Mohit Raj

Special Relationship (Virtual)
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
India
Elected in 2021
Because of the pandemic, Mohit Raj was selected by Ashoka as a Special Relationship (Virtual) using an online process.

Introduction

Mohit is creating a community of prison reformers in India by activating the expertise and lived experience of stakeholders within the system. In doing so, Mohit is paving the way for prison reformation, rehabilitation, and reintegration to be redefined and repurposed to being corrective places of growth as opposed to caged places of punishment.

The New Idea

Mohit is shifting the slow, archaic, and often ineffective prison reform ecosystem in India by putting the onus of new ideas and solutions into the hands of committed stakeholders close to the problem, including inmates. Recognizing that existing reform practices seldom include ideas from talented, connected, and knowledgeable sources, Mohit has created pathways for an increased and credible supply of reformation ideas through his Second Chance Fellowship. Focused closely on the goals of reducing recidivism and unleashing the agency of stakeholders, the Fellowship brings together youth in the form of college graduates and others who are keen to transform the system and puts them with peer groups of inmates to ideate, test, implement, and institutionalize new ideas related to reformation and rehabilitation. By taking an evidence-based approach to institutionalizing ideas that create impact, such as on reduced recidivism rates, Mohit is strengthening the system with fresh approaches and ideas. More importantly, he is creating a shift in the mindsets of all stakeholders in the system, from seeing inmates as worthless and a burden to society to being individuals who can create their own healing and growth paths.

Conceptualized in 2017, the Second Chance Project is the first of its kind in India that engages young inmates (between 18-21 years of age) to be dreamers, designers, and leaders in creating their own second chance. Bringing together selected inmates and youth who have an academic background and interest in prison reform, these peer groups work closely together to identify problems within the criminal justice system and then co-create solutions that are practical and scalable across geographies and in the future, to other groups and types of inmates. In creating this process, Mohit is not only establishing a new supply of solutions that address problems in the criminal justice system but also slowly shifting the mindset of decision-makers about who can and should be designing effective programs that have a sustainable impact. Aligning this model of innovation with the goals of the gatekeepers of the prison system in India, Director Generals of Prisons, Mohit can advocate for the institutionalization and spread of this idea. Since the Director Generals are appointed by the Central Government of India and their next transfer is dependent on their achievements in the current role, there is an incentive for such innovative programming to be brought in. So far, 7 projects which have been co-created by these groups have been tested and incubated.

Mohit also realizes the importance of tapping into the new skillsets and lived experience of ex-inmates once they are released. Focused on preventing crime, these ex-inmates are mobilized and trained to take initiative in the community by working with stakeholders that are engaged with youth at risk, to ensure that crime can be prevented. Tapping into proven methodologies of community-based and led education and activating youth citizenship, the ex-inmates are capacitating stakeholders such as community leaders, school teachers, and parents to develop skills and the knowledge to prevent crime from happening, across hotspots in India. This approach is not only reducing crime committed by youth in these areas but is also tapping into the agency of ex-inmates to continue their reintegration back into society. In a world where lifelong chastisement is the life sentence for even a reformed ex-inmate, the prevention work that Mohit is doing is creating an alternative mindset and narrative. This growing community of changemakers is becoming the core functionary of preventing youth crime, as they have both lived experience of going through the same process and the fact that they come from the same community.

The Problem

For far too long, the role of incarceration in India has been to warehouse criminals, as opposed to being a true rehabilitation and reintegration process. Anchored in social belief systems that value pitiless retribution and punitive action, even for the most meager of crimes, the prison system in India is and has been designed to punish inmates. Hence decarceration has never been a central goal of the criminal justice system, with prisons merely acting as functionaries to house ‘bad’ people. Reforms, especially related to rehabilitation and reintegration programs of inmates have seldom been promoted, with the current system inviting partner NGOs and service providers to deliver workshops, training, and re-education. The effectiveness of these programs is not vetted nor are there feedback loops to strengthen the impact that they have.

