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






Jail Courses and Vipassana

-By Raghuvir L. Vora

Objectives of Imprisonment

The word "jail" presents before our eyes the picture of high walls and iron bars. Since ancient times, prisons have always been condemned as places where the undesirables of society are kept. In modern times, crime has come to be regarded as essentially a social problem, and retribution as the object of imprisonment is being discarded. Detention as an objective of imprisonment is also very limited in scope. Reformation of the offender is being regarded as an ultimate aim of the prison sentence.

Jails are regarded as an integral and important part of society. Their relevance and usefulness has been established. On the one hand, jails protect society from offenders and ensure the safety and security of the law-abiding citizens. On the other hand, the jails segregate the offenders and can rehabilitate them, so that they re-enter back into society as good and healthy citizens, ready to help their families and society at large.

Thus in modern times, the prison authorities are expected to perform the Herculean task not only of confining society's offenders, but transforming them into good and healthy citizens. Jails, as Mahatma Gandhi rightly said, should play the role of "social hospitals." It is in this light that prison administrators are being told that their syllabi and curricula should reflect the ultimate objective of reformation and rehabilitation.

Reform Programmes

In order to better implement various types of reformation programmes, and in order that individual treatment can be effectively provided, the jail population is divided into three categories: under-trials, detainees and convict prisoners. Prisoners are subdivided as habitual or non-habitual offenders, and receive further designation according to the nature of the crime committed and the length of the sentence.

Once convicted for an offense, the inmates are confined to the jail as a sentence, but not for the purpose of punishment. Absolutely humane treatment should be given to all inmates, regardless of their crimes. Various basic services are provided, such as proper accommodation, interviews, sanitation facilities, correspondence, canteen, medical facilities, vocational training, sports and games, etc. In addition to these facilities, various cultural and recreational activities have been introduced so that life does not become monotonous, pointless and dull.

Imprisonment requires labour. Therefore productive work is provided inside the jail by means of industries. Inmates are paid wages for their labor, which helps them to establish a form of livelihood.

In those jails concerned with reform, various measures have been introduced which integrate the findings of psychology and sociology in the fields of crime and punishment. Frequent lectures on morality are organized, and religious festivals are also celebrated with great zeal and enthusiasm. However all these means have proved futile in changing behavior.

During my past 20 years of service in the Prison Department, in my heart of hearts I was never satisfied with the success of the programmes because they never had a lasting effect. For example, there were cases when inmates who were determined to improve themselves were released, but returned to the prison, charged with another crime or a more serious crime. These lapses have always upset me. In spite of much hard effort, the programmes have not achieved their intended objectives. This is perhaps because whenever an individual charged or convicted enters the prison, his attitude is to justify the commission of his crime. Sometimes he is content with the justice administered and sometimes not. Various thoughts and feelings hover in the mind of a prisoner. At times he is frustrated or may be possessed by thoughts of taking revenge. Everyone has his own way to justify his harmful act.

I had the privilege to work with the late Shri Jayaprakash Narayan when he became instrumental in securing the surrender of various hard-core dacoits from the Chambal Valley. Based on this experience, I feel that an individual is not always solely responsible for the crime he committed, because circumstances, environment and other influences are contributing elements towards the attitude which leads to crime.

As far as reform in prisons is concerned, all improvement measures require an in-depth understanding of the inmate as a member of society. The syllabus and curriculum of a jail will have impact and success only when the individuals for whom they are meant are themselves determined to change their attitudes. Their attitude towards life has to change so that the guidance imparted can have an ameliorating effect. But how can this be induced? A genuine and firm determination along with strong willpower in the individual inmate is essential for achieving the objectives of reformation.

Introduction of Vipassana in Baroda Central Jail

In January 1992, the first Vipassana camp was organized in Baroda Central Jail. Fifty-four inmates and ten members of the guard staff participated. The beneficial effect of the courses on the whole prison (population about 1,250) was immediately recognized.

The first course was followed by three more Vipassana camps in which 310 inmates and 23 jail staff participated. The changes and success achieved were sweeping and far beyond our expectations. As rightly described by Mrs. Kiran Bedi, Inspector General of Prisons, Delhi: "I was searching for a method which could help in transforming the inmates of the jail. I have found that in Vipassana." Vipassana has a profound effect because it strikes right at the root cause of human suffering. It teaches us to observe the depths of our minds and purify ourselves of the negativities which keep us rolling in suffering.

The immediate impact of the Vipassana camps in the Baroda Central Jail was that offenses inside the jail itself were greatly reduced. The rules are now being voluntarily followed by the inmates. There is hardly any problem with quarreling among the inmates or between the inmates and the guard staff. Co-operation between the prisoners and the guard personnel has improved, resulting in the smooth functioning of the jail administration, so much so that the general atmosphere of the jail has become peaceful and free from tension. Because the maintenance of law and order inside the jail is no longer a serious problem, the administration naturally devotes more time to the welfare of the inmates.

