Why Prisons?

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You could say that right now nonprofits are becoming a bit of a fad. It’s cool to be socially conscious, especially if you’re the young, hip sort to buy organic or fair trade, and social media periodically blows up over human rights issues further proving that people like hearing about this sort of stuff. A lot of NGOs focus on issues that are far away (both physically and culturally) from audiences in the west, making them interesting and oh so share-able on Facebook. People see children struggling to gain an education, women fighting discrimination, or beautiful landscapes about to be taken over by deforestation or pollution and want to help (which is awesome!). The problem is, most people look at prisoners and experience an emotion very different from empathy.

When Indira Ranamagar founded PA Nepal in 2000, it was after years of experience working with prisoners, particularly under the guidance of the famous Nepali social advocate and writer Parijat. What Indira decided to do, however, was focus less on the political prisoners kept incarcerated for their beliefs and give a voice to those imprisoned for everything else. “Everything else” can be murder, drug smuggling, trafficking, domestic abuse, theft, or any number of charges that turn out to be less-than-legitimate. It’s easy to muster support for political prisoners because their detention is a clear violation of their human right to free speech, plain and simple. Yet, when people look at those in prison for other reasons, it’s easiest not to question the validity of their imprisonment and rather assume their guilt. Here’s the problem: more often than not, a prisoner in Nepal isn’t in prison because they’re actually guilty. Instead, it can be blamed on their vulnerability due to social factors that can range from poverty to gender discrimination to mental illness. An astounding 75% of prisoners currently in Nepali jails will later be proven innocent, and 75% as well suffer from some form of mental illness without proper psychiatric care. These are not hardened criminals; they are people who more often than not committed crimes like petty theft out of desperation or were taken advantage of by abusive husbands and family members or local crime bosses to take the fall for charges like smuggling or even murder. The Nepali justice system hardly makes it easy for the illiterate or mentally disabled to navigate the court system, further condemning the disadvantaged to unfair prison sentences.

So, now that I’ve given a brief explanation of the challenges that prisoners in Nepal face, you might be more likely to support the efforts of organizations like PA Nepal that work in the face of incredible social stigmas. The problem is, when people briefly hear about a project working to support prisoners, the relevant term is still “prisoner.” Who would rather help someone who might be guilty of a grave crime against society than, say, a village in need of clean water or a child fighting leukemia? I don’t think one cause is more worthy than the other, but on the surface, there seems to be no trade off to supporting the latter two, while offering time or money to the former risks jeopardizing our sense of reciprocity. We, as a global society, think people who do wrong deserve punishment, so therefore a prisoner’s plight is of his or her own doing. If only it were that simple. Understanding the needs of those imprisoned because of deeply entrenched social stigmas takes time and energy, while it’s easy to see why a girl deserves an education.

Prisoners and their families need and deserve many different kinds of support, but one of their primary needs is a voice. If people plagued by poverty, illness, or discrimination were silent before their incarceration, prison walls only serve to stifle them even further, not only literally but also with the life-long stigma that comes after any period of incarceration. In the long run, teaching the world about the cycle of blame that plagues justice systems across the globe will do much to prevent innocent people from being taken advantage of and placed in jails. And here, I’m talking about a much bigger mission than that tackled by PA Nepal alone.

People like Malala Yousafzai, Bill Wood, and Mohammad Yunus just to name a few each fight for the rights of a group of people marginalized by society, whether that be young girls, those without access to education, or anyone struggling with poverty. These underlying issues all factor into the inundation of prisons with those who have been taken advantage of because of a disadvantage that they have little control over. To truly strike at the heart of the injustice of prison systems across the world, we all need to more fully understand the forces that often times result in blame, but should instead be tackled with assistance and empowerment.

In India, second most populous country on the planet, there is roughly one NGO for every 400 people[1], which is obviously a lot. The great thing about this is that there are a bunch of organizations offering specialized services to a smaller group of people, but it also means that these services are extremely compartmentalized. This is true across the world; new organizations form every day, oftentimes to address a very specific issue. But the problem is, there aren’t any specific issues, only interconnected ones. You can’t just address child abuse, and you can’t just address pollution, and you can’t just address prisoners’ rights. If you want to tackle any of those, you have to look at lack of jobs, bad infrastructure, sexism, and income inequality just to name a few relevant problems. That’s why it’s so important that the nonprofit world connect and share information and resources, so that not only will the less attractive issues find support, but also so that work in one area of human rights can benefit other areas.

Awareness is truly invaluable for NGOs big and small. It may not seem as important as hard cash donations, but I can assure you it is just as essential that people understand what an organization is fighting for and why. When people get it, they share, re-tweet, post, and blog like crazy until the huge audiences that amass over social media have at least a slightly better idea of some of the world’s toughest issues. Oftentimes, smaller, grass-roots NGOs accuse large organizations like charity:water, Oxfam, or Amnesty International of using large-scale awareness campaigns via social media or email drives as an excuse to show off flashy graphics and tidbit facts just to rake in massive donations, making them look more like businesses than charities. While it’s true that of course every organization promotes themselves to attract donors (nothing wrong with that, it’s how the good stuff gets done), awareness has another, more important role. As part of what we consider a grass-roots organization, I see every article, Facebook post, and mention on the evening news as a way for PA Nepal to remind the world that prisoners deserve assistance, and an opportunity to slowly but surely change the social perceptions that often cause wrongful imprisonment and then prisoner abuse in the first place. Even better, it gives each prisoner and child the voice they desperately need. The problem with this is that unlike fundraising campaigns, there’s no quick return and no easily measurable improvement. But I am of the firm belief that the way for small organizations to succeed is by entering the dialogue previously reserved for their larger brethren; by claiming space in the global marketplace of ideas and bit by bit educating the world about the kind of tolerance that could someday render social NGOs unnecessary.


[1]Archna Shukla, “First official estimate: an NGO for every 400 people in India.” The Indian Express. July 7, 2010. Web. http://archive.indianexpress.com/news/first-official-estimate-an-ngo-for-every-400-people-in-india/643302/



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