In a sprawling conference hall in a prison on the outskirts of India's southern city of Hyderabad, a dozen-odd prisoners are tapping away furiously on computer keyboards.
It is an unusual sight: the prisoners, mostly sentenced to life for murder, are training to become workers in a unique outsourcing unit that is coming up at the impressive 43-acre Cherlapalli jail.
They are in the middle of a typing accuracy and speed test, having been set a target of typing 35 to 40 words a minute. Other prisoners are shadowing them.
Of the 2,000-odd inmates, nearly 70 are engineering graduates, say prison authorities.
By end of January, they believe, India's first BPO [business process outsourcing] unit in a prison will begin working with 50-odd inmate "employees" from an in-house meditation centre which is being transformed into a factory.
It will specialise in non-voice based, off-line outsourcing work like digitising records, legal documents, scripts, manuscripts and text books, and medical transcription, says K Mohan Menon, a manager with Radiant Info Systems, a US-based info-tech company which is assisting the venture.
It helps that Hyderabad is a BPO hub, generating some 50 million rupees ($1.1m; £717,922) annually in revenues from non-voice based business alone.
"We cannot let prisoners get online and communicate with the outside world. So we opted for an offline business. Some people and companies have already shown interest and we expect some orders soon," says prison chief G Jayawardhan.
The convicts get a paltry 15 rupees [33 cents] per day for other work like making steel furniture or working on looms in the prison, but authorities expect to pay them 100 rupees [$2.2] to 150 rupees [$3.32] a day for working in the BPO unit.
M Nageshwar, 37, a software engineer who worked with a company for 10 years before he ended up in prison, is leading the pack of convicts who are training to work at the unit.
He was found guilty of killing his wife - he says she committed suicide - three years ago and sentenced to life.
Mr Nageshwar has contested his conviction in the Supreme Court.
"I am excited about the project. Educated people like me can easily slip into depression when they are incarcerated. It is a relief for convicts like me and a good opportunity to prove ourselves," he says.
"Also, remember," he whispers, "an idle man's brain is a devil's workshop."
G Rama Rao, who was sentenced to life 15 months ago for murdering a political opponent - he says it was a case of "political conspiracy" - echoes a similar sentiment.
Mr Rao is a postgraduate in commerce from a leading university and owns a rice mill, which his family runs in his absence.
"As an educated man, I can't find good work in a prison and get bored. I can't do all the factory work here. At my rice mill, I did my accounts on the computer. So I will use my skills to spend time better," he says.
'Living in hope'
Most convicts believe that their work experience with the outsourcing unit will fetch them jobs if and when they are released.
Ravi Kumar, 26, was an army clerk for seven years, before he ended up shooting a colleague dead while he was posted in Indian-administered Kashmir.
A commerce graduate, Mr Kumar says he has worked on computers in the past.
"When I come out of prison, this is going to help me," he says.
Twenty-four year old Mahesh Goud, who has been in the prison for 14 months in connection with the murder of a friend, is an electronics graduate.
He worked in a hydroelectric plant as an electrical engineer for nearly two years, earning $280 a month till the crime.
"I am feeling useful again. I am spending time more fruitfully. I hope this is a success," he says.
Bank manager Ratna Babu, 53, was working with a state-owned bank before he was arrested on charges of misappropriation of money, a charge he denies.
The case dragged on for 13 years before he was sentenced to six years in prison about a year ago.
Mr Babu says he began learning computers only three months ago.
"After I am free I will never get a job in a bank. I want to work for a BPO then. This training will stand me in good stead.
Mr Goud agrees wholeheartedly.
"It will help in my future. All of us will be released one day. All of us have to go out and find work then. This experience will help us. We all live in hope, don't we?"
- 12 May 2010
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