Inmates Creativity Fair reveals creative side of jail

“I’m improving my painting, and it’s helping me make improvements in my life. It’s now an interest.”

Adam Arif is four years into a 25-year sentence at Maafushi jail. Participating at the 2012 Inmates Creativity Fair, held in the National Art Gallery from January 12 to 14, he said the arts program has improved daily life at Maafushi, and that the fair was a good chance to see the Male‘ community.

“The art projects allow them to gain valuable skills and hold a normal routine while in prison,” said Mohamed Asif, Assistant Superintendent of the Department of Penitentiary and Rehabilitation Services (DPRS). Inmates who choose to participate in the government-sponsored program work from 9 am to 12 pm, break for lunch, and then again from 1 pm to 3 pm. “It’s like a full job,” he explained. “Otherwise they’d just be sitting behind bars.”

Organised by DPRS, the fair was hosted by inmates and DPRS staff wearing orange tee-shirts sporting the logo “Accept Me”. Paintings, jewelry, handbags, model ships, plant arrangements and even vegetables available for sale were produced by the 80 to 100 male and female participants from Maafushi and Asseyri, most of whom were not formerly artists. They receive Rf900 (US$360) per month.

But business could expand.

“We’ve had a lot of positive comments from people, requesting us to open a shop because they want to buy more. We plan to launch a website to sell the prisoners’ artwork at the end of next month”, Asif said.

With most objects sold by 8:30 pm on the last evening of the fair, Asif estimated that the fair earned Rf1 million (US$64,850). However, he was careful to point out that the earnings are not a profit.

“The money goes back to the government, and is incorporated back into the budget and used to provide more tools for art projects,” he said. “The problem is, actually, we want a revolving fund. We’d like to sell and make a profit and then be able buy more materials and repeat the process. But at the moment, because of legislating governing financial procedures, we aren’t authorised.”

Although the inmate arts program is funded by the government, Asif believes financial autonomy would improve the program. “We are going to introduce a prison club, like the police club, so we can have our own budget to buy and sell,” he explained.

While Asif pushes for independence within the practice of prison reform, he acknowledges that significant improvements have been made in the past few years.

“There is renovation being done at Maafushi, Asseyri, and how they are going to build a new prison at Nanaykurandhoo,” he pointed out. Although the parole system is far from strong, Asif noted that the 2011 Second Chance Program had released 337 inmates since its inception in September, only 30 of whom had returned to prison, mostly from drug relapse.

Maldivian prisons currently house approximately 1000 inmates–0.3 percent of the national population. Nearly three-quarters of the prison population has been incarcerated for drug offences.

According to a 2011 report released by the United Nations Development Program, however, the prison system is poorly equipped.

“The problem in the Maldives is that there aren’t proper prisons,” co-author and UNDP program specialist Naaz Aminath told Minivan News in a previous article. “There is no structure to support the prisoners who are there.”

Inmates surveyed complained about a lack of structure in prison life, listing torture, inhumane treatment, drug availability and false hope from politicians as key factors.

“Plus, there isn’t much to read there,” Aminath explained. Only Asseyri and Maafushi prisons have ‘libraries’–rooms with a few books located outside the gated complex. “It’s risky to go there because it’s not within a protected area, and there simply aren’t enough staff to organise daily library trips. Really, I wouldn’t even call it a library.”

When asked which rehabilitation programs were most needed, inmates most commonly requested religious education (86.4 percent), counseling therapies (76.1 percent) and life skills (75.1 percent).

While the Second Chance program is re-integrating prisoners into society, other steps are improving the situation behind bars.

In 2011, an education program helped over 100 prisoners prepare for their O-levels. A much-anticipated Drugs Bill was passed during Parliament’s last moments of 2011, re-structuring the court procedures for those accused of drug offenses and offering an overhaul of the rehabilitation system. Asif further anticipates that a Prisons and Parole Bill which was sent to Parliament in June 2010 will be approved by March of this year.

Speaking at the fair’s opening ceremony on January 12 President Mohamed Nasheed, himself a former inmate of Maldivian prisons, said the emerging democratic system and reviews of the Constitution have contributed to improvements in the prison system. The President added that cooperation within the community would be measurable by initiatives taken to formulate prison reforms.

Comparing current prison conditions to those of the former regime, the President further stated that existing and pending legal framework offers a second chance for criminal offenders and asserted that torture and oppression faced by prisoners in this country were a thing of the past.

A comment book at the fair revealed an array of positive public responses. Supportive comments such as “this is the best thing I’ve done in 2012 so far” and “this shows that all the prisoners need is guidance in becoming useful people in society” were interspersed with statements of support from former inmates and suggestions for an inmate’s music group, football team and body-building club.


7 thoughts on “Inmates Creativity Fair reveals creative side of jail”

  1. glamourising prison Inmates? The perverse message here is that going to jail is kind of cool.

    let's take more drugs, commit crimes, go to jail and be popular as artists - and get recognition on the front page of Minivan News.

    Are we to accept such values

  2. I view this very positively! There is a lot of talent! Purchased a few items myself!

  3. Some of the crafts at the exhibition were simply amazing. Good initiative.

  4. The fundamental question every society has to ask itself is; do we want to punish people who have committed criminal offences, or do we want to help them return to a productive and healthy life? Do we see them only as offenders or are they also victims, victims of societal structures that do not give equal opportunities to all? Recent reforms in the Maldives suggests that we are moving towards a criminal justice system that seeks to rehabilitate and reintegrate people who have committed offences, as opposed to punishing them, dehumanising them, and further excluding them from society. I think this transformation also has a strong founding in the Islamic values of forgiveness, understanding, and mercy that underpin Maldivian society.

    The vast majority of people in prison here in the Maldives are not dangerous to society. They are not violent, and they do not pose any threat to anyone. The new Drugs Act recognises that people who are addicted to narcotics need help to get out of their addiction, not punishments that dehumanise and exacerbates their exclusion. The challenge for the system is to address the root causes of criminal behaviour, and thereby eliminate it, as opposed to locking people up and thereby actually making it more likely that people will reoffend, and that future offences will be more serious. Evidence from all over the world is quite clear – prison simply is not a good tool for reducing crime. In the Maldives, we have a very small proportion of violent criminals from whom society must be protected. The bulk of our prisoners would be much better helped outside of prison walls, under probation, with drug rehabilitation programmes, with economic empowerment programmes, and with individually tailor made measures that ensure that the person in question gets a real chance to live a life free from crime.

  5. The first creative fair was held in 2010. The dhevana furusath office leading staff are taking credit for the work done by the DPRS staff which I fee l is totally unfair. The credit should go to the staff in charge of rehabilitation program who has been doing this for years. Agriculture and handicraft work programs have been going on in Mafushi and Assyri jalu . Some people in the lead are now trying to give the impression that all this have begun only after Monaza Naeem took charge of DPRS. This is not a true picture. Some people would go to any lengths to promote their image. Shame on them


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