Vipassana meditation is a simple, practical way to achieve real peace of mind. It leads to the eradication of the mental negativities responsible for human suffering.
The nonsectarian practice of Vipassana can bring about a major transformation in an individual’s attitude and behavior. Those who practice it remove, little by little, the root causes of their suffering and begin to lead happier, healthier, more productive lives.
Vipassana meditation has been taught to prison inmates and staff in many parts of India, as well as in the United States, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Colombia, Britain, Taiwan, New Zealand, and Nepal. In all, more than 10,000 prisoners have attended ten-day Vipassana courses in prisons around the world.
Experiences in Jails & Prisons
One thousand prisoners participated in a course conducted by Mr. S. N. Goenka in Tihar Jail, New Delhi, in 1994. What started in a big way in Tihar has now spread all over India and beyond. In 2000, a course for about 500 prisoners was held in Yerawada Central Prison in Pune. Seeing its positive results the government of India recommended that every prison in the country should organize ten-day Vipassana courses for inmates.
As a result, prisoners continue to participate in Vipassana courses every month, at a permanent Vipassana center established in Tihar. Thousands of police officers have also attended Vipassana courses, at the meditation center in the Police Academy in New Delhi, and at other centers throughout India.
How Vipassana is Taught
To learn Vipassana meditation it is necessary to take a ten-day residential course under the guidance of a qualified teacher. Students follow a demanding daily schedule, which includes approximately ten hours of sitting meditation (with numerous breaks interspersed throughout the day). They also maintain silence, not communicating with each other.
There are three steps to the training. First, students practice abstaining from actions which cause harm. They undertake five moral precepts: refraining from killing any being, stealing, lying, all sexual activity and the use of intoxicants. These precepts, as well as observing silence, allow the mind to calm down sufficiently to perform the task of self-observation.
In the second step, students develop a more stable and concentrated mind by focusing their attention on the natural breath.
The third step is to develop insight into the direct link between body and mind — through the observation of bodily sensations. By developing a balanced mind and learning not to react to these sensations, mental negativities are gradually eliminated. This direct experience has a profound, purifying effect on the mind.
Before any course is held in a prison, a senior correctional staff member, and as many other staff as possible are encouraged to attend a 10-day course at a Vipassana meditation center. This would enable these officials to better understand through direct experience the value and relevance of Vipassana meditation to their correctional facility. Participating in a course, one would more fully understand how to implement a course in their own facility. (To apply for a course see the Vipassana website: www.dhamma.org)
Meditation Facility Requirements
The Vipassana course should take place in a separate area of the correctional facility.
The basic requirements are:
- A quiet room for group meditation for participants and course workers, secluded from non-participating inmates.
- Dormitories and/or cells with adequate bath and toilet facilities for participants, separate from inmates not involved with the course.
- A separate room with attached bath and toilet facilities for the teachers conducting the course.
- Adequate accommodation with bath and toilet facilities for staff workers serving the course.
- Dining facilities separate from other inmates.
- A sufficient walking area segregated from other inmates.
- There should be provision, after the course, for a place for students to meditate twice a day — to continue their practice. Continuity of practice is important to maintain and increase the benefits of this meditation technique.
- There should be separate courses for male and female inmates.
- Corrections officials who have completed a course should be assigned to staff the course, if possible.
Each correctional facility is laid out differently, so adjustments may need to be made in individual cases.
- Security in the correctional facility is of utmost importance. Course staff and participants will adhere to all security requirements.
- During the course, all participants are under the supervision of the teacher and within the security constraints of the correctional facility.
- During the course, inmates will not have contact with prisoners not participating in the course, nor with prison staff not on duty at the course, nor with visitors.
- Inmates should be free to participate in the program from 4:00 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. After these hours they may be racked back, but should still have access to meditation course staff if the need arises during the night.
- There should be frequent contact between the course teachers, prison officials and the prison staff on duty, to resolve problems and ensure the smooth functioning of the course.
- Simple, wholesome vegetarian food should be served.
- Teachers and Vipassana servers will have the same food as the inmates.
- Medical staff must be available in case any medical problem arises during the course. When possible, medical problems should be handled on site, with as little contact with non-course staff as possible.
- Most medications do not interfere with course participation. Certain drugs with psychoactive properties are not compatible with intense meditation, so some cases may need to be reviewed by Vipassana staff well before the beginning of the course.
Discipline for Participants
- All participants will agree to follow the Code of Discipline during the course.
- Participants will forego all contact with the outer world during the course, including visits, phone calls, mail, commissary (except required hygiene items), and reading materials.
- The Code of Discipline includes abstaining from killing any being, stealing, lying, all sexual activity and intoxicants, including abstinence from tobacco.
- Inmates are required to put aside all rites and rituals and other meditation practices during the course.
- For the first nine days, there will be complete silence among participants; they should not communicate verbally, nor by notes or gestures. Participants may speak to the teachers for guidance at any time, and to the managing staff for any material needs.
Selection of Inmates
- Before the course, it is useful to have a series of informal classes to review different aspects of the course and to give adequate time for questions to be raised with Vipassana staff. These meetings also help build rapport and trust between Vipassana staff and inmates, and the beginnings of a working relationship. Videos introducing Vipassana are available and may be presented to inmates, followed by a question and answer session. Basic informational literature, including the Code of Discipline and booklet The Art of Living, will be distributed.
- Inmates who wish to take the course will fill out an application and a student data form. Participants will be selected after the introductory talks, by prison authorities and the meditation teachers.
- It is essential that participation is completely voluntary. There should be neither secondary gains acquired for participation (such as reduced sentencing, more visits, etc.) nor any disincentives, such as loss of jobs, room space, etc. This will ensure that each participant’s motivation is purely to benefit from the technique.
- Applications will be carefully reviewed, after which Vipassana staff will interview each participant for suitability and readiness to undertake the course.
- Corrections staff will ensure that