A teacher watches children assembled in the courtyard, mumbling their prayers. Yet, this is not a normal public school ground. Tucked away in the hot, dusty heart of Sri Perambadur in Tamil Nadu, the CEYRAC home for children is an institution for the sons and daughters of life prisoners.
In India, the impact that a conviction has on the family of the prisoner is little known. While there have been discussions on prison crèches, care for mothers in jail and inclusive education, these plans seldom reach fruition. In 2012, the NCRB (National Crime Records Bureau) recorded that nearly 1800 children across the country were at the mercy of the prison system with their mothers and fathers under trial. And this is a conservative estimate. The truth is far worse.
"I had an opportunity to interact with prisoners in Vellore prison, and one of the inmates asked me a very interesting question. He said, 'Scavengers, even people with leprosy will be able to somehow provide for their children. But I am here imprisoned for killing my wife. How will I be able to provide a good future for my child?' This opened my eyes to the issues that so many children face because of their parents' offences," says A R Palaniswamy, Founder of SEED (Society for Educational And Economic Development) an organisation that specifically looks at the well-being and education of marginalised children. Through a partnership, the organisation also runs the CEYRAC home, which offers residential facilities on the school grounds for the children.
"Many of the school's alumni are now young, successful professionals, who have broken the generational chain of poverty and abuse and today support their parents."
Having spent years doing community-level work with Chennai's Narikuravar (nomadic tribal) communities and working for the upliftment of scavengers, Palaniswamy points out the gaps in our approach to care for socially and economically disadvantaged children and their integration into a regular school environment. "These children lack equal opportunity for no fault of theirs. The government looks at the issue of rehabilitation and care on a large scale so it tends to ignore the specific needs of children. These children, if given the opportunity, can excel in their lives just like anyone else," he says.
With little access to their parents, facing insensitive jail staff and often ostracised by society, it is believed thousands of innocent children languish within prison walls, as their parents don't have an option to provide alternative care. Because of this, most children below the age of six are forced to move into prisons with their mothers. This is a huge disadvantage when it comes to continuing with their education. But now, SEED is unlocking new opportunities for those who have little or no support.
One of the key challenges that SEED is directly tackling is the issue of integration. Children often tend to carry forward the guilt for crimes committed by their parents. In the present school system, it is common for children who come from socially disadvantaged backgrounds to face discrimination at a very young age. Encouraging more parents to send their children to school, the organisation has successfully supported more than 200 children between the ages of 6 to 16, giving them opportunities to pursue vocational training as well.
Many of the school's alumni are now young, successful professionals, who have broken the generational chain of poverty and abuse and today support their parents. When I ask about past graduates of the school, Palaniswamy beams with pride. "One of the girls who studied in our school, a daughter of a life prisoner, recently found employment as a nurse in Malaysia after excelling in her studies. She has now returned to India. She has also gotten married, and settled in family life. She joined our school when she was five years old. Her father has now been released and she supports him."
Several children who attend the school have also taken up vocational skills training to pursue work as tailors and electricians. As a policy, the school ensures that children are treated fairly by fiercely protecting their personal background information so that every child can access the opportunity to study equally and without guilt. "When we look at what children sometimes endure, we understand the harsh realities they face." Palaniswamy says, "We noticed that these children carried forward a lot of guilt for their parents' crimes and we wanted to stop that cycle to allow them to grow without that emotional burden." SEED has also integrated children of other poor and vulnerable communities in their schools today.
At a time where prisoner rights are seldom questioned by Indian society, perhaps it is time we looked at solutions on the ground. Organisations like India Vision Foundation had brought up this issue over a decade ago but it has largely been ignored by the government. Certainly, there is a lot to be done. But initiatives like this also show that we already have examples to follow.