On a sprawling organic farm at Dubai Central Jail, inmates are not just growing fruit, flowers and vegetables, they are also cultivating their hopes and dreams for a better tomorrow.
"I really like to work here. I never take a day off," an inmate said as he gave The National a tour of the 225 square-metre Al Aweer farm where he spends up to five hours a day.
The construction worker, 41, went to jail in 2006.
“I came here because of my mistake. Now, the farm has given me a new focus. I have been working five days a week for the last five years,” he said.
The farm at the inmates’ education and training department is part of Dubai Police’s strategy to empower prisoners and develop their skills.
Inmates grow 36 kinds of crops, including lemons, cucumbers, lettuce, peppers, tomatoes, chillies, aubergines, corn, papayas and figs.
“I didn’t know any farming earlier but now I have learnt a lot. I have some land in my home town of Hyderabad in India. When I am released, I will do farming there to support my family,” said the father of two.
“I really miss my parents and children. I speak with them over the phone once a week. I am grateful they are still waiting for me.”
In a nearby room, another inmate feeds fish that are part of an aquaponics system. There is also a hydroponic vertical structure where inmates have grown mint, basil, lettuce and other plants.
“My plan is to someday create a hydroponic and aquaponics farm in my house in the Philippines,” the 45-year-old said as he showed off one of the soilless plants.
“I came to prison in 2011 and now I am a changed man. I work on the farm three hours a day. I also embraced Islam while in prison.
“When I go back home, I want to start a new life. My children and ailing mother are eagerly waiting for me,” the father of four said.
The main purpose of the farm is training and not production. The harvest is distributed among inmates and supporting staff.
“We have succeeded in planting things that are hard to plant in the desert,” said Maj Mohammed Abdulla Al Obaidli, director of the inmates’ education and training department.
“We set up a creativity club here to receive the inmates' suggestions which we implement if we find them beneficial for the inmates.”
The inmate behind the project
The farm that is bearing fruit in the desert was created in 2014 by Hero Sanabam, a former inmate who was in jail for bounced cheques.
Mr Sanabam, 53, comes from a farming background. He has a doctorate in design and master planning and a doctorate in agricultural science.
“I used to take care of the library in prison for the inmates. One day Maj Al Obaidli said to me: ‘Dr Hero, why don't we develop something for the inmates, where they can earn, learn and get a new lease of life?’ That’s how it all began. I saw the farm both as a challenge and an opportunity to rectify my mistakes,” he said.
“I started with a single lettuce and a Masafi water bottle. I proved we could grow such a beautiful plant in the middle of a desert at 55 degrees of scorching summer.
"We grew all kinds of plants that people initially said weren’t possible to grow in the desert. We grew roses, tomatoes and so many other plants, as if we were living in an Amazon forest.”
The jail initially began an education semester to teach inmates how to establish a simple farm. When they saw growing interest, they added study halls for practical training.
“We set up the hydroponics study hall in the beginning followed by the aquaponics. In the classes, our aim was to teach inmates how to extract the seeds from the fruits, then to use all the available soils to plant them,” Maj Al Obaidli said.
After Mr Sanabam was released in 2018, he returned home to India where he established his company Polybionic Technology, which provides sustainable farming services.
He continues to provide online training to Dubai inmates to keep the farm going.
“My heart and soul are always there, no matter where I am. The farm is my responsibility,” the father of two said.
Mr Sanabam thanked Dubai Police for their “tremendous support” in bringing his ideas to fruition.
“Behind every success, there is a difficult path. Indeed, those were difficult times but because of what we achieved in prison, they felt like the most beautiful days of my life. Before my release, everybody was crying. Those were tears of joy, tears of missing,” he said.
The farm helped Mr Sanabam stay away from negative thoughts and emotions while in prison, he said.
“I used to miss my wife and children so much. But I didn't sit back and cry. I converted that energy into something productive. I wanted my children, my family to remember that even inside the jail, my daddy did good things for mankind. That is what I want to be written in my history and that is what I did,” he said.
Bigger farm in the works
Mr Sanabam helped Dubai Police build a 9,600 square-metre farm, about one and a half times the size of a football pitch.
The farm has been designed to include three kinds of agriculture: traditional, hydroponic and aquaponic.
“It will be a quasi-digital farm with a self-service mechanism. The inmates will supervise the production. It will include 17 farmhouses, two of which will be allocated for harvesting, cleaning and packaging operations,” Maj Al Obaidli said.
“There will be a collaboration between the men's jail and the women's jail in the planting cycle. Plants will be grown from seeds to seedlings in the women's jail, then they will be transported to the big farm here for harvesting.”
The farm is expected to open by the end of this year, he added.
The correctional institution in Dubai also supports several other projects to rehabilitate prisoners.
“Inmates have succeeded in making buggies that can be driven safely in the desert," Maj Al Obaidli said. "They are also building a structure of Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque entirely from cardboard, with a 16x12-metre base and a height of almost seven metres. It is an exact replica of Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.”
A book called Tomorrow, I Will Fly was published last year as a result of a two-year collaboration between Dubai Police and the Emirates Literature Foundation. It features a collection of essays and stories written by 15 men and 12 women inmates.
Copies of the book were made available to prisons in the UAE and abroad, including prisons in the UK.
The names and crimes of the inmates have been omitted at the request of Dubai Police.