February 27, 2017 2:00:50 am
IN A first-of-its-kind initiative in the country, social workers will now be posted with the prison department of Maharashtra from March 1. Following a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) last year between the Maharashtra government and the Tata Trusts, a non-profit social organisation, social workers have been appointed as part of a three-year pilot project in five central prisons and the Borstal school in Nashik, which currently houses juvenile offenders.
There will be a total of 19 social workers, two each in the male and female sections in Aurangabad, Nagpur, Nashik and Yerwada central prisons; two in the male section of Taloja, which does not have a female section; and one for the Borstal school. The social workers underwent a training on various aspects, including legal aid, mental health, counselling, and are likely to begin work from Wednesday.
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“The current system does not have any interface between the prison department and the families of prisoners lodged in our jails. Prison officials are not allowed to conduct any family-related activities, including home visits, outside the jail. The social workers are expected to bridge that gap. They will interact with prisoners on the issues faced by them in coordination with us,” said Bhushan Kumar Upadhyay, Additional Director General, Prisons.
He said the social workers will also work to help prisoners get access to the legal aid. “There are many prisoners from low income groups who do not get access to lawyers or are unaware about the law. On this too, we are hoping this project can help in ushering a new era of prison administration,” Upadhyay said.
He said it was after Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis wrote to Ratan Tata on the long-term intervention in prisons that the prison department along with Prayas —which is the knowledge partner in the project — began the proposal for the pilot project over a year ago.
So far, social workers have not been a part of the prison system in association with the government. Instead they work on specific issues through NGOs.
Currently, once a person is imprisoned, his/her ties with the family or other social support outside is difficult to maintain. For women prisoners, it is even more difficult as they face abandonment from families and in some cases they are even unaware of the condition of their children outside. To tackle this, the role of Probation Officers appointed in each district was considered to be of significance. However, the appointment of POs changed from the correctional wing in the Home department to the Women and Child Development department, leading to them being assigned other responsibilities apart from prisons.
“There were also liaison officers from among the POs to visit families of prisoners, to ensure meetings of children left outside or any other issue faced by prisoners. The system has gotten diluted over the years and this project is an attempt to revive that process through social workers placed in prisons,” said Vijay Raghavan, project director, Prayas.
He said there had been an attempt to institutionalise social workers in the criminal justice system since 1993 and this project is the first step towards it.
Raghavan also said they have also drawn from the issues they have experienced working with undertrials in Thane and Mumbai through Prayas for the past 26 years.
He said while the prison staff is focused towards security and health, the social workers’ role will include psycho-social aspects as well as post-release rehabilitation, skill training and legal aid.
The project, currently funded by Tata Trusts and implemented by the Maharashtra government, will be evaluated after three years.
“A decision will be taken based on the impact of the project on whether the state government wants to adopt it and institutionalise the post of social workers in all its prisons,” Upadhyay said.
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