Inmates at India's Tihar prison learn new job skills

Inmates at Tihar prison
Image caption Baking is part of the rehabilitation process at Tihar prison

It is tea-time at the Tihar prison bakery in Delhi. Workers are busy rolling out sugary cookie dough and packing savoury biscuits.

Oven-hot brown loaves are being wheeled out on wire racks for cooling.

But the food is not for the inmates of the largest prison in South Asia. Instead, it is destined to end up in cupboards and on dinner tables across the city.

Originally set up to cater to the prison's 12,000 inmates, the bakery now sells to the outside world under the brand name TJ's.

The hope is that learning new vocational skills becomes a key part of the rehabilitation process and will help prisoners integrate back into society when they are released.

"Skill-building programmes are indeed very important. We call these measures restorative justice," says Kiran Bedi, who was India's first female police officer and is a former inspector general of prisons.

"In fact, the programme has garnered a lot of support from everywhere, including victims, as they see a positive approach for the future of these criminals," she adds.

Big business

It is not just muffins and cakes that the prisoners are turning their hand to. Some 2,500 inmates are currently employed in seven factories within the prison complex.

The weaving factory has handlooms and power looms used to make fabric for prisoners' uniforms.

The carpentry unit makes furniture for government-run schools and offices. Another factory makes eco-friendly paper from waste.

Uniforms for school children and some private sector offices are made in the tailoring unit.

A chemical division produces hand-pressed organic mustard oil, while the latest addition is a shoe factory built with funding from a private-public partnership.

"Made in Tihar" products brought in 150 million rupees ($3.3m, £2m) in 2010, making the prison a leading retailer of everything from biscuits to clothes.

Products are sold through some retail stores in Delhi's High Court complex and the prison website.

The profits are used to help finance the prison's running costs. Faced with growing consumer demand, officials now want to take the brand TJ's even further.

Sunil Gupta, a Tihar spokesman, says the prison aims to expand its distributor network and make the products available across India.

"We are proposing a hike in wages for the prisoners. We want to invite artists and designers from all over the world to give the convicts here skills to improve TJ's products," Mr Gupta explains.

"We believe that this economic enterprise is good for both the prison and the inmates."

Creative energy

Only prisoners who have been convicted of serious crimes can work in the prison's factories.

As operations have gradually expanded, working hours have increased to eight-hour shifts, six days a week.

Image caption India's Tihar prison has many different workshops and factories

Workers are paid a daily wage according to their skill level. A trained worker gets 52 rupees per day, while semi-skilled and unskilled labourers are daily paid 44 rupees and 40 rupees respectively.

The inmates' salaries go into savings accounts that can be accessed by their families on the outside of the prison.

And while the money is an important part of the work, for many observers and prisoners, it is just as important for them to develop sides of their personalities that they may have so far ignored.

As part of a programme run by popular musician Kamal Sabri, every evening melodious music plays from the prison greens as the prisoners practise various instruments.

His plan is to produce an Indian classical album, featuring a song by the inmates.

"There are so many creative, talented people here," Mr Sabri explains.

"It's important to give them an opportunity to use that talent. Music brings positive energy in their lives and it could also be potential career opportunities for them when they get out of here."

For some prisoners, that release date is not very far away.

Ajay Hazra has spent more than 13 years in Tihar and has been working in the bakery for seven.

As the sun sets at the end of an eight-hour shift and the factory siren sounds, he often finds himself pondering what his future will hold.

"I have spent a long time here and getting employment once I'm outside will be difficult," he says.

"But the skills I have learnt here will be a huge advantage. I now hope that I can start my own bakery when I'm free."

More on this story