Why you should care

Because the success of any prison reform program depends on reducing recidivism rates. 

When Beena Chintalapuri, a cognitive psychologist, visited Chanchalguda Central Jail in Hyderabad in southern India in September 2016, the inmates were made to sit on the floor while she was provided with a chair and a table and served tea and biscuits. A few weeks later when authorities called her back, Chintalapuri refused to go to the prison until her conditions were met: All inmates in her class had to be provided with chairs, tables, tea and biscuits. And a pen and paper too. She insisted everyone be treated equally.

Chintalapuri, 63, was invited by the prison warden to conduct behavioral training workshops with inmates, a novel concept, but in a country with 400,000 prisoners — the fifth largest population in the world — it was worth a shot. Her audience of habitual offenders included gangsters, rapists, murderers and thieves. But her simple demand for tea went a long way. “She made us all feel like human beings, she gave us respect,” says Arshad Ali, 28, one of those inmates.

Chintalapuri is the first person in the history of the prison reform movement in India to train inmates in the elements of cognitive behavioral psychology, “so as to bring about a change,” Chintalapuri says in her quiet voice. She picks prisoners who are serving longer sentences, and a batch of about 30 students undergoes an intensive four-week training course that targets their reasoning and thought processes. These inmates then go on to train other prisoners inside and sometimes even correctional officials.

Beena Chintalapuri at a conference

Beena Chintalapuri at a conference.

That’s not all. She has also introduced India’s first master’s program in psychology inside a prison. “I believe crime is an erroneous response,” says Chintalapuri, who has wisps of graying hair tied in a plait. “And that it can be eliminated if the person responding to external stimuli has the tools to check his responses. That is when cognitive behavioral psychology comes in.”

What started as an experiment in one jail in Telangana three years ago is now called Unnati, and is run in 10 prisons in the state. And in some of these jails, the rate of recidivism has dramatically dropped from 80 percent to 1 percent, according to the data collected by officials. Sampath M., vice principal of the State Institution of Correctional Administration in Telangana, says his returning offenders in the past three years “are only in single digits. Earlier it used to be very high.” There’s no reliable nationwide recidivism data in India, while in both the U.S. and U.K., about two-thirds of released prisoners tend to be rearrested within three years.

Prisons are very complex places. There is a lot of sadness, isolation, anger inside.

Beena Chintalapuri

The Unnati (roughly translating as “Progress”) program has trained about 3,000 inmates so far in the state. Her first batch of 17 master’s students, in affiliation with Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Open University, will take their tests later this year. “She has achieved so much and she wields so much clout but she is so grounded, so down to earth,” says Tarun Gupta, 40, an ex-inmate at Chanchalguda central jail. “It is very easy to talk to her.”

Ali recalls using his psychology training to prevent a fellow inmate from committing suicide. “He didn’t tell me that exactly, but I could sense from his conversation with me that he was thinking of killing himself,” Ali recalls.

Chintalapuri grew up in Hyderabad, in what she calls a “humble” household. “I was always the odd one. I had the hunger to do something different,” she says. Chintalapuri credits her father, a day laborer, for her work ethic. She chose her field because she thought cognitive psychology would “help me understand myself better.”

Chintalapuri was a successful cognitive psychologist and an academic, serving as the registrar with Osmania University in Hyderabad, before the Telangana prisons director general invited her to work with “criminals.” Her work started out as an experiment in Cherlapally Central Jail in Hyderabad in 2015, when the director general of the larger Telangana state prison system asked her to counsel inmates in the jail. Unnati has since taken off, with prisoners teaching each other. Sampath M. says all of the core faculty members are serving life sentences.

Beena Chintalapuri talking about Unnati and its impact on recidivism rate in prisons.

Chintalapuri talking about Unnati and its impact on recidivism rate in prisons.

“Prisons are very complex places,” she says. “There is a lot of sadness, isolation, anger inside. I have seen so many inmates who tell me horrible stories that shake you up. But you have to try and understand what his trigger is and how he can change his response to that trigger.”

Not everyone is impressed by using recidivism rates as a metric for reform. In fact, a Harvard Kennedy School study by Jeffrey A. Butts and Vincent Schiraldi argues that “recidivism is often the wrong measure. And using it exclusively to assess the quality of justice is like using a school’s dropout rate to measure the success of teachers — it may be pertinent, but it is inadequate and often misleading.”

There is talk of expanding to other state prisons, as some states’ recidivism has been as high as 74 percent. But Chintalapuri, who is wrapping up her proposal to scale up the project, says “nothing is concrete yet.” Sampath M. says that expansion will be difficult, as Telangana has a more progressive policy on prisons than other states — where conservative officials would need to buy into the unusual plan.

Chintalapuri’s prison work won her an Ashoka Fellowship in 2017, but her skills extend far beyond incarceration. She also has worked with the International Space Research Organization and helped analyze error and behavior patterns of a team working on satellite and GPS systems, helping save millions of rupees.

It’s behind bars where she is having the biggest impact. Tarun Gupta attended workshops when he was an inmate at the Cherlapally jail in Hyderabad “just to pass some time and to stay away from barracks,” but soon realized he was changing on a much deeper level. “Chintalapuri tells you stuff about yourself in the most gentle manner and you are forced to take stock of yourself and your actions,” says Gupta, who is now out of jail and volunteers in Telangana jails with the Unnati team. “I sometimes refer to her as Mama.”

OZY’s 5 Questions With Beena Chintalapuri

What’s the last book you finished? Splitting the Arrow, by Prem Rawat.

What do you worry about? I worry about my mom. She is about 83. But otherwise, I am not the worrying kind.

What’s the one thing you can’t live without? My mental peace. I work toward that.

Who’s your hero? My grandmother and my master who taught me to live.

What’s one item on your bucket list? My proposal to upscale the Unnati program. I am gearing up toward that. I am also going to Sri Lanka soon to take my mind off a few things.

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