In April 1994, a ten-day Vipassana course for over a thousand inmates 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 of 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 of prisoners, 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 course in an Indian prison were conducted at the Central Jail, Jaipur,at the invitation of Mr. Ram Singh, the then Home Secretary to the Government of the Indian State 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 result 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 government service and was one of the first assistant teachers appointed by S.N. Goenka. When he told Mr. Goenka of his disappointment that prison courses were not continuing, he 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 led course was held at the Jaipur Central Jail in 1990. This was followed by six prison courses in the Baroda Central Jail within the Indian State of Gujarat starting in 1991. These 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 JAIL
To organize a course for one thousand students 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 45 years old, she was the first woman inducted into the India Police Service in 1972. She is known for her courage, dynamic energy and profound devotion to helping suffering people.
Dr. 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 overcrowding, 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. 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 apart of it, and if they were ready to change, they would be welcomed with open arms. She told us, ‘There is little differencebetween 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 in 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 recommended 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.
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 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, Mr. Goenka was contacted, and arrangements were quickly made for six assistant teachers to go to Tihar on New Years’s Day, 1994 to conduct four simultaneous courses in three jails.
A total of about 300 prisoners participated in the January courses. News of this was picked up by the national wire services 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 transformation 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 by S.N. Goenka’s teacher, Sayagyi U Ba Khin, of Rangoon, Burma. When Mr. Goenka 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 Mr. Goenka 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 selecting and organizing a site suitable for accommodation for over one thousand jail inmates, Mr. and Mrs. Goenka, and a large team of assistant teachers. A very large hall was needed for daily group sittings and evening discourses. In Jail No. 4 two new buildings were nearing completion and there were several wards housing prisoners in a compact area. This site was selected for the upcoming large course. The Public Works Department of the Government of India hastened the completion of the new buildings with assistance of several skilled jail inmates. With the productive and cooperative spirit now prevailing in the prison, the inmates dug drainage ditches, laid pipes, weeded and leveled a large area and helped in erection of a huge shamiana–an open air tent. To put over one thousand prisoners together in a tent without coercive vigil was a high security risk, a stupendous task.
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 Mr. Goenka. 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 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 course 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 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 of the course, 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 devise a way to save the course from total collapse: the hall was a shambles and strong gales still blew. When Mr. and Mrs. Goenka came to survey the scene they advised that the course program be continued and that everything would soon be all right.
Mr. Meena, the jail superintendent, arrived and an emergency jail public address system was commissioned to transmit the instructions and chanting into the barracks where all the assistant teachers went to meditate and guide the inmates. After breakfast, the weather began to clear, and a massive salvage operation was launched. A large 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 Mr. Goenka’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 Mr. Goenka has ever 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 FIRST PERMANENT VIPASSANA CENTER IN A PRISON
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 mediation Center created by the Government of India in Jail No. 4. Within three weeks, the Tihar Center began to hold two ten-day courses per month for students from all four jails.
Vipassana is now recognized 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, Mr. Goenka 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.”