In Colombia, close to 80 prison inmates learned Vipassana last February in simultaneous men’s and women’s courses. The site was a medium-security prison complex near the city of Manizales, approximately four hours south of Medellín by road. The institution has a population of up to 1,500 inmates.
There were 24 participants in the men’s course. According to the conducting teacher, they worked seriously and sat very strongly. They loved the discourses and asked excellent questions.
The director of the women’s prison had made possible the first courses for female inmates in Colombia, in 2011. The changes she saw in participants after the first course convinced her of the value of the program, and later she sat 10 days herself. She in turn convinced the administration of the men’s prison at Manizales to allow a course.
Thanks to her enthusiasm in promoting the course, a total of 73 women joined it. Everything went smoothly until minutes before the evening group sitting on Day 6. As the students were about to enter the meditation hall, a fierce storm hit the prison. In an instant, the roof and walls of the hall collapsed, trapping a server under the wreckage inside. The meditators rescued the server, who fortunately suffered no serious injury. But as sirens sounded and rescue vehicles converged on the site, the students were badly shaken.
This was not the only problem. The storm caused extensive damage to the women’s side of the prison, which dated from the late 1940s. Somehow, the staff managed to cobble together another space for meditation, but many of the women had lost their sleeping place. They were given the choice of sleeping two to a bed or being transferred to another facility. In these very difficult conditions, 19 of the women decided to leave.
Once things settled down, the prison director offered to suspend the course. The remaining 54 women refused, wanting instead to continue. All of them completed the course.
After the courses were over, the director and security staff of the men’s prison immediately asked to schedule more. The conducting teacher proposed dates for courses to be held about eight months later. The prison officials responded, “That’s not soon enough! After what we’ve seen here, we need it earlier.” Eventually they settled on mid-July for another men’s course. Dates for another women’s course would have to be decided later, when reconstruction had progressed.
The experience at Manizales motivated several members of the security staff to join courses outside the prison. Some staff members have shifted to other prisons and are interested in arranging for courses there.
In both the men’s and women’s prisons, those who participated in the course have had the opportunity to join weekly group sittings as well as one-day courses.
A security officer who recently sat a course in Colombia now has a senior position at a mega-prison. After his course, he said, “I’ll be waiting for you at my new place of work so that we can offer much larger courses.”
Efforts are under way to rebuild the damaged portions of Manizales prison. The work could be completed within a few months, and the prison will then offer another course for women. Meanwhile, in July there will be a course for women at Pereira, the site of Colombia’s first prison course in 2011. And in August, there will be another course for men at Manizales.
Courtesy: International Vipassana newsletter Vol. 43 (2016), No. 2 dated June 17, 2016