January 2017 | Cynthia Rodrigues

Rebuilding lives

Volunteering in a prison is not for the faint hearted. Sunil Robert Vuppula, head of marketing, TCS BaNCS, North America, is volunteering with a Toastmasters group that helps criminals in New Jersey's maximum security prison script their life story afresh

Everybody has the right to a new beginning. Or so we believe. Yet how many of us would go out of our way to give a group of strangers a second chance?

That's what Sunil Robert Vuppula, head of marketing, TCS BaNCS, North America, chooses to do. Having worked his way up, despite early disadvantages, Sunil knows the value of second chances.

His struggle-to-success story was feelingly penned in his book, I Will Survive: Comeback Stories of a Corporate Warrior (2010). His second book, Bound to Rise (2013), postulates the theory that we are all prisoners of our habits and beliefs. Perhaps that is why he leans "towards helping those who are in chains."

Sunil draws on his personal story of beating the odds and his successful career in marketing and communications at TCS to illustrate his voluntary sessions at the East Jersey Prison, a maximum security prison in New Jersey, USA.

These sessions are held as part of a US Justice Department initiative to organise life-transforming programmes that can potentially enable prisoners to stay on the straight and narrow path after they are released. Recidivism is a huge challenge for nations around the world and governments spend an extraordinary amount of tax payers' money to prevent repeat offenses. "New Jersey is one of the few states that is at the vanguard of correctional reforms," clarifies Sunil.

Behind the bars
A friend had taken him to a volunteers' appreciation day function for those who work at the New Freedom Gavel club at East Jersey Prison. Much later, in May 2016, Sunil was approved to be a part of the Toastmasters Club group that visits the prison to improve the leadership and communication skills of convicts. Toastmasters International is a reputed programme that seeks to develop leadership and communication skills in people.

The efforts of Sunil and his fellow volunteers have helped prisoners at the East Jersey Prison, USA, to write a new story of their lives

The thought of entering a maximum security prison was not a comforting one. The FBI clearance process had gone on for months, giving his family time to come to terms with his decision. "Their apprehension," he says, "gradually gave way to relief once they saw us returning from our weekly visits, exhausted and highly satisfied."

Volunteering in a prison is not for the faint of heart. The programme was both mentally taxing and physically unnerving. The thought of being in a room with a group of prisoners, convicted for crimes such as burglaries, drug peddling and murder, was disturbing. Many of the prisoners are serving life sentences.

The prison officials worked hard to put the volunteers at ease. The chaplain, responsible for the programme, took the volunteers through a rigorous orientation to clarify their roles and responsibilities, as also the dos and don'ts relevant to behaviour inside the prison. "If a prisoner tries to get friendly with us," Sunil says, "we are trained to remind the prisoner that we are there for a purpose."

In spite of this, it was natural to feel a sense of trepidation. "I would be lying if I said I did not experience any anxiety," says Sunil. "No matter how rigorous the preparation, there was always going to be apprehension as each gate closed behind you and you are face to face with hardened criminals. But the respect and affection we get after a series of meetings is a big relief."

Forging a connection
The prisoners themselves recognise the significance of the sessions. They realise that the volunteers could have spent Friday evenings pursuing entertainment options; instead, they are choosing to make a difference in the lives of convicts. Sunil says, "When I tell them stories about life in India, they instantly connect because many of them can relate to poverty, rebellion, despair and hopelessness. I tell them I could have been just like them in a prison in Hyderabad and they just open up."

One burly prisoner, on hearing Sunil's story of struggle with his father, told him how he had not spoken to his father for 18 years but now wanted to make peace with him.

Week after week, Sunil and his fellow volunteers coach prisoners on the art of public speaking, using gestures, evaluating their efforts and offering individual mentoring. He says, "As a proud TCSer and Tata group employee, I believe that the opportunity to give back to the country of my residence is both an honour and a God-given responsibility."

The efforts of Sunil and his fellow volunteers will go a long way towards helping prisoners to write a new story of their lives. As Sunil says, "Even though they are serving time for crime, they can still make their time count."