Chained to their desks: prisoners will staff call centre within Indian jail.
Murder convict among trainees for scheme backed by India’s authorities which could lead to inmates answering calls from UK.
Convict Pradeep Deburma (left) and a fellow inmate of Cherlapalli jail operate computers as part of their training. Photograph: Jason Burke for the Guardian
For a man serving a life sentence for murder, Pradeep Deburma has a slightly unlikely dream: to work in a call centre like hundreds of thousands of other young ambitious Indians. Even more improbably, he has every chance of realising it while still behind bars.
Deburma, 24, is detained in a high-security prison near Hyderabad which is launching an innovative scheme to turn convicts into “outsourcing providers” for local firms and eventually, it is hoped, international clients.
The scheme is in its early stages, with prisoners being trained in basic data entry skills. Jail authorities hope that inmates will soon be just as likely to tap at a keyboard as dig vegetables, make carpets or stitch uniforms.
“We have got so many computer literates and professionals in our prison,” said Gopinath Reddy, director general of prisons in the state of Andhra Pradesh.
“So far they are not being fully recognised, but now their knowledge will be utilised for the nation and when they go out they can also lead a meaningful life.”
Though there are still significant obstacles to overcome before UK customers are routed through to a cellblock in India – including regulations forbidding internet or phone access with the world outside the 6m walls topped with live barbed wire – these are being overcome.
Surveying his first dozen inmates, Mohan Menon, a software specialist brought in to oversee the training, is bullish about the future. “Definitely we will get orders,” he said. On a board behind him is written: “Skills of communication: KISS, Keep It Simple and Short.”
Hyderabad is one of India’s biggest centres of business process outsourcing, a £15bn industry in which many global firms subcontract key functions to local companies.
The new urban lifestyles enjoyed by many of those working in the industry has become an integral part of contemporary Indian culture, popularised locally in novels by bestselling authors such as Chetan Bhagat and internationally by films like Slumdog Millionaire.
One of the inmates in training is RS Ratnababu, a 53-year-old former bank assistant manager sentenced to six years in jail for “misappropriation” of 30,000 rupees (£450).
“We are educated persons,” he told the Guardian. “This is useful to me on completion of my sentence so I will get some job opportunity. Losing my job was not a major problem. But going to prison is a major problem. I have three children and their education is suffering. This gives me a hope.”
Also picked to spend six hours a day learning keyboard skills and to receive 100 hours of English language tuition is Ravi Kumar, a 26-year-old former army clerk sentenced to life for killing a fellow soldier while serving in Kashmir. Kumar, who says the death was an accident, said he was “really enjoying” his new activity.
One attraction was the pay. For tasks such as weaving traditional rugs or welding bunkbeds for government hostels, prisoners receive only 15 rupees per day. Those working in the outsourcing unit will receive up to 10 times as much.
Deburma was certain he would get work outside as a result of his prison work experience. He hopes he will be freed when his case – he was convicted of involvement in a gang killing – goes for retrial. Then his experience would be invaluable. “I have friends who are working in call centres and they earn lots of money and get to meet lots of people,” he said. “That’s what I am going to do.”
Authorities in other Indian states are watching the experiment carefully. It is unclear how far it could be replicated.
The 10-year-old Cherlapalli jail has the advantage of being relatively new and only moderately overcrowded – it has an official capacity of 1,790 and an actual population of 1,966 prisoners last week. Most Indian prisons are old and much more crowded.
Eventually about 200 inmates will work in the outsourcing centre, said deputy superintendent Rama Gopal.
Prospective clients include the Indian postal service and the group working on a project to issue a personal identity card to all adults. Both require vast quantities of data to be lifted from forms and entered into computers. “The prisoners are being given training and then we can extract work from them,” Gopal said.
When the outsourcing unit becomes fully operational, it will take over the site of the prison’s meditation centre, currently unused. “This is a positive and constructive use of the space,” Gopal said.