“Taking care of the children of jail inmates is far more challenging than caring for other children of their age”
It all began in 2003, when the Odisha government was implementing a reforms programme in prisons across the state. Social activist Nirajalaxmi Mohapatra, who was a part of this effort, used to regularly visit jails to counsel women inmates.
On one occasion she happened to see two children playing in the prison courtyard. After some inquiry she found out that they were living there with their mother and grandmother.
Nirajalaxmi Mohapatra is the resident mother figure, friend and guide to children living in a unique hostel in the premises of the Bhubaneswar Special Jail (Photo: Piyush Mohanty\WFS)
Shocked to see two children inside the Bhubaneswar Special Jail, when she asked the jailor why they were there she was told that the entire family had been convicted in a murder case and there was no one to take care of them.
As per the prison by-laws children can stay with their parents till they turn five and then if the authorities agree, they can extend their stay for another year. But after that they have to leave.
The jailor added that because these children were shunted around they never got the chance to live a decent life. She went back home a troubled person that day and spent many sleepless nights before she came up with a concrete plan – a hostel for children of inmates.
Today, this is a safe space where the young ones get an experience of normalcy, as they study and indulge in extra-curricular activities. Of course, the demons and bad memories of their past do resurface from time-to-time but they have their Niraja-ma to help them work through it.
If it was not for Mohapatra, Manas Ranjan Sahoo and his friend Bighnaraj Bagh would have never had the opportunity to make something of their life. Children of convicted prisoners serving time in different jails in Odisha, the duo have enrolled for medicine and engineering, respectively, after performing well in the Pre Medical Test (PMT) and Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) a couple of years back.
The youngsters have lived through their share of difficult times but they see a stable career and family life in their future all thanks to the woman they fondly call “Mama”.
Recalling the pain she experienced after her visit to Bhubaneswar Special Jail and the subsequent efforts to get her project off the ground Mohapatra says, “Once I had decided to set up the a hostel for such children I discussed it with the then IG-Prisons, Bidya Bhushan Mohanty. He immediately came on board and forwarded it to the state Women and Child Development department.
“The Department too accepted the idea and provided an initial investment of Rs 44,000.” Mohapatra’s unique hostel opened its doors in November 2003. The two children she had seen playing in the Bhubaneswar prison, Gobind Mahakud and Bebina Nayak, found a secure home there and even started going to school. With the help of the prison authorities, in no time there were 23 children at the hostel.
Since financial assistance from the state government was limited Mohapatra decided to raise funds from the public. Says she, “The initial days were really difficult. My assistant and I were taking care of 23 children entirely on our own steam.
“We were looking after their food, education and all their other needs. Finances obviously were a major constraint. To run this hostel I have gone from door to door collecting donations so that I could give these children better facilities.”
Not one to rest, this proactive social worker travelled to other prisons to counsel and convince inmates to send their children to her hostel in the state capital. “It was when I went to the Rourkela sub-jail that I met Bharat and Kaushalya Sahoo, Manas’s parents.
“They had been convicted in a murder case over property. They were willing to send their son to the hostel and so I made my way to their native village of Bagdega in Sundergarh district. There I found out that both Manas and Bighnaraj were only spending their days grazing goats.
“Although I had gone to fetch one child I brought them both to the hostel. Today, by performing well academically, they have set an example for the rest of the children,” she proudly remarks.
Presently, Mohapatra’s hostel is home to children of different age groups. All of them are good in their studies and love to indulge in extra-curricular activities like dance, music and painting.
The dedicated caretaker shares, “From experience I can say that taking care of the children of jail inmates is far more challenging than caring for other children of their age. They live under a great deal of mental stress. They know that society looks at them differently because their parents are criminals.
“It’s not easy for them to have normal relationships, whether it is striking a friendship in the neighbourhood or interacting with fellow students at school. Sometimes when people come to know of their background they harass them. Here we have children of convicted murderers and rapists, too.
“Where one would imagine that they will display aggression or imbibe parental traits, they surprisingly exist happily together. One never hears of fighting or any serious complaints from them. I strongly believe that the environment and the upbringing help to mould a child into being a better human being.”
To make sure that she knows what is going on in their lives and to understand them better, she regularly counsels them. And when they have their summer break she tells their parents to take parole so that they can spend some quality time together with their children.
Bhubaneswar based sociologist Dr Kalindi Jena, who has spent a lot of time with the hostel children, is glad to be associated with this intervention. Says she, “There was time when having a convicted criminal for a father adversely impacted the entire family, especially the children.
“There was nobody to care for them or save them from falling prey to bad company and following in their parents’ footsteps. Mohapatra’s hostel provides them with an alternative. I strongly believe that society also needs to change its attitude towards these children.”
There have been moments of crisis for Mohapatra and her wards. In October 2013, for instance, when Cyclone Phailin struck, the hostel was faced with a tough situation and had to be evacuated in a rush. Thankfully, there was a place to move into.
“We were in a small rented accommodation and were anyway trying to get a bigger space. But not many people were ready to give out their home for children of convicts. Meanwhile, I had been approaching the administration to construct a building for us and this happened in 2013. When Phailin hit, we moved into this new place which can board up to 100 children,” she reveals. Finances, nonetheless, continue to remain a real challenge.
A conversation with Manas Sahoo’s father, Bharat, reveals the sense of peace that inmates feel when they perceive that their children are doing well. With tears in his eyes, he remarks, “Our life is over. But my son has made me proud in my native village and this has happened because of Nirajalaxmi didi. She is a real mother to the children of inmates. We may have given birth to them but she has shown them the right way to live.”
Mohapatra’s hostel has truly transformed lives. - Women's Feature Service