How An Entrepreneurial Prisoner Broke Down Jail Walls

Santram has always loved books: the smell of their thick, dusty pages, the feel of their bound covers and the ideas and worlds that unfold when you read them. As a trained history teacher, he felt blessed to provide for his wife and daughters through such a fulfilling profession. But when he was found guilty of a crime a few years ago, he was forced to leave his family to fend for themselves while he served out his sentence in the Jhansi Jail. The prison’s tall stone facade didn’t just eclipse light from the outside world, but also Santram’s imagination and dreams.

Indian fishermen in a police lockup. ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images

Everyday was identical to the last: Santram got up, slipped his feet into rubber slippers and wandered to the cool, grey courtyard. Lining up between the same two prisoners, he waited for his portion of daal, the paltry, bland lentils and rice served up in a beaten steel plate and bowl. As he stood there, the monotony trapped him in a cycle of trouble and regret: Who would provide for his family while he was in prison? How would they pay the rent? Would his daughters be forced to leave school?

The only light that made it through the prison’s concrete labyrinth was the presence of the Warden. Officially in charge of keeping the peace, he was dedicated to rehabilitating prisoners through education. Distance learning courses became a requirement to help advance prisoners beyond the paralysis of their shame and regret. Santram signed up for all of them and in each new course, rediscovered the world and wonder of books. Studying, his thoughts relaxed and he let go of the claustrophobia imposed by the prison walls and his own anxiety.

After a few months, the Warden announced a new opportunity. I Create, an NGO, would bring an entrepreneurship training to the prison. Santram was the first to enlist even as the other prisoners dismissed it: How could a prisoner start a business within these walls?

Santram disagreed with the inmates. At the training, he saw that the right business could be a window to his old world. Why not start a tutoring company? He had seen so many prisoners struggle with their compulsory distance learning assignments. ‘Surely they would pay for help from a trained teacher,’ he thought. The window opened wider: his worries for his family and future began to transform into creative musings on starting a prison business.

Walking back to his cell after the training, he went over the roadblocks of starting such a business in his mind. Who would he need on his side? How could he navigate the prison’s rules? Why would the prisoners trust him? He stopped and turned back to find the Warden, ready to make his case and align with the education mandate. His cheeks flushed, he started in: ‘inmates are struggling with the required courses,’ he said, ‘but they really helped me forget about my problems.’ The Warden listened as Santram went on, ‘what we need is a tutor–like me–to help everyone keep up with these courses.’ Impressed with the imagination and insight of Santram’s idea, the Warden didn’t just officially authorize the tutoring business but vowed to promote it across the prison.

Waking up the next morning, he stretched, relaxed and happy to meet the new day. He started by doing what he knew best: organizing his lessons around the distance learning he himself had completed. Once that was out of the way, his shoulders began to tighten again as he thought about the students he still didn’t have. He quickly dressed and walked to the quiet, desolate library, grabbing a small A4 sheet of paper. As he reached into his pocket to pull out his ink pen, he felt a wave of pride come over him. This was the pen that had gotten him through many years of marking student work. Now, it had new purpose: he drew out an advertisement for the tutoring and added an Early Bird Special to entice some of his peers. Six inmates signed up right away.


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