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






First Vipassana Meditation Camp in Tihar Jail

-By Prof. P.L. Dhar


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. Vipassana Meditation-a scientific technique to control and purify the mind through self observation-can thus be of great help in criminal reform. This is one of the crying needs of modern times, with its widespread crime and violence. The efficacy of Vipassana in this sphere has already been established by pioneering efforts made in Rajasthan. The first two Vipassana camps to be held in jails were organized there in 1975 and 1977 in the Central Jail, Jaipur. Since then a number of such camps have been conducted successfully in jails in Gujarat, in Sabarmati Central Jail, Ahmedabad and Baroda Central Jail.

It was with the background of this information that the new Additional-Secretary in Ministry of Home Affairs, Mr. M.L. Mehta wrote to Dr. (Mrs.) Kiran Bedi, the Inspector General of Tihar Central Jail to explore the possibility of organizing a Vipassana camp for the inmates. By a sheer coincidence, almost at the same time, an assistant superintendent in one of the jails spoke to Kiran Bedi of the benefits of Vipassana. This was Mr. Rajinder Kumar, who was encouraged by the bold reformatory measures initiated by Mrs. Bedi and who had himself taken a course in Vipassana meditation. Thus originated the correspondence between Tihar Jail and the Vipassana Research Institute (VRI) which culminated in the first ever meditation camp at Tihar.

Pre-course Preparations

A series of meetings took place between the team of jail officials led by Kiran Bedi and the representatives of VRI, to identify the camp site and choose the participants for the camp. A chief concern was that the camp should be conducted in a way that would ensure the sustainability of this experiment over a long period.

Tihar Central Jail is one of the largest prisons in the world having at present about 8,500 inmates. Out of these only about 800 are convicts, the rest being mostly under-trials and detainees. To begin with it was felt desirable to have a camp only for convicts.

As there was no hall available for the purpose of meditation, it was necessary to construct a tent structure as a temporary hall using shamiana. Keeping in view these and other requirements, mainly of security, Ward 10 of Jail 2 was selected as the camp site.

In order to motivate the inmates towards meditation, taped introductory discourses of Goenkaji, the Vipassana Teacher, were played on three occasions and clarifications provided regarding the code of discipline and the nature of the technique. To elicit proper cooperation of the staff and officials, the Inspector General, Kiran Bedi, was asked to send some of them to regular camps held at Jaipur and Delhi. Two officials and one staff member attended a course at Jaipur and one of them, Mr. Ranjit Singh, was so deeply influenced that even Kiran Bedi remarked that there had been a miraculous transformation in him. She was quite keen that some more staff members and officials should attend the camp along with prisoners at Tihar. However they did not like the idea and till a day before the course, none was willing to join. Nevertheless, under the instructions of the Inspector General, twenty-three staff and officials finally turned up for the camp.

The course was conducted by Shri Ram Singh. He was assisted by Shri B.R. Chadda of Faridabad and Prof. P.L. Dhar of I.I.T., New Delhi. The two jail officials, Shri. Rajinder Kumar & Shri. Ranjit Singh, who had previously participated in such camps, helped in the management of the course.

Profile of the Participants

Besides the twenty-three members of staff and officers there were finally ninety-six prisoners in the camp. These included ten under-trials (one of them being a non-resident Indian detainee) and three foreigners. A structured questionnaire was designed with the help of two experts: Prof. Purnima Mathur of IIT and Dr. (Mrs.) Adarsh Sharma of Nipcid. This was given to all the inmates about a week before the camp to get an idea of their personal & family background, nature of crime, attitude towards others, influence of the imprisonment, and spiritual inclination etc. Another questionnaire designed to assess the influence of the meditation was given to them after the camp. Out of ninety-six inmates, seventy-four filled both the questionnaires and the analysis given below is based on their responses.

Most of the participants in the camp were young (38% below 30 years of age and 77% below 40 years of age); married (70%) and educated (55% having studied up to secondary school level or higher and only 15% being illiterate). Just over half of them came from an educated family background with a monthly income above Rs. 2000 per month.Half of the inmates had been convicted or accused of murder, 22% of drug trafficking and 28% of other crimes like riots, wife burning, etc. About half of them had been sentenced to life imprisonment, and 10% were under-trials awaiting judgement. Over 80% of the inmates said that it was their first crime, and only 7% admitted to having committed over ten crimes. More than 74% claimed to have been wrongly implicated and only 24% accepted that they had actually committed the crime in a pre-planned manner. About 40% indicated that the crime had been committed in self defense, due to poverty or a flash of anger.

