Freedom Behind the Bars
The doors of Vipassana meditation opened to prisons, when the then Home Secretary of Rajasthan, Mr. Ram Singh, joined a 10-day Vipassana course in Jaipur. After experiencing the immense benefits of the technique himself, he resolved “This must be tried with criminals!” Accordingly, the first Vipassana course for prisoners was arranged in 1975 at Jaipur Central Jail with 114 inmates, the first such experiment in Indian penal history. After the success of the first course, subsequent courses were conducted for life-term convicts, senior police officers, and correction officials. The research studies indicated definite positive changes of attitude and behaviour in the inmates, and demonstrated that Vipassana enables criminals to become wholesome and productive members of society.
The technique of Vipassana is a simple, practical way to achieve real peace of mind. It leads to the eradication of mental negativities which are responsible for human suffering. The non-sectarian practice of Vipassana can bring about a major transformation in the attitude and behavioural patterns of an individual. Those who practice it remove, little by little, the root causes of their suffering and begin to lead happy, healthy, productive lives.
Crime, like any other action of the body, is a manifestation of the thoughts in the mind. When the thinking process gets perverted and/or the mind gets out of control, the actions are bound to be unwholesome, producing misery and sorrow for both the doer and the recipient of such actions. If the mind can be brought under control, and purified of dross or negativities which corrupt the thinking process, unwholesome deeds - the crime will automatically be avoided.
At present, Vipassana meditation as taught by S.N. Goenka has been successfully offered over the last 25 years within prisons located in India, Israel, Mongolia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Thailand, U.K., Myanmar, the United States and Canada. Since all courses are 10-days in length and residential in nature, they are held within the walls of a corrections institution with the teachers and the volunteers who are managing the courses living with the prisoners for the duration of the course.
Politics, government funding and meditators working in correctional settings often determine whether a particular facility will be able to sustain a Vipassana course. Often there is initial resistance, then further obstacles, and many attempts before a course gets organized in a prison. Because of Vipassana tradition's requirement that correctional personnel attend a 10-day Vipassana course prior to implementing it at their facility, and the requirement that Dhamma workers be able to stay overnight inside a facility for the ten days, it is a small miracle that courses have been allowed in jails and prisons at all. Nonetheless, since 1975, thousands of incarcerated meditators all around the world have participated and benefited from Vipassana. More often than not, the presence of Vipassana has transformed not just the individuals in these institutions, but the institutions themselves.
Vipassana is now recognized by the Government of India as an effective method for reforming prisoners. After the success of a massive course of 1000 inmates in Tihar jail, the Ministry of Home Affairs called a meeting of the Inspectors General of Prisons from all over India, and a proposal was adopted to introduce Vipassana as a reform measure in all the prisons in the country. At present over 50 Vipassana courses are conducted anually within Indian prisons and many Vipassana centers are established in the walls of the prison itself.
The following documentary, "Doing Time-Doing Vipassana", is the story of India's first woman Inspector General of Prisons, Kiran Bedi, and how she dared to fight for genuine rehabilitation of the thousands under her care. Most of all it is the story of the prison inmates themselves, and the profound changes they underwent through the practice of Vipassana meditation.
For more short films and documentaries, please click here.
Vipassana in Prisons - History and Spread
The practice of holding Vipassana courses in prisons was prevalent in Emperor Asoka's time, and now, after millenia, the mind-purification technique of Vipassana has reached one of the most miserable sections of the society again. The first Vipassana course was held in 1975 in Central Jail, Jaipur, Rajasthan. Convicts, undertrials, hardened criminals who participated in that Vipassana course received the key to liberation from chains even more shackling than those around their limbs - the chain of the habit pattern of the mind to generate negativities like anger, hatred and ill-will. After sucess of the first course, many more courses were held in Rajasthan state, however, it was only after almost 20 years that Vipassana established itself as a tool for social and prison reforms. It was Kiran Bedi, the then Inspector General of Prisons of Tihar Jail, the highest security prison in the country and the largest in Asia, who introduced Vipassana as one of the reform techniques in Tihar jail. The tremendous impact and change that it brought about in the prisoners was the turning point and very soon more and more prisons began organizing these meditation courses for the prisoners.
Today, use of Vipassana as a reform technique is not just confined to Indian jails, but courses are conducted in the prisons of Nepal, Canada, Colombia, Israel, Thailand, England and America. They have played an important role in improving the lives of prisoners.
For more details regarding the history and spread of Vipassana courses in prisons, please click here.
Special Website for Prison Courses
A special website has been developed to avail information on the courses in Vipassana Meditation as taught by Mr. S. N. Goenka that are conducted from time to time within prisons and other correction environments. To refer the website, please click here.
As with all Vipassana courses in this tradition, there are no charges for the courses - not even to cover the cost of food and accommodation. All expenses are met by voluntary donations from people who, having completed a course and experienced the benefits of Vipassana for themselves, wish to give others the opportunity to also benefit. Such donations are only accepted from people once they have completed a 10-Day course and can therefore give with this volition.
Impact on Course Participants
Vipassana gave a purpose of life to the prison inmates while hitherto they were groping in the darkness. For example, many inmates started to meditate on their own when they were locked into the barracks at night, without this being suggested to them. For quite a few of them, Life in jail no longer seems pointless.
In many prisons, after Vipassana courses, there has been a significant reduction of offences inside the jail and reduction in drug consumption by the participants.
Prison authorities have reported a noticeable change in the attitude of the inmates towards work in the prison industries. The inmates have started to work conscientiously. It is primarily due to Vipassana that a sense of responsibility towards society has been stimulated among the inmates. In some cases, inmates have made voluntary donations to social causes out of their earnings from working in prison.
An example of the striking improvement in reform activities occurred on January 26, 1994 at the commemoration of the 45th Republic Day of India. A rally of 150 prisoners was organized and allowed to leave the prison. The rally went into the city so that the residents of the city could appreciate the various activities being conducted in the jail. For the first time in the prison's history, the prisoners were allowed to leave the high walls of their confinement with minimal escort. True to their commitment, the rally was successfully conducted and the inmates returned peacefully to the jail, having fulfilled their obligation to themselves and to their community.
These beneficial results are obviously not product of some miracle or the effect of some supernatural power. Inmates who worked hard in practicing Vipassana correctly and ardently benefitted like any other Vipassana student outside the prison walls. As Mustafa, an African student inside the Tihar Jail puts it, “Change does not come the easy way. Change takes time….I am not telling you, I did Vipassana course and BAM! my anger, my quick temper completely went out. It’s still subsiding, subsiding, subsiding….”
To read experiences of course participants, please click here.
Varied and detailed research has been undertaken to study the impact of Vipassana on prison inmates. To read research reports, please click here.