The road to jail is long and winding. And I don’t mean that in a metaphorical sense. Puzhal Jail, which is Chennai’s jail du jour, is in Red Hills, a good 45 minutes from the heart of the city.
From outside, it looks appropriately forbidding, with high gates, armed guards and soaring sentry towers. Inside, there are astonishingly pink flowers, ironically cheerful ‘Welcome’ signs and a handful of bewilderingly upbeat prisoners walking about in white shorts, shirts and sneakers, their traditional prison gear.
The enormous, sprawling Puzhal jail, holds about 500 ‘lifers’, who are prisoners condemned to life imprisonment (14 years) besides about 250 long and short term prisoners.
We’re here to meet an unusual bunch of bread-baking lifers. Under Chennai restaurateur M. Mahadevan and DGP (Prisons) R. Natraj, seven of them are being taught how to bake by 5 chefs from Hot Breads, overseen by the chain’s Corporate Chef Sundar K. The bread – about 500 loaves and 2000 buns – is distributed at places like The Banyan, Spastics Society of Tamil Nadu, Little Drops and Arunodayam.
With me is successful Californian Chef Craig Ponsford, who speicialises in artisan bread, and is here – on Mahadevan’s request –to study the bread making and then explore ways to enrich the loaves so that they provide a more complete nutritious meal for the many children and adults they feed. (See Box.)
Friendly jailors (there’s an oxymoron you don’t often see) A Anser Basha and K. Sounderaj walk us to the bakery, which is wrapped in the wonderful aroma of crusty, fresh bread. Inside, the lifers and Chefs are sociably gathered a round a big table, rapidly separating and shaping dough. The bakery is calm, spacious and flooded with natural sunlight. Windows are shielded with screens, every worker wears a cap and the entire set-up is spotless, if you discount the comforting veil of flour that continuously settles everywhere softly.
As they begin to stack loaf tins into the gargantuan oven, shimmering with heat, Craig explains why this project titled ‘Freedom’ is so important. “It’s mental freedom,” he states, adding, “Now, when they get out of jail they have a chance to work, to support themselves and stay free.” He adds, “They also know they’re feeding children, and that releases immense positive energy.”
Sunder talks of how reluctant his ‘boys’ were initially to teach the lifers, many of whom are in for murder and drug smuggling. “First they were scared, and reluctant to go. So we told them, just try working there for two days and then decide,” he says, “By the end of the first day they said they don’t want to work anywhere else. Now they all even live on the jail premises, since they are in the bakery for about eight hours everyday.”
Contrary to what you would expect, thanks to melodramatic movies, all prisoners aren’t aggressive, snarling, tattooed fiends in iron handcuffs. The baking lifers are shyly friendly, quietly enthusiastic and slightly bemused at all the attention. They line up excitedly for the photograph, when the jailors tell them – with what seems like fatherly pride – that their families will now see their pictures in ‘The Hindu.’
Basha proudly introduces us a young former heroin smuggler, who now uses his MCA degree to take computer classes in the prison. Then there’s the plumber convicted of murder who just attempted, but failed, his 8th Std exam. “But I’m going to try again,” he says, adding that he studies “after lock-up,” which is at 6 p.m.
They all tell us how many years they’ve been in Puzhal, a number that ranges from 5 to 10, and how many more years each of them has to complete. Pushparaj, who is aims to finish the 10th Std before he leaves says he’s got three more years. “He’s expecting to be released early for good conduct,” whispers Sounderaj, “But cannot be sure.”
While a number of the lifers initially applied for the bakery training just so they could have something to do, simultaneously earning money (prison wages range from Rs. 13 to Rs 18 a day depending on skill and labour) they eventually realised that these are skills they can put to use once they’re out too.
Unfortunately, although Puzhal Prison has the space they don’t yet have the facilities to engage all the prisoners in activities like this.
Travelling through the baking campus, profuse with vociferously bright flowers, in an ambulance open at the back so we get a good view, we pass a series of huge blocks: School, High Security, Condemned Prisoners Cell. Ironically the threatening ‘Gallows’ are followed by a “Meditation Hall/ Rehabilitation Centre’ complete with an area for yoga.
Inside, we bump into Selvaraj, a prisoner who teaches sculpture. His classroom is crawling with startlingly plump imitations of the Oscar statuette. “All over the world getting an Oscar is very difficult,” chuckles Sounderaj, “In jail we’ll give you one for free.” Though I’m gifted a cement Buddha instead. “A prison-made Buddha. So you’ll never forget us.”
It seems appropriate.
The flour and milk in the US are fortified with all sorts of things like multi-vitamins and iron, says Craig, discussing ways to enrich bread. “My guess is that the kids here need calcium. Also vitamins A and B – to help the brain and bones. They’re getting a decent diet, but I’m sure it’s not complete.”
In LA there’s an annual conference on Functional Food, where an entire section is dedicated to manufacturers who are trying to find ways of making food more powerful by adding things like Omega 3, vitamins or antioxidants. A lot of what they work with is natural– like ginseng, spirulina, taurine (which is what goes into Red Bull.) Craig’s new project is to find manufacturers who can enrich Freedom Bread, making this powerful symbol a complete food.