Nearly all of the inmates indicated that they were joining the camp because of their own desire to gain peace of mind and become a good citizen. About half of them had discussed the camp with other inmates after the pre-camp orientation talks, thus indicating the usefulness of this orientation. An interesting fact which emerges from this feedback is that these inmates had a strong "religious" bent of mind. About 90% indicated that they had a reverential attitude towards "religious people", 87% were theists and more than 62% mentioned that they prayed or meditated regularly.

As expected, most of the prisoners suffer from tension; 73% indicated that they were excessively worried about the future, 39% said that they were very often thinking about the past and 47% mentioned that their mind did not remain peaceful at all. In fact 16% of them confessed that they were constantly thinking about taking revenge against the people who were responsible for their imprisonment.

On the basis of the feedback it seems that most of the inmates continue to have good relationships with their family members. Over 90% indicated that they had great affection for their family members and 74% felt that the family members also had similar feelings towards them, and that they did not consider them guilty. Quite naturally, it was the family relationship which they missed the most in jail (61%).

Regarding the usual addictions, it seems quite a significant fraction of them are free from all of them; 54% unequivocally denied having taken any drugs, 40% claimed to be teetotallers and 26% claimed to be non-smokers. About 34% admitted to be smokers (18% very heavy smokers), 22% admitted that they took alcohol (4% addicts) and 27% admitted to having taken drugs (4% occasionally and 23% rarely). Most of them felt that they were not given to excessive quarreling (70%), or anger (50%), that they had a generally affectionate nature (50%) and had an attitude of brotherhood towards others (80%). In fact 44% of them were willing to offer succor to the bereaved families. Considering the fact that for over 25% of the respondents the question was inapplicable (being accused of crimes like drug trafficking, wife burning, etc.), this is a very significant percentage.

It is generally believed that the prison atmosphere only increases the motivation to crime. However in this feedback, 85% indicated that they were now motivated to become good citizens. In so far as the influence of conviction is concerned, 27% indicated that they had developed an aversion to the world of crime and another 10% indicated an increase in religious feelings. This rather unexpected response may possibly be due to the influence of reformatory processes initiated in the jail about a year ago by the new Inspector General.

Main Observations Regarding Conduct of the Course

This camp was obviously quite different from the regular camps organized at the centres. Firstly, for most of the participants who belonged to the same ward, it was just a different activity around their usual residence. That inner feeling of going to a different place with a specific objective of learning something useful was clearly missing for them. The inmates from other jails who came for the course were hardened criminals and trouble makers, and were reluctant to join the course. In fact on the eve of the camp, we had to once again reiterate that participation was purely voluntary and many of those deputed were allowed to leave. All told we had not only unwilling jail staff, but also quite a few prisoners present in the camp for reasons other than a genuine desire to learn meditation. (We later learnt that a few inmates of Ward 10 had joined only because they did not want to be shifted to some other place for twelve days!). Clearly this selection of students was not conducive to maintenance of the kind of strict discipline normally associated with Vipassana camps. Discipline was therefore a casualty, and since even the jail officials didn't observe it scrupulously, the inmates also felt encouraged to be lax. Therefore a rather unusual measure had to be taken in segregating non-serious inmates from the rest and even changing their residence on the sixth day. One officer was allowed to leave the course on the third day, but he came back under instructions from the Inspector General. Nevertheless about 60 inmates tried their best to meditate seriously and achieved wonderful results. In fact, about 15-20 inmates achieved very subtle stages in their meditation. Shri Ram Singh felt that in terms of the results achieved, it was the best camp that he had conducted to date.

The Research Study

The main objective of the study was to quantitatively assess, as far as possible, the beneficial effects of Vipassana on the inmates. This was done by soliciting their response to a set of carefully prepared questions, both before and after the camp. A special questionnaire was also prepared for understanding the response of the jail staff to meditation. The main findings of this study are given below.

Feedback from Prisoners

All the respondents felt that they had gained something from the camp, with 42% indicating that it had given a new direction to their lives. Nearly all said that they would advise their family members to participate in similar camps at regular centres, and that they were themselves also willing to participate and help in organization of such camps in future. About 90% of them indicated that they would maintain the regularity of their practice and would like to participate in group sittings and one day camps on holidays. More than 90% of the prisoners felt it was very inspiring to see the jail staff and officials-especially their deputy superintendent-meditating along with them and felt that it increased fraternal feelings. This appears quite remarkable in view of the fact that most jail staff did not take the camp seriously. Another remarkable conclusion which emerges from the responses is that after the camp, 48% of the prisoners conceded that they had committed a crime while before the camp only 24% had conceded it.

