In 2015, Dr Beena Chintalapuri, a cognitive psychologist, was asked by the Telangana prison system to conduct workshops for “hardcore criminals.” Her efforts resulted in Unnati, a program that aims to curtail rates of recidivism in Indian jails. Chintalapuri also started the country’s first Masters of Psychology program inside prisons, in affiliation with Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Open University. “This is the first batch,” she told me over the phone. “They will write their exams later this year.” Seventeen inmates are taking the course through distance learning. “Jail authorities gave us a lab, and I sometimes take classes too,” Chintalapuri added.
Before getting involved with Unnati, Chintalapuri, who is 63, had recently retired from Osmania University, Hyderabad. Among her many notable achievements, she is known for her work with the International Space Research Organization (ISRO). “I analysed the error and behaviour patterns of a team working on satellite and GPS,” she explained.
When the Director General of Telangana prisons approached her, she thought about how “Crime is also an error. And it can be eliminated if the person has the tools to control his response to errors.”
Unnati is active in eight prisons—some of which have shown rates of recidivism come down dramatically: from 80 to 1 per cent since the program was instituted. It has served about 3,000 inmates so far. We spoke to her about how her approach tackles the culture of prisons and the psychology of those inside them.
VICE: How is your approach towards the rehabilitation of inmates different from rehabilitation methods used in other prisons?
Beena Chintalapuri: Unless you change inmates’ reasoning, directing their reflection, you can’t solve problems. Their ideation has to be addressed. We have to spend time with them to understand what their deep-seated issues are. What kind of approach they are taking to solve their problems. That is where cognitive psychology comes in.
What does the Unnati program entail?
It is a three-week training program. Each session lasts 3-4 hours. We started with a batch of 30 inmates, all undertrials. But later we started involving convicts too. The value they add to the program is priceless. Their understanding of issues. Their empathy. Inmates participate in various exercises. There is goal-setting. They get to understand their inner strengths.
A lot of crime happens when the mind is agitated. The [Unnati] modules help them understand how important clarity is. Most of them are confused. We make them understand and appreciate others.
Have any of the inmates’ stories shocked or surprised you?
We have a class on narratives in our program. In this program, everyone shares his story with others in the group. When they recount the crime they did, that is slightly disturbing. I have never lost sleep over any story, but when I pass by a road where an inmate did some crime—that this is the place where it all started for him—it is disturbing.
Outsiders don’t understand barrack culture, there is a lot of sadness, anger, isolation, depression inside prisons.
What is barrack culture?
Jail has its own culture. You have to eat what is given to you. Inside, there is a certain amount of sadness, isolation, crying, depression. There is no freedom. Time slows down. Inmates are also thinking about their families. Their court dates. Their anxiety. We should learn to appreciate the meaning of freedom, family, and money from them.
What are some takeaways from your interactions with inmates?
Plenty of takeaways. I have learnt that there is a lot of humanity in them. Why do they have to take this program? They are hungry to learn, to understand. They realise that they are the changemakers.
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