Team spirit scores for prison inmates

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A chance to watch India's favourite sport inside the country's largest jail produced, not surprisingly, an enthusiastic response from 1,500 cheering spectators. But the convicts' match they turned out to watch represented a most unlikely sporting contest.

One team was led by a man facing the death sentence for one of the city's most notorious murders while the other was captained by a man convicted of an equally high profile killing.

"Nobody likes to be here," said Manu Sharma, one of the skippers, who is serving a life sentence for the murder of Jessica Lal, a barmaid and part-time model who had refused to serve him. "Nobody likes to be here for seven years but it was a pleasant change. It was nice."

His rival captain was Santosh Singh, a former lawyer who is facing the death penalty for the killing of a 25-year-old law student in 1996. "The matches have been a good experience. Participation was voluntary, but I chose to play and practised hard with other prisoners for two months," said Mr Singh, after the 20-over match ended in a tie.

Prison officials said the match was part of a convict "Olympics" that have been held at Tihar for the past decade. Inmates are encouraged to participate, either as players or else as enthusiastic spectators, in a series of sports. "The idea is just to promote team spirit, discipline as well as harmony among the inmates," BK Gupta, the director general of prisons, told The Times of India.

Part of the tradition is to invite celebrities to watch the various sports events. Among those in the stands watching this week's cricket clash were the Indian internationals Virender Sehwag, an opening batsman, and Murli Kartik, a spin bowler.

"I'm very happy to come here and see prisoners playing cricket, enjoying themselves and trying to be good human beings. In the end they can go back and live in the society," said Sehwag. His international team-mate Kartik said: "It is an eye opener for us. I think it is good for all the inmates as well. Over here we are moving freely and everybody is feeling safe. So I think it is great concept."

Yesterday, the sport continued with a series of volleyball matches. They were attended by a pair of Indian boxers who won bronze medals at this year's real Olympics, Akhil Kumar and Jitender Kumar. "My father was a jail warden and I have seen a jail before but being in Tihar was an altogether different experience," said Kumar. "It didn't seem like being in a jail ... I felt as though I was at a university hostel."

Authorities at the jail of 13,000 have also experimented with radical rehabilitation and educational strategies. One programme that has proved very popular with inmates has been the introduction of yoga and meditation classes, something the authorities say has helped reduce stress and depression.

The prison inmates also produce everything from paper files and clothes to furniture and bread for sale outside the prison walls.