INMATES take a class in the jail.—Photo by Fahim Siddiqi
INMATES take a class in the jail.—Photo by Fahim Siddiqi

KARACHI: The classroom is just across the pink and white prisoners’ mosque in Central Jail Karachi. Right above its entrance, painted in brown, there is the first word of the Quran ‘Iqra’ (read). Inside the cool green interiors of the air-conditioned classroom there are some 36 prisoners doing that exactly.

They are all a part of the Criminon rehabilitation programme organised here by the Society for the Advancement of Health, Education and Environment (SAHEE). The NGO, started by Saleem Aziz Khan in 2007, runs two classes on the jail premises – there is also another class just like this one in another, more sensitive part of the jail, with around 20 students.

The Criminon rehabilitation programme has four levels, or steps. According to senior trainer Abdul Rasheed, the first step focuses on communication skills. “Prisoners are taught how to communicate better in the first step. This proves helpful in doing away with their frustrations about not being understood very well and not getting their message across. They are shown how to solve their problems through communication,” he said.

“The second step has to do with learning how to learn,” he said. “It looks at why some people leave their education midway. This is followed by step three, looking at 21 rules of law. One of these must have been broken or violated by the prisoner to find himself in jail, and reading about it he also feels remorse while accepting his fault. He may have been in denial earlier, laying the blame of his fate on someone or something or maybe the system. Then it is time to move to the fourth and final step, which has to do with recognising negative aspects in our society and how to stay away from them and therefore stay away from trouble,” he added.

‘I am not coming back here again; I can carry on the good work outside also’

Course completion

How long it takes for the prisoners to finish the course depends on their individual ability. “But when they do, they also get a certificate for successfully completing the course, not to mention a mature outlook on life,” he said.

Irfan Moosa, another senior trainer, said that every student in the class is not studying at the same level. “They are all at their own individual levels,” he said.

“It’s called self-paced learning,” Saleem Aziz Khan, a retired military officer and the man behind SAHEE and the Criminon programme, explains.

‘Let bygones be bygones’

Prisoner Naveed, who was a loan officer in a bank before getting sentenced for kidnapping three years ago, was studying step three of the course in the class. “The course is helping me forgive myself and let bygones be bygones. I want to start afresh by applying what I am learning into practical life,” he said.

Master trainer Amjad Hussain, who looks into the exam outcomes, also pointed out: “Until a student can achieve the required level of learning skills, his course is not considered completed.”

Prisoner Danish, who was at the first step of communication, said that he had done his Bachelor of Commerce but he would not call the Criminon coursebook easy. “It is not as simple as it looks. I am learning so many new things from it that I didn’t know before,” he said.

Convicts as trainers

The senior trainers, Irfan Moosa and Abdul Rasheed, were themselves serving their terms in prison. Moosa was part of the first batch of the Criminon programme. “I will miss my class when I complete my sentence and leave prison eventually,” he said. Then starting to laugh, he said: “But no, I am not coming back here again. I can also carry on the good work outside.”

Adding to that the other senior trainer, Abdul Rasheed, said that in their years of teaching here, they have also prepared new trainers and teachers. “The good work will carry on here even after we finish our jail sentences as then our bright students will take over from us,” he said.

Since 2007, the Criminon rehabilitation programme has helped over 3,000 prisoners. The success of the programme can be gauged from the fact that in these past 13 to 14 years only two persons who were part of the programme, returned to jail. The rest are all transformed and leading a new and trouble-free life.

Saleem Aziz Khan started the programme because he wanted to do something about the deteriorating law and order situation in Karachi. “I wanted to work for jail reforms. So I met prison officials to explain to them a programme that I wanted to design for inmates, which I believed could help them immensely. Prisons, after all, are correctional facilities but at the time, there was no real correctional activity happening there,” he told Dawn.

At the time, the superintendent of the Central Jail Karachi was Nusrat Mangan, who after hearing out Khan, arranged for 50 literate prisoners as their first wiling batch of students. “Now before coming to the Criminon programme, most prisoners have to take a literacy course, available to them in Urdu and Sindhi that helps them be able to come up to the level of the Criminon class. The literacy class is held from 2pm to 4pm while the Criminon classes have two shifts – 9am to 11am and 11am to 1pm.

“This jail is an exemplary jail thanks to the open-mindedness of our prison superintendents. Earlier, it was Nusrat Mangan and now we have jailers such as Saeed Soomro, ASI Ehsan Mahar and Senior Prison Superintendent Mohammad Hasan Sehto, who have given us a freehand. Besides SAHEE running the Criminon programme here, we also have computer classes, fine arts classes as well as music classes that are helping the prisoners learn good skills while also reforming them,” said prisoner and senior trainer Abdul Rasheed.

“Currently, there are only two classes in which there are two shifts taking the Criminon programme and there are so many other prisoners, who are on the waiting list to take this course,” Senior Prison Superintendent Mohammad Hasan Sehto told Dawn. “We have a prisoner here who was a bandit and his sentence accumulated to 25 years because he was involved in several cases. We used to find him so down and depressed all the time. But after he enrolled in the programme, he has turned a new leaf. His eyes have regained their lost shine, and he has learned to smile again and face life with newfound resolve.”

Published in Dawn, April 26th, 2021

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