The attitude of the inmates towards work in the industries has also undergone a noticeable change. The inmates have started to work conscientiously. To a certain extent they follow the principles that "work is worship," in order that "idle minds do not become the devil's worship." Production in the industries has increased along with the rate of employment, by virtue of more and more inmates volunteering to work in the industries.

The inmates have realized for themselves the importance of work, which can help them to re-enter society after their release. Because the inmates are paid wages for their work, they become self-sufficient and save their money. Inmates have invested more than Rs. 5 lakhs (US$17,000) for the prestigious Narmada Dam and donated collectively Rs 35,000 (US$1,200) toward the Relief Fund for victims of the Maharashtra earthquake. It is primarily due to Vipassana that a sense of responsibility towards society has been stimulated among the inmates.

Another immediate effect of Vipassana has been that inmates have been able to give up their addictions to drugs, intoxicants, smoking, etc. Startling changes were noticed among inmates who participated in Vipassana camps. Addicts were able to abandon smoking and habit-forming drugs.

Due to Vipassana meditation, the lives of the inmates in the jail have undergone dramatic changes. Inmates have learnt to control their emotions and feelings. They have developed an attitude of positive thinking. Communal harmony has been strengthened. Inmates belonging to different castes and creeds are living together peacefully and happily, while respecting each others' rights.

The inmates have also started responding positively to various reform activities. For example, inmates have been given the opportunity to express their feelings through art. Literary activities such as Kavi Sammelans (meeting of poets) have become popular among inmates because of Vipassana, and more and more have started participating. The beneficial effect of the reforms has been accelerated because the inmates have developed a receptive attitude towards them and have voluntarily started to participate in many activities. 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. Life in the jail no longer seems pointless. It has become full of spirit. Everyone seems satisfied and a harmonious environment prevails in the premises.

In short, the inmates have developed a purpose in life while hitherto they were groping in the darkness. This is the spiritual reward of Vipassana meditation.

An example of the striking improvement in reform activities occurred on 26 January 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.

After the introduction of Vipassana, more and more inmates have realized the need to return to society as good and noble citizens. Vipassana meditation provides an ideal method for the improvement of inmates. They have learnt not only to control their feelings but to express them properly. The feelings of revenge which commonly prevailed in inmates of all kinds has been vastly decreased through Vipassana.

Case Histories

It is relevant to cite some examples of inmates who have gained benefit from the practice of Vipassana.

Shri Ramsingh Prahladsingh Chauhan is an ex-military and ex-police officer who was convicted for killing his own subordinate. He shot the victim six times while in a drunken condition. He is undergoing a term of life imprisonment. He said: "Due to Vipassana, I have realized the value of life and have also learnt to control my anger..."

Another convict is Babu Satyan Baiya. He is undergoing life imprisonment. He is a well-known and notorious hard-core criminal who killed three members of one family in broad daylight, in the midst of the thickly populated city of Amhedabad. He also jumped his parole leave and has been charged with petty crimes. After the Vipassana camp, he changed completely. He bowed down before the ladies whose son and husband he had killed and asked for their forgiveness. He further took upon himself the responsibility for the maintenance of the families who were suffering because of his heinous act.

Another convict, Shri Manharbhai Patel, was an engineer. He was a hard-core terrorist of Punjab Majeendersingh and was convicted for the offense of bank robbery. He was sentenced to seven years. He was so deeply influenced by Vipassana that he gave up the idea of rejoining the group of terrorists to whom he was formerly attached. After his release, he attended a Vipassana camp at Bada, Kutch.

An under-trial named Mr. Saveri is facing criminal charges for the offense of bank fraud involving crores of rupees (millions of dollars). He was asked about the effect of the Vipassana teachings on his concept of life. Having attended only one camp, he replied: "The more we learn, the more we know how little we know!" Mr. Saveri expressed sorrow, lamenting the fact that, had he been acquainted with Vipassana sooner, his life would have taken a different direction.

Another person, Arvind Sanghavi, has had a record of various criminal activities for the past 30 years. He underwent a complete change after his Vipassana camp to the extent that after his release on 7 March 1994, he went straight away to the Jaipur Vipassana Centre to give his service there.

Not only the inmates in the jail, but also the members of the staff also have gained benefit from the meditation practice. Shri Upendrasingh, a guard staff, learnt a new perspective from Vipassana which has changed his outlook towards the prisoners. Reforming the inmates has become the ultimate aim of his services to the Prison Department.


Vipassana has been very useful in the reform of inmates during their imprisonment. It has successfully transformed them into good citizens who have the volition to serve the society when they return to it. It has been successful as a tool for reform because it helps to achieve the ultimate aim and objectives of imprisonment that have been set by the Government. It gives a purposefulness to the lives of prisoners and renders the various steps and activities for the welfare of the inmates more effective and successful. I hope that Vipassana will become well-known and widely applied as a tool for reform in other jails.