As the incarcerated and guilty are seen as lost causes, historically there has been no avenue for these key stakeholders to contribute to the reform of the system. Furthermore, even those who have a vested interest in driving reform from the outside, such as social entrepreneurs, do not get the opportunity to make inroads. This contradicts the commonly believed perception that the most powerful ideas and solutions to problems come from the communities that are impacted by them. By leaving out inmates and other key stakeholders in the reform process, not only is the potential to create pathways for decarceration being closed off but the true human potential of a growing and marginalized group of people is not being nurtured.

Indian prisons face three long-standing structural constraints: overcrowding, understaffing, and underfunding. The inevitable outcome is sub-human living conditions, poor hygiene, and violent clashes between the inmates and jail authorities. The Prison Statistics 2019 report by National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) shows that overall national prison occupancy was 118.5%, with Delhi having the highest prison overcrowding at 174.9%. Nearly 70% of these prisoners are on remand, meaning they have not even been convicted and are awaiting trial; 1 in 3 remanded prisoners belongs to a Scheduled Caste (SC) or Dalit communities. Their imprisonment often results in a staggering loss for those on remand, costing them regular employment time and economic stress. The trauma of life in prison coupled with poor living standards and undernourishment results in several thousand inmates being diagnosed with mental illness. Often, this is not dealt with appropriately, and can further hurt the transition of former inmates.

The stigma surrounding history in prison is aggravated by three systemic hurdles faced by a vast majority of ex-convicts – lack of education, absence of corrective training, and background of informal employment. The report by NCRB shows 41% of inmates in Indian prisons are not educated beyond the 10th grade, and more than 27% cannot read and write. There is also a sizable skilling gap with 93% of inmates from the unorganized sector, and more than 97% don’t have employability skills. This makes it more difficult for them to earn a steady income leading to the problem of an increase in untapped human potential. This can also be attributed to a lack of structured facilitation within and post-prison. The long-term consequence of this reality is that most of the youth who are released end up committing crimes again, only to get pushed back into a prison system that isn’t equipping them with purpose and direction.

With the entry of a new Director-General of Prisons every three-four years, there are also shifts in the ecosystem of the prisons, leading to the lack of regulated and structured engagement for prisoners. Coupled with factors like lack of skills, unemployability, financial situation, legal aid, shelter, taboo, and stigma from society make it immensely challenging for former inmates to rebuild their lives outside prison.

The Strategy

In 2017, Mohit conducted a 2-month study with 600 inmates in Central Jail #5 of New Delhi to understand how existing rehabilitation programs were being created and conducted. Furthermore, Mohit wanted to understand the background of the inmates, their psychology at the time of committing crimes, and their situation in and outside of prison. This study, which was supported by the Director-General of Delhi Prisons, revealed that 64% of crimes allegedly committed by young prison inmates fall under what is termed ‘situational crimes’, and the jails also housed a very large percentage of prisoners on remand – yet to be proven guilty of their crime. Understanding that most of the inmates were low-risk offenders and open to not make the same mistakes again, Mohit started to think of ways in which rehabilitation and reintegration programs could effectively transform the lives of this audience. From his work developing community-driven models of learning and education, Mohit knew the most effective method to help these inmates to dream and live a different life was to tap into their creative agency.

Mohit and his team developed five thematic areas of focus: education, life skills, livelihood post-release, drug de-addiction, and mental health. As the study revealed that 24% of those who ended up in jail were repeat offenders, Mohit knew that any solution needed to look at programs within the four walls of prison as well as life outside of it. Mohit initiated several holistic innovations within the prison, including alternate education livelihood programs with NGO partners such as Pratham and the Society for Promotion of Youth and Masses (SPYM). Set up as a prison school, the ‘Better Life Prison School’ was addressing one of many systemic bolts that have limited the long-term human capital development of inmates. Similarly, Mohit has set up several other initiatives designed with the inmates input themselves around de-addiction and LifeSkills training.