A general attenuation in the inner feeling to take revenge against the people who had (falsely) implicated or (wrongly) convicted them was another important influence of the meditation camp. This was rather dramatically expressed by one convict in front of the Press. He confessed that he had prepared meticulous plans in the jail to kill the judge who had convicted him, and he had burnt the plans on the seventh day of the camp!

Another interesting conclusion which emerges from the study is that, out of the prisoners who smoke or chew tobacco, etc., 78% indicated that this desire had been extinguished. Many of them also indicated other positive effects on their health through diminution in backache, stomach disorders, respiratory ailments, piles and sleeplessness.

The general observations made by the meditators after the camp were also quite interesting. Most reported a release of tensions and felt greater calmness and peace. Many felt that they were exposed to pure Dhamma for the first time in their life. This observation is quite revealing because after the discourse on the seventh day, there were some murmurs amongst a few meditators that proper respect was not shown to the deities of a particular religious belief! Many inmates also mentioned that they had fewer digressive and troubling thoughts about the past and future. There had arisen an inner desire to become a good citizen and serve others. Some of the participants who could not observe the various precepts very scrupulously felt sorry and were keen to get another chance to reap greater benefit from meditation.

Feedback from Jail Staff

Out of twenty-three staff members who participated in the course, the response of twenty-one could be collected. About half of the respondents felt that this experience gave a new direction to their life, 38% felt that it was a good learning experience for them and 14% mentioned candidly that they somehow managed to pass the time!

The greatest difficulty faced by the staff, and the reason that they were basically unwilling to join the camp, was the stigma associated with living with criminals inside the jail. Six of them indicated that "continuous wandering of the mind" was the biggest difficulty. Although only two of them actually mentioned "living with prisoners", as the most difficult aspect of the camp, the actual number of participants who felt so was much higher; five people did not respond to this question and eight indicated "other problems" as most significant. This conclusion is corroborated by the fact that while an overwhelming 86% of them mentioned that they would continue daily practice at home, only about 20% were fully willing to participate in group meditation or one-day camps if organized within the jail.

Again about half of the participants were willing to recommend the meditation to their colleagues only in the camps held outside the jail. Two-thirds of them were keen to advise their family members to attend such camps.

The lack of appropriate basic facilities (like toilet and bath) also contributed to the lukewarm response from the jail staff. This is quite clear from the fact that 38% of them felt that such camps should be held in a separate campus for both jail inmates and staff. It should be noted that an equal number felt that such camps should be organized only for the prisoners and 14% felt that such camps should not be held at all. It is clear from the feedback that at least two of the staff members did not receive the course positively. They felt that such courses would spoil the discipline and therefore should not be held in future. However the majority of them (66%) felt that it would improve the jail environment.

About 80% of the staff members indicated that they did not have any feeling of contempt towards the prisoners even before the camp and that after the camp they felt even more sympathetic towards them.

Out of fifteen persons who had either smoking or drinking habits, about 40% felt that they had overcome this habit and the rest also felt a decrease in its intensity.

The general observations made by the jail staff after the camp were also in consonance with the responses mentioned above. Most of them felt that Vipassana was a good technique to gain peace of mind but they also felt that the discipline was very demanding. Most of them would prefer to do camps separately and not along with prisoners. They also felt that a separate site should be identified for such activities in future. And yet, personal discussions with them after the camp reveal that none of them has any negativity about the camp and most of those who could not do the camp seriously were willing to attend another camp to reap the benefits.

Concluding Remarks

The imprisonment of criminals, as succinctly summarized by Zimring [1], serves many purposes: to physically isolate offending populations, to assist in the correction, reformation and rehabilitation of offenders, to express society's retributive feelings towards them, and to deter potential offenders from committing criminal acts. There is clearly a need to assess to what extent these purposes are being fulfilled today.

It is common knowledge that most prisons throughout the world are fast becoming a training academy where youngsters come in due to some petty crimes and graduate into full-fledged criminals under the patronage of the people serving long term sentences. This clearly defeats a very important purpose of the imprisonment. Again, insofar as the corrective role of imprisonment is concerned, perhaps the less said about it the better. The subhuman living conditions in most jails, coupled with the easy availability of drugs, only help in the brutalization of the inmates. There is a worldwide concern about these negative effects of incarceration and many sociologists have stressed that reformation and rehabilitation should be the principal functions of imprisonment in a civilized society. Some of them even go to the extent of saying that "the level of a society's civilization can be judged by the state of its prisons" [2]. Accordingly, a number of correctional programs like academic education, vocational training in various trades, individual interview therapy, group counseling and behavior modification techniques have been introduced in various jails in the west, especially in the USA.

