One of the most loved tourist spots in India, Shimla is almost picture perfect. There are numerous reasons that contribute to its uniqueness, but surely not many are aware that it also has an open-air jail café run by life-term convicts.
Located just above the historical Ridge at Takka Bench, this café has a sitting capacity for 40 people. What makes it interesting? The food is both prepared and served by convicts and like any other.
Fresh from Prison Bakery!
Known as Book Café, the shop is run by two prisoners- Yograj and Subhas Chand, who are serving life-term at Kaithu sub-jail of Shimla. Apart from satisfying your taste buds with delicious bakery products, coffee, tea, pizzas, biscuits, cold-drinks, you can also choose from a wide range of books, which makes it a popular hangout for students.
Because of the reasonably priced food, many customers drop by regularly. Also, some of them pack food to eat later. They find these prisoners humble and kind as well.
One of the students who visit the café says, “I couldn’t believe that they have ever committed a crime, I think they are just normal people living their life.”
No one is an ordinary employee in the café and all are serving life terms. This initiative is helping them to bond with society and cope with the stigma of being a prisoner.
While serving young customers, one of the convicts Jaychand tells VOA, “I hope once again I get an opportunity to be part of society. I hope I will be able to laugh and play with my children.”
According to the report, these convicts walk out of prison and return there after the day’s work, unsupervised, just like other people. Previously people had doubts regarding this initiative, but now the residents have accepted this gladly and this is becoming popular with tourists as well.
Apart from running a bakery, the prisoners are also running a mobile canteen and serving delectable food to their customers. Few kilometers apart, three other life convicts are forgetting the claustrophobia of the prison as they dole out rice and curry to the customers from a van.
Selected on the basis of their conduct, the first preference goes to prisoners who were the main breadwinners of their families, and is proving to be a life-changing experience for them, mentions the report.
From planning meals to serving meals to the customers and dealing with them on a regular basis, this initiative has transformed life for Bhupinder Singh, a murder convict who has spent 18 years in prison. “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 and I can dream of a better future. When released, I can use the skills I have learned,” he said.
An initiative like this has paved a way for allowing more convicts to work outside jails, says Somesh Goyal, Director General of Prisons in Himachal Pradesh to VOA. “They interact with people, meet family members, they can keep a mobile phone also. It helps them integrate with society and feel human. That they are not different from others and wherever they go and work, those people also think that they are human and normal as people outside the prison.” Adding to this he says, these programmes are also helping them to overcome their psychological incarceration.
This initiative is proving to be fruitful for the prisons department as well as they are earning over Rs 3.5 crores annually from the production.
Open Prison Initiative is helping the prisoners to heal psychologically and reclaim their place in the society.