responsible citizens who may meaningfully participate in nation building’ (Schools).

Though the goals of Delhi’s penal and educational systems are oddly similar, the punitive aspects of institutionalization are manifest only in one of them. Even here, it’s hard to tell if the loss of freedom and dignity, the inhuman architecture, the regimentation and the comparative deprivation and squalor behind high walls spring from a failure of imagination or a failure of humanity within the system. That’s the educational system. On the other hand, India’s largest prison does not confuse sequestration with servitude and is committed to providing “basic minimum facilities to inmates to maintain human dignity”. It delivers a great deal more than that.

To come back to the problem of overcrowding in Delhi’s schools and jails, the prison department at least is doing something about it. In August 2008, Delhi’s minister in charge of prisons, Ms. Sheila Dikshit laid the foundation stone of the Mandoli Jails complex, on 68 acres of land, designed to host 3136 prisoners. An Open Prison is coming up in Baprola and, if all goes well, another prison complex at Narela.

Going by the residential accommodation for 937 prison staff in Mandoli, yielding an impressive employee-to-inmate ratio of 1:3.3 (which is better than that of Swiss five star hotels), it is clear that senior government officials are willing to invest considerably more in the penal system than in the school system. This, no doubt, is based on the sound principle that none of them is going back to school.

Previously by Sajan Venniyoor in Kafila:

7 thoughts on “Arrested Development – a comparative study of Delhi’s schools and prisons: Sajan Venniyoor”

  1. A very imaginatively constructed piece! It draws linkages between aspects of public policy which are normally not thought through. So does this mean that we can deprive kids of opportunities when these are most needed, give them ample opportunity to grow into dysfunctional — and possibly criminal — social roles. And then put them behind bars and give them opportunities to correct the errors they were forced into by a denial of opportunities when they really mattered?


  2. The solution is simple, the government should stick to running what it can run better, namely prisons, and let private entrepreneurs fill in for schools. Instead of funding schools where all the money will be siphoned away by teachers who never show up, fund the students directly.


  3. wud b better to recall wat malcom x’ s comment on scools n prisons in his auobiography. acc to him prisons r better. bcz der r umpteen num of things in that distracts u in scools than in prisons. u can focus on sth useful n creativ in prison


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