Such programs held in conventional prisons and reformatories and also in unconventional institutions with a more congenial family-like atmosphere have been studied in depth by Greenberg [3]. He finally concludes: "Much of what is now done in the name of "corrections" may serve other functions, but the prevention of return to crime is not one of them. Here and there a few favorable results alleviate the monotony, but most of these results are modest and are obtained through evaluations seriously lacking in rigor. The blanket assertion that "nothing works" is an exaggeration, but not by very much."

No wonder, with such evidence mounting, that reformation programs are considered ineffective. Drastic techniques like chemical pacification, that is, the use of psychoactive drugs to tranquilize prisoners are being hotly debated [4]. Certainly recidivism, i.e. return to crime, cannot be the sole criteria for evaluating the efficacy of a correctional service, as this is influenced by many forces impinging on the offender after his release [5]. However Greenberg's study brings out the need for a fresh look at this important issue.

The results of this camp mentioned above indicate that Vipassana meditation should be seriously explored as a correctional technique for prisoners; its efficacy in purifying the mind of its deep rooted defilements and bringing the mind under control is well established. The feedback mentioned above is of course only indicative of the possibilities since it was taken just near the conclusion of the course. It is necessary to carry out further studies of the participants after three and six months and even after longer periods to identify the lasting effects of Vipassana.


The attitude of the general public (and it was to a great extent true of me too!) towards prisoners, especially those convicted of heinous crimes-the murderers, dacoits, drug traffickers-is invariably a mixture of scorn, contempt and fear, as if these people do not belong to the human species. This camp provided an opportunity for a close interaction with "such people" for a period spread over a month, especially during the eleven days we lived with them in the cells. I must confess that this experience has been an eye-opener for me as I experienced for myself the Truth behind the profound words of Khalil Gibran on "Crime & Punishment":

Oftentimes have I heard you speak of one who commits a wrong as though he were not one of you, but a stranger unto you and an intruder upon your world.

But I say that even as the holy and the righteous cannot rise beyond the highest which is in each one of you,

So the wicked and the weak cannot fall lower than the lowest which is in you also.

And as a single leaf turns not yellow but with the silent knowledge of the whole tree,

So the wrongdoer cannot do wrong without the hidden will of you all.

Like a procession you walk together towards your godself.

You are the way and the wayfarers.

And when one of you falls down he falls for those behind him, a caution against the stumbling stone.

Aye, and he falls for those ahead of him, who though faster and surer of foot, yet removed not the stumbling stone.

You cannot separate the just from the unjust and the good from the wicked; for they stand together before the face of the sun even as the black thread and the white are woven together.

And when the black thread breaks, the weaver shall look into the whole cloth, and he shall examine the loom also.

the erect and the fallen are but one man standing in the twilight between the night of his pigmy-self and the day of his god-self,

And that the cornerstone of the temple is not higher than the lowest stone in its foundation.

The interaction we had in this camp clearly established, at least in our minds, that many people are driven to crime mainly because of the "conspiracy of circumstances" which exploit some weakness of their mind. These weaknesses are not peculiar to them, but are present to differing degrees in all of us. There is thus no difference between them and the rest of the citizens, as put poetically by Gibran, "....The erect and the fallen are but one." We, the so-called respectable citizens of the country, need to appreciate the fact that these brethren of ours have fallen "with our silent knowledge", since we "though faster and surer of foot, yet removed not the stumbling stone." The astonishing fact that almost twenty of the prisoners reached very subtle stages of meditation only shows that they have attained purity at a deeper level. Clearly Vipassana meditation could be the technique to eradicate the "pigmy-self" and reveal the "god-self" in all, whether they be the "criminals" or the "respectable citizens".


  • Zimring, F.E. "Punishment and Deterrence: Bad Checks in Nebraska-A Study in Complex Threats.", p 173-192 in "Corrections and Punishment", (Ed) Greenberg, D.F., Sage Publications, Beverly Hills, USA, 1977.
  • Jacobs, J.B, "Macrosociology and Imprisonment", p89-110 in Greenberg, D.F, op cit.
  • Greenberg, D.F., "The Correctional Effect of Corrections: A Survey of Evaluations.", p111-148 in Greenberg, D.F., op cit.
  • Speiglman, R., "Prison, Drugs, Psychiatry and the State", p 149-172 in Greenberg, D.F., op cit.
  • Conrad, J.P., "Crime and its Correction, An International Survey of Attitudes and Practices.", Univ. of California Press, Berkeley, 1965