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founded by S. N. Goenka in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin






Freedom Behind Bars: Vipassana in Prison

In April 1994, a ten-day Vipassana course for over a thousand people was held inside the confines of Tihar Prison in New Delhi, the capital of India. The course was conducted by Mr. and Mrs. S.N. Goenka, with 13 assistant teachers. This was the largest Vipassana course to be held in modern times, inside or outside a jail.

With about 9,000 inmates, Tihar is one of the largest prisons in Asia. The site covers several hundred acres in a district of suburban New Delhi. Because of the difficulty of administering so large a population, Tihar is divided into four separate jails. Inmates from all four jails participated in the April course.

The course was the culmination of events which began about 20 years ago. The first Vipassana courses in an Indian prison were conducted in 1975 and 1977 by Goenkaji at the Central Jail, Jaipur, at the invitation of Mr. Ram Singh, the then Home Secretary of Rajasthan (similar to a governor in the U.S.). Ram Singh, himself an enthusiastic practitioner of Vipassana, was eager to see if the technique could be effective in solving problems in society and government, as well as the problems faced by individuals.

The results of these two courses, and a course for police officials at the Police Academy in Jaipur, were very encouraging. However, due to the change of government in the state and transfer of key officials, the Vipassana program in the jails could not be pursued further. Ram Singh subsequently retired from govern-ment service and was one of the first assistant teachers appointed by S.N. Goenka. When he told Goenkaji of his disappointment that prison courses were not continuing, Goenkaji responded: “Don’t worry. The seeds of Vipassana have been sown. The time will come again.”

The time did come, after nearly fifteen years, when an assistant teacher course was held at the Jaipur Central Jail in 1990. This was followed by six prison courses in the state of Gujarat starting in 1991. The courses have been the subject of several sociological studies which have concluded that Vipassana has a marked positive impact on behavior and attitude. One very common feeling–the desire for revenge–is noticeably reduced or entirely eliminated when prisoners practice Vipassana. Relations among the prisoners and jail staff become much more harmonious, and self-discipline dramatically improves, decreasing the need for aggressive supervision and punishment by the jail officials.

How Vipassana Came to Tihar

To organize a course for one thousand was an ambitious undertaking. It was the result of a unique collaboration among several people devoted to improving the conditions of some of society’s most unfortunate members. In July 1993, Ram Singh received a letter from his former government colleague, Mr. M.L. Mehta, the Additional Secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India. He asked if a Vipassana course could be organized in the Central Jail, Tihar. This invitation from the Government of India was reinforced by the enthusiastic support of the Inspector General (IG) of Prisons, New Delhi, Dr. Kiran Bedi.

Mrs. Bedi is a remarkable social reformer who is well-known in India for her unique 21-year career as a police officer. Now 44 years old, she was the first woman inducted into the Indian Police Service in 1972. She is known for her courage, dynamic energy and profound devotion to helping suffering people. During the April course, Goenkaji said publicly that he wished to call her “Karuna” Bedi because of her deep compassion.

Mrs. Bedi was appointed as IG in May, 1993. The situation in Tihar Prison, as described by the Superintendent of Jail No. 2, Mr. Tarsem Kumar, was bleak: “To add to the acute problems of over-crowding, inadequate sanitation, insufficient breathing space, etc., the jail staff were trained under the old rules where the outlook was to oppress, deprive, isolate and punish. The staff believed that oppressing and imposing maximum restrictions on the inmates would make them suffer, so that once a prisoner was released he would not commit crimes again for fear of being sent back to this hell. But they were mistaken. After their release, many prisoners did return, and some prisoners who were incarcerated for petty crimes resorted to more serious crimes after their release, having learned in Tihar how to become bigger and better criminals. One of the members of the Planning Commission of India correctly remarked that the prisoners at Tihar were doing their PhD in crime. Tihar was breeding criminals, not reformed citizens.”

From the first day of her new appointment, Mrs. Bedi declared that she wanted to turn Tihar Prison into an ashram (spiritual retreat) within six months. She immediately set about instituting a series of wide-ranging, effective, and startlingly innovative reforms, which quickly resulted in a dramatic improvement in the atmosphere of the prison. Mrs. Bedi’s exemplary leadership and pathbreaking reforms are motivated by a strong conviction that prisons should be institutions of rehabilitation, not punishment.

As expressed by Superintendent Kumar: “She wanted everyone to feel that the prisoners were not rejected by society but were a part of it, and if they were ready to change, they would be welcomed with open arms. She told us: ‘There is little difference between the inmates and ourselves, a very small thread. They lost their balance of mind. We have also lost our tempers, but thankfully we are not held inside this prison. I believe everyone, if given a chance, will try to change, and I want to give them that chance...We need to create trust and confidence instead of distrust. ..If we succeed in using understanding and compassion in helping them to change, the percentage of recidivism [relapse into criminal behavior] will dramatically decrease, and society will be the beneficiary.”