To systematize and create a constant supply of innovation to reform such programs, Mohit launched Project Second Chance. Anchored in the insight that the inmates themselves needed to be the owners of the very programs they would be a part of, Mohit created a co-design platform for talented college graduates and skilled professionals who studied and were passionate about the topic area to partner with groups of inmates to build effective prison programs. These solutions would address systematic gaps within the criminal justice system, which inmates faced the consequences of every day. Partnering with universities, Mohit created a highly selective Fellowship program to bring in interested youth from fields such as Law & Justice and Arts & Humanity. These Fellows are then matched with 10 other inmates or ‘Peer Fellows’, who are carefully selected based on the recommendations of prison officials and administrators. Together, these groups spend 3 months first identifying the problems that exist within the system and then co-create, prototype, test, and incubate solutions with the support of experts from Mohit’s team. By providing a 2,000-rupee stipend to inmates, which is paid by Mohit’s organization and determined by the prison administration, the time and work of these ‘Peer Fellows’ are dignified and validated. These Fellows don’t just act as designers and creators of programs that hundreds of others around them will take part in, they also actively facilitate programs themselves, learning essential employability skills through this journey.

As it is the inmates who are taking ownership, creating these programs, and most often running them, peer engagement across the prison peaks. The socialization within a prison environment is a critical determinant in shaping the view and behavior of each member present in the system and by witnessing those who have committed similar mistakes trying to go down a path of growth, inmates are inspired and encouraged to do so themselves.

Since 2017, the Second Chance project has helped incubate 7 new prison projects that have been created with 20+ Fellows and many ‘Peer Fellows’ or inmates. Examples of projects incubated include Project Unlearn, the first-of-its-kind school with a focus on gender-based crimes which enable inmates to access educational and life skills materials and bridge a gap towards existing literacy programs. Similarly, project PEHAL is a context-specific curriculum that has been co-created to allow inmates to speak openly and safely about issues related to violence against women and children. All of the incubated programs have tied with them strong feedback loops and impact indicators, which establish evidence based on the overall impact being created. Mohit uses this to spread successful innovations and reform ideas to more inmates and other prisons. By maintaining close relationships with prison authorities, including the Director-General of Prisons, Mohit creates champions for this framework of prison reform, which is led by young changemakers and inmates. As prison authorities are government employees and closely influenced by each other, the spread of ideas which create impact has high potential.

Mohit realizes that it is not enough to merely create programs within prisons themselves. The need to access environments where this newfound agency can be further nurtured is something that plays a critical role in preventing ex-inmates from recommitting a crime. Especially because of the heightened stigma that exists in society, without pathways to continue to be active and respected citizens, societal perceptions and actions otherwise dictate the direction these ex-inmates take. Mohit continues to establish platforms for these ex-inmates to create programs that set the pathways and foundation for the prevention of crime. Mohit realized that the most powerful way to leverage expertise and knowledge would be by preventing something from happening that they have walked and done. Thus, many of the integration programs co-created have to do with further helping those who have come out of prison to access communities of care, new skills, education and also contribute to preventing youth at risk of committing a crime.

One such project is a helpline established by the name of Kunji. Operating through a toll-free number and supported through a post-release booklet, the helpline partners with NGOs and government services to be a one-stop-shop for inmates to get information on employment, skill development programs, and other information that will help them integrate further into the world. Over 400 inmates have accessed this platform regularly since its inception.

Notably, Mohit’s work toward the prevention of crime is fourfold – community-level programs focused on deterrence with a human rights lens, school-based prevention programs, and reformation in correctional institutes. Mohit is working on engaging the fellows and peer fellows to develop curriculum and lead training of CSOs for community leadership by working with at-risk youth, peers, and families. He partners with agencies like Delhi Police and DLSA to engage fellows in creating awareness campaigns especially with youth in crimes. Mohit also mobilizes peer fellows to develop a value-based educational curriculum on sensitization and engaging advocacy campaigns, to then work with at-risk youth in schools. Lastly, with Second Chance Fellows, he has started need-based reformation and rehabilitation programs to initiate reasoning of crimes among other behavioral-based issues to sensitize inmates, preparing them to re-enter society.

