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Prison Reform in India: Reducing recidivism and crime rates through cognitive psychology

When: Wednesday, April 24, 2019, 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm
Where: Harvard Kennedy School • 79 JFK Street • room T-401, 4th Floor of Taubman Building • Cambridge

A conversation with
Dr. Beena Chintalapuri*
Fmr. Director, Indian Council of Social Sciences Research
Southern Regional Centers
Fmr. Professor, Osmania University

There are over 1400 prisons in all of India, with 419623 prisoners. The
Indian Prison System is divided into multiple prison departments,
controlled by the states of India. There are no federally controlled
prisons, so each state prison department has its own maximum security
prisons, housing tens-of-thousands of prisoners. These large prisons house
most the prison population in India, including offenders that serve shorter
sentences between 3 months to 3 years and offenders serving longer-term
sentences of 15-20 years (a life-sentence in India is typically for this
longer length and not ‘for life’).

These prisoners have been consistently facing inhumane conditions at the
hands of an overpopulated prison system, averaging over a 1100 recorded
complaints from the National Human Rights Commission and States Human
Rights Commissions, in a single year. Death rates amongst inmates, natural
and unnatural, have been increasing over the years - with a questionable
average (irregular records) of 12000 in five years - because of the
negligence towards inmates, overcrowded, inhumane living conditions and the
lack of hygiene that come with overpopulated (117%) prisons. Recidivism
rates have been increasing with the rates for some individual states last
seen at over 74% of the prisons population. Most of the prisoners today and
historically, have been people that committed crime arguably because of the
marginalized societal conditions that led them to it. Over 70% of the
prison population come from OBC (other backward caste) and SC/ST (scheduled
caste and scheduled tribe) sects and over 75% have only received an
educated below the 10th grade or are completely illiterate.

The prison system has overall been unable to look beyond the stigma
associated with being a criminal and has not recognized that external
triggers are largely the cause for crime. Dr. Beena analyses crime from her
expert lens of cognitive psychology, allowing her to define the committing
of crime as a mere erroneous response to external triggers or stimuli. This
definition is markedly different from the common narrative of seeing crime
as an act indistinguishably associated with an individual’s morality or
persona. She understands that the error can be eliminated from the response
if the person responding, has the tools to check and control his/her
responses for errors (specifically in answer to now, familiar triggers).
Forming the base of her work, this analysis distinguishes it from the
historically attempted reformative or rehabilitative interventions trying
to change or heal prisoners and criminals.

Dr. Beena is redefining the roles of these prisoners from being the burdens
and scum of the prison-system, to being the team of experts that bring the
principles of cognitive psychology into the prison sector to solve its most
complex problems. Coming from a historically marginalized social identity
herself Dr. Beena brings a keen sense of empathy and humanity to her work.
She is legitimizing their new role in multiple ways, by having her
prisoners train jail officials at the Correctional Services Academy and by
setting up a distance learning MSc. Psychology degree within jails for
these prisoners, for example.

Co-sponsored by
The India Caucus @ HKS and Boston Study Group

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