The following is a recounting by S.N. Goenka as to how the first suggestion of Vipassana courses for prisoners was made:
In the first few years after I came from Burma to teach in India, a course was arranged by a daughter-in-law of Mahatma Gandhi at Sevagram Ashram. Some fifteen of Gandhiji’s colleagues participated. They were very pleased with the course. After it was over, they took me to meet Vinobha Bhave, a saintly person of India, who lived nearby.
He was quite enthusiastic about Vipassana and said that if it was beneficial and result-oriented, it must spread in the country. But he added: “I won’t accept this Vipassana unless it gives good results to two segments of the society: hardened criminals and school children.” I replied: “I am certain it will be helpful. I am a newcomer to the country; I have brought this valuable jewel of Dhamma from outside. Now, let us make use of it for the country. Please make the arrangements.”
He arranged a course for teenagers. As with the many course for children since then, it was sucessful and he was very happy. Then he arranged for a course to be held in the Gaya Jail. But the day before the course started, the jail officials said that I would have to stay outside the prison. I said: “This is not possible. Vipassana is a deep operation of the mind, and I am like the surgeon. I must be there twenty four hours a day. Something might happen, and I am responsible. I must stay inside.” They insisted: “According to the prison rules, you cannot stay inside.” I pleaded with them: “Then give me a prison sentence of ten days!” But they wouldn’t agree. Vinobha wanted to make some other arrangements, but before he was able to do so, he passed away.
Fortunately, a few years later, the Home Secretary of Rajasthan, Ram Singh, came to a course in Jaipur. He was very keen. He said: “This must be tried with criminals!” He also heard about the challenge from Vinobha Bhave. He organized the first courses, which were held in the Jaipur Central Jail; the rules were amended to permit me to stay inside the prison for the full ten days. So this is how the ball started rolling.