Over the last 3 years, more than 3200+ prisoners have undergone workshops and the team observed a 40% growth in students’ learning competency. In terms of impact, based on the counterfactual evaluation of each initiative, the team observed a reduction in the recidivism rate of 2.5% out of a pool of 900 repeat offenders who were young adults (18-21 years old). Inmates who undergo the correctional education program saw a 43% lower probability of committing a crime than those who did not. Additionally, more than 60+ inmates are employed part-time within the prison's premises after completing their course.

Mohit’s intervention is contributing towards increasing employment rates, improving the economic capacity of the nation, and increasing the potential of the young human capital in the country. He aims to expand this model to cover prisons across the country and create a supply of innovators, while exploring three main avenues over the next 3-5 years: increasing advocacy and research, strengthening staff capacity in prisons, and sustaining their model across all formats of correctional institutions including juvenile and observation homes.

The Person

Mohit grew up witnessing the challenges faced by underprivileged communities in India. Understanding the complexities of accessing mainstream education and staying engaged as well as other social problems he faced through his own lived experience, Mohit grew up wanting to solve these issues. The question Mohit always had in his mind was, how can the human capital of every single human being be nurtured and developed so that they can contribute effectively to the betterment of their community and country?

With this focus on his mind, Mohit first initiated his journey by addressing the issue most prevalent around him in Delhi, access, and continuation of education for children. He started a learning center in Delhi where he created spaces for children at the fringes of vulnerable social situations to come and study, in a manner that best suited them and with the resources they needed the most. Mohit’s goal was to first start to have a space for learning and then slowly integrated the students into mainstream education. 80% of the participants from the learning center enrolled and stayed in a public school to complete their high school education. For Mohit, experiencing this entrepreneurial and changemaking journey so early in his career was pivotal to shape the work he is doing today.

Wanting to understand broader human rights issues that were prevalent in India across many specific groups, Mohit took part in the Clinton Fellowship, which played an important role in developing his knowledge, networks, and frameworks for Human Rights work in India. Having the self-realization that exposure to existing social entrepreneurs and social reformers would be a pivotal part of his learning journey, Mohit joined the Changelooms program where he worked with communities of tribal farmers in Madhya Pradesh. Understanding the systemic issues that prevented these farmers from earning a livelihood, Mohit came to realize that these communities were stuck in a generational cycle of poverty, which was worsened by their children not getting regular access to education. The opportunity cost of going to school was often too high. Mohit leveraged his prior experience establishing learning centers and replicated this model, opening 50+ rural learning centers for children in Madhya Pradesh. He began the slow integration of students from the tribal communities into mainstream education through these centers. Over the next 3 years, Mohit focused on establishing strong grassroots teams and building community ownership for children’s learning.

Mohit realized that many of the youth he worked with over the years end up incarcerated unless they have the support systems and agency to find an alternate path. Once they are incarcerated, the system itself doesn’t prepare these youth for a life of full participation and growth in society once they are out. Mohit’s research made him realize that the fastest path towards human capital development for this forgotten group in society was by enabling them to find their agencies as reformers, contributors, and leaders. Spurred by the support of the Director-General of Delhi Prison, who saw potential in Mohit and his efforts in working with youth development in tribal communities and expressed interest in developing a collaborative effort to rehabilitate the young inmates of Tihar prisons. Mohit went on to launch his organization, Second Chance, to help build an ecosystem within the criminal justice system and outside of it that would allow incarcerated youth to shape their futures and those of others around them who are as vulnerable as they once were.