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A library for the 'Caged Children'
In 2003, I had conducted an empirical survey on women inmates staying inside the Presidency Central Correctional Home in Kolkata. While interviewing women who were kept in a separate enclosure inside this correctional home, I came across children staying with their mothers, who were either convicts or under trials.

Some of these children were born inside the jails and were too young to stay away from their mothers, as there is no one to look after them in the absence of their mothers. As a researcher I was pained to see these children spending their childhood in confinement.

As a part of the National Service Scheme unit of the Scottish Church College, Kolkata, I had the privilege of arranging clothes and toys for them in November 2003. I have always wanted to do something for these children, who for no fault of theirs, suffer confinement.

In 2011, I got an opportunity to teach as a Guest Faculty at the Regional Institute of Correctional Administration (RICA), Kolkata. One of the topics I taught at RICA was Rights of Women Prisoners and their Children. I conducted an empirical survey on women inmates staying inside the Alipore Women's Correctional Home in Kolkata in 2011.

Interacting with the correctional administrators at the Regional Institute of Correctional Administration helped me to broaden my knowledge about the plight of inmates and their children staying inside correctional homes.

In 2014, Mrs. Rita Sen Choudhury and I, decided to set up a library for the children staying inside the Alipore Women's Correctional Home. Mrs. Rita Sen Choudhury is a student of literature from Jadavpur University as well as a trained librarian. She has worked as a Reference Librarian at the American Centre Library, Consulate of the USA, Kolkata, for nearly two decades.

Moreover she has travelled widely all over Asia, Europe and America, which has helped to broaden her knowledge and mind towards the subaltern section of our society. After her retirement she provides voluntary service to innumerable social organizations.

We approached the Department of Correctional Services, Government of West Bengal, with the proposal of initiating a children's library inside the Alipore Women's Correctional Home. We were told to provide a list of donors of the books, which we provided to the administrative officials. We collected books mostly from friends, associates and acquaintances. We also bought new books for the library.

On 18th January, 2015, we submitted the books (mostly English with few Bengali books) at the Alipore Women's Correctional Home. Though we did not receive any invitation, but the formal inauguration of the library took place along with a play school (run by a non-governmental organization), in presence of official dignitaries and a well-known dancer on 12th May, 2015. After pursuing with the Government of West Bengal for nearly thirteen months, we finally got permission to visit the Alipore Women's Correctional Home twice a month, preferably on a Saturday afternoon to interact and organize story telling sessions with the children.

We would like to mention our heart filled gratitude to our most respected Ramakrishnan Sir. Shri S. Ramakrishnan retired from the prestigious Indian Police Service as the Additional Director General of Criminal Investigation Department, Government of West Bengal. He served as the first director of the Regional Institute of Correctional Administration, Kolkata. He has supported our initiative from the very beginning and in every step has mentored us in the process of opening this library.

Children are the future of our society. But it is a grim reality that children suffer silently within the four walls of prison all over the country without committing any crime, whatsoever. The R.D. Upadhyay Vs. State of Andhra Pradesh and other 2006 (4) scale, the Supreme Court has expressed serious concern for the children who are in jails with their mother prisoners for years in many cases. India is a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in December, 1992, which reiterates its commitment to the cause of the children, stipulates that the state shall provide adequate services for children both before and after the birth, and during the grooming stages for their full physical, mental and social development.

From the study reports it is quite apparent that much care and attention need to be taken to provide the children of women prisoners such an environment, which would help them to grow as a healthy and useful citizen of the country.

As an educated Indian citizen the library is our small endeavour to do something for these children. As a mother and seasoned librarian Mrs. Rita Sen Choudhury bestows motherly love and affection to these children. The children's library is situated at the backside of a play school run by a non-governmental organization.

It is a conference-cum-library room. Mrs. Sen Choudhury has done formal cataloging of books into short stories, moral stories, alphabet books, Bengali books, in a register. We have displayed all the books on a wooden rack placed as one side of the room. When we enter the main jail the children welcome us by hugging us. At times they get up on our arms and laps. It is wonderful to see children welcoming us with love and affection.

We begin everyday by an English prayer –

On my God,

We are about to study

For the Love of Thee

Grant us we reach Thee

Thy Blessings

All for Thee

Oh my God.

This is followed by a prayer in the regional language. We read out panchatantra stories, fairly tales, and Sukumar Ray's chora (poems). Along with narrating the stories in Bengali language, we explain them the message these stories convey. We read out stories such as the peacock and the crane, the boy and the wolf, the ugly tree, Ali baba and forty thieves.

The children keenly listen to the stories as well as are very interested in seeing the coloured pictures of the book. While interacting with children, we keep in mind their individual needs, thereby adapt, adjust ourselves while telling them stories. We also revise with them English alphabets (A-Z), and numbers (1-100). Every time we meet them, we try to verbally teach them new words in English with meanings. To bring a change in their monotonous life we also encourage them to participate and perform.

It is wonderful to see Rehana (name changed) reciting 'amader chotto nadi chole aaka baakae, boisakh mashe tar hatu jol thake - our small river meandering its course, there is knee length water in the month of Baisakh, a poem by Rabindranath Tagore. Sukhtara (name changed), is around five years old. She has a lovely voice and sings the famous Tagore song 'Phule Phule Dholey Dholey….Some of the children have been arrested with their mother for illegally entering India from Bangladesh. They tell us about the rural country life in Bangladesh and how they crossed the international Indo-Bangladesh borders illegally for domestic work, drug peddling or are trafficked and sold in brothels.

At times some of the women inmates come along with their kids, and sit and listen to our stories. Needless to say women inmates remain depressed and at times, vent their life stories. Rizaya begum was arrested under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956. Her children are staying with her husband and in-laws. In the last interview session her husband declared that he is getting married to another woman.

She is worried about the fate of her children. Siyata (name changed), another inmate, however is happy that she has admitted her daughter in a residential school. At least her daughter is studying and hopefully will have a better life. Sanjay's mother committed suicide. The police have arrested his father and grandmother under section 498(A) IPC. Her grandmother is imprisoned at the Alipore Women's Correctional Home. She has brought Sanjay with her but is too old to look after him.

The children also share the ups and downs of their life with us. During Durga Puja the children wear new dress. When we visited them last week, the children were very excited to tell us that suddenly the windows, clothes, utensils started shaking. Everyone said, 'bhu kampo…. bhu kampo (it's an earthquake…it's an earthquake)'. Last year during Children's Day, with our limited ability and resources we gave children pencils and rubber. Children stood in line to receive their gifts. Mothers with small infants in their arms also came along with these children.

When the story telling session ends, they love to play jhuk jhuk gari….(running like a train). After that in a line they are made to stand and sent to their respective wards - their 'home'. Listening to stories help these children to develop their concentration and learn new words. As individuals, we lack monetary resources but we have a vision to introduce new programs such as puppet shows. Even with our limited resources we wish to interact with the children through cartoons, educational CD's and children's film.

We have been approached by media personnel for a write-up on the children's library. But we do not aim to commodify and sell vulnerabilities of young children and their mothers to the media. Even this article is written not for publicity but to sensitize the civil society about innocent children languishing in correctional homes spending their childhood in confinement.

Our aim is to spend time with children, enjoy and have fun with them. We do not intend to win any monetary or social rewards and earn accolades for our work. The innocent hugs and smiles of these little angels are our awards, which we perennially cherish in our hearts.

Notes: Section 498(A) is a criminal law. It deals with husband or relative of husband of a woman subjecting her to cruelty.

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