One day in the early weeks of her posting, Mrs. Bedi was on her prison rounds with one of her assistant superintendents. Reflecting on the agony she saw everywhere, she reflected aloud: “How can we find a solution to these prisoners’ emotional problems?” Her jail colleague replied: “Ma’am, why don’t you try Vipassana? This is what has helped me to decrease my anger.” By seeming coincidence, Mr. M.L. Mehta from the Home Ministry had recom-mended Vipassana to her at about the same time. Mrs. Bedi made inquiries and contacted Ram Singh in Jaipur. He advised her that the first step for introducing Vipassana into Tihar would be for some of the jail officials to take a course.

Mrs. Bedi made a deliberate decision to send some of the angriest members of her jail staff to attend a Vipassana course. These officials were authoritarian and short-tempered, feeling themselves to be above correction. Yet when they returned from their ten-day Vipassana course, their interactions were markedly more congenial and cooperative, as confirmed by their colleagues and the inmates alike. This gave Mrs. Bedi and the other jail coordinators growing confidence that Vipassana was indeed an effective method of reform. If it could improve the hardened jail officials, certainly it could benefit the prisoners as well.

A total of about 300 prisoners partic-ipated in the January courses. News of this was picked up by the national wire service and appeared in all the major newspapers in India. Reports also appeared in the international press. Mrs. Bedi stated publicly that she had been searching for a method which would bring about a tranformation of the prisoners, and that she had found it in Vipassana meditation.

Privately, Mrs. Bedi told Ram Singh that she wanted the entire prison population to experience the benefits of the practice; and, that at the rate they were going, this would take years. She suggested that a large course for one thousand prisoners be held. Ram Singh recounted a prediction made by S.N. Goenka’s teacher, Sayagyi U Ba Khin, of Rangoon, Burma. When Goenkaji first came to India to teach Vipassana in 1969, his courses were very small. Fourteen people attended the first course. After about a year, word spread rapidly, and the numbers of people requesting Vipassana camps started to grow. Word reached Sayagyi back in Burma that Goenkaji had taught a course for 100 people (a surprisingly large number in those days). Sayagyi declared: “One day Goenka will teach 1,000 people!” When Ram Singh remembered this prediction, he reflected that it might become a reality within the walls of Tihar Prison.

Mrs. Bedi set about organizing the creation of an open area suitable for hundreds of people to meditate together, and the construction of a new building to accommodate Mr. and Mrs. Goenka, the assistant teachers and workers. She chose an undeveloped area in Jail No. 4. The Public Works Department was enlisted to help, but the majority of the work was done by the prisoners themselves. With the productive, cooperative spirit now prevailing in the prison, the inmates dug drainage ditches and laid pipes, weeded and levelled a large open area, constructed the new building with running water and bathing facilities, and erected an open-air tent.

The Course for One Thousand

On the evening of April 4, some 1,003 male students gathered in the huge tent in Jail No. 4 to receive the opening instructions from Goenkaji. Simultaneously, the first Vipassana course for female prisoners began in Jail No. 1, attended by 49 inmates and conducted by two female assistant teachers. Thirteen male assistant teachers, each with a group of 75 to 100, helped to conduct the male course. They were assisted by a handful of trained workers from outside the prison, and about 60 “old student” prisoners serving for the first time.

Ninety percent of the inmates held at Tihar are “undertrials”–that is, those awaiting the outcome of their trials; the other ten percent are convicts. The majority of the students in the April courses were undertrials. They had been charged with crimes and offenses ranging from drug trafficking and robbery to murder, terrorist acts and rape. They were from diverse religious backgrounds, including Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, and Buddhist. More than one third were illiterate.

Twenty foreign inmates attended the male course; eight attended the female course. They were from many countries including Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, South Africa, Nigeria, Somalia, Tanzania, Senegal, Canada and Australia.

In the early hours of Day 1, a sudden storm—unusual for that time of year—descended. Rain and strong winds caused the ceiling and walls of the tent to collapse. All the rugs and meditation cushions were completely soaked. An emergency meeting of the assistant teachers was called at 3:30 a.m. to determine whether the course should be cancelled. They decided instead to meditate with the prisoners in the wards until the weather improved and the tent could be repaired. After breakfast, the weather began to clear, and an energetic team of prisoners not attending the course began the daunting task of rehabilitating the “hall.” They moved more than 1,000 cushions outside in the sun to dry, sewed numerous sections of torn material, reinstalled ceiling fans and electric wires, and mopped up areas of standing water. By 7 p.m., the tent was ready for the students to reassemble for Goenkaji’s first discourse. The first major obstacle had been successfully overcome!

There were many other difficulties involved in managing a retreat for so many people in basic and overcrowded conditions. Despite the inconveniences, the course proceeded smoothly, and by the last day it was apparent that something unique had been achieved. Over ten percent of the prison had just completed a Vipassana course, including many who might never have come into contact with the teaching under other circumstances.

This was the largest course Goenkaji has conducted in almost a quarter-century of teaching Vipassana. Every evening he gave discourses in Hindi, and answered questions from the students for 30 to 45 minutes. The discourses were videotaped for broadcast by Zee TV, a pan-Asian cable television company.

The course paved the way for the opening of the first permanent center for the practice of Vipassana in a prison. After the final meditation on April 15, the assembly of about 1,100 students, jail staff and guests remained to witness the inauguration of the new center in Jail No. 4, which Goenkaji named “Dhamma Tihar.” Within three weeks, the center began to hold two ten-day courses per month for students from all four jails.

Vipassana is now recognized by the Government of India as an effective method for reforming prisoners. After the success of the January Tihar courses, 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.

During the course, Goenkaji was asked by a journalist why Vipassana is good for prisoners. He responded: “Vipassana is good for everyone! We are all prisoners of the negative habit patterns of our own minds. The practice of Vipassana liberates us from this bondage...Vipassana is a tool which can help all suffering people, those who are behind bars separated from their families, and those who are not.” He said: “What is happening at Tihar is a message of hope which will benefit the whole world.”

After the closing meditation on April 15, Goenkaji inaugurated the first center for Vipassana in a prison.

The Early Courses in the Prison

The first course at Tihar was held in late November, 1993 in Jail No. 2, which houses the hard core of the Tihar population: the ten percent who have been convicted of crimes. The course was conducted by Ram Singh and two other assistant teachers. Ninety-six prisoners and 23 jail staff participated. On the closing day, over an open microphone, many prisoners expressed their joy at finding a technique for self-liberation in this unlikely setting. Many said they realized through practicing Vipassana that they were responsible for their own actions. They said that they no longer harbored feelings of revenge but rather, blessed those responsible for sending them to Tihar because this brought them into contact with Vipassana.

The prisoners jokingly told Ram Singh that they would not let him leave the jail until he promised to hold more Vipassana courses there soon. Ram Singh was slightly at a loss; he did not think it possible to confirm dates for more courses on such short notice. However, Goenkaji was contacted, and arrangements were quickly made for six assistant teachers to go to Tihar on New Year’s Day, 1994 to conduct four simultaneous courses in three jails.

Meeting the Challenge: Dr. Kiran Bedi

In November, 1993, the first Vipassana course was held in India’s largest prison. “The environment,” in the words of the Inspector General (Prisons), Dr. Kiran Bedi, “was waiting for Vipassana. We urgently needed a method of behavioral change like this. There was no other way we could find.”

Mrs. Bedi had already laid the groundwork by introducing a series of multi-dimensional reforms. They included detoxification programs, improved nutrition and sanitation, literacy and language classes taught by prisoners, yoga, prayer, meditation, legal advocacy by prisoners who are lawyers, treeplanting to create a “green zone” inside the prison, and the active involvement of the outside community. An atmosphere of mutual respect and trust developed when the prisoners saw that they were able to air their grievances without being punished. As described by the Superintendent of Jail No. 2:

“She started a system of direct access by circulating a sealed complaint box once a day, and she made it a point that all complaints were read by her personally on the same day, and action taken immediately...She encouraged the inmates to gather every afternoon and speak their concerns into a public microphone. She told them not to consider her a jail official but, rather, their sister, and the superintendents, their brothers. Many took this opportunity to criticize some officers or the administration. No action was taken against them...The result was that, within two months, the entire atmosphere at Tihar had changed.”

Nevertheless, Mrs. Bedi felt the need for a method which would solidify the changes which were already being made. She found this in Vipassana:

“I had been looking all along for a behavioral methodology which would make a real change. I would say things to the prisoners, and also to my staff, and they went in one ear and out the other. We would spend so much time talking, yet ultimately it made little difference. After Vipassana was introduced, it went deeply into them. It provided the environment for the other reforms to take deep roots. It made them more at peace with themselves. They became better human beings to work with. The Vipassana courses alone brought lasting changes.”

After Goenkaji inaugurated the new center on April 15, Mrs. Bedi was one of those who addressed the assembly of over 1,100. This excerpt, translated from Hindi, is from Mrs. Bedi’s remarks:

“We have all received a new direction in our lives. We have found our way, the Path. The only thing that remains is to walk on it. We have to walk with our own feet....For those who showed us this path, we all thank them with every breath....

“The training center for Vipassana that we have opened here is for ourselves and many others. After some time, you will return to society, but those who come here later will be as disturbed and ignorant as we were before. This center will guide them to a new and proper path. You can also return for a refresher course. May your deeds become so good that you return back to society, sooner rather than later....

“Take care and spread happiness in society. A short time ago we chose our motto: ‘Be happy and give happiness.’ We never expected that Vipassana would teach us the same thing. Don’t look back now. Go forward in society, distribute happiness, and lead a model life.”

(Courtesy: International Vipassana Newsletter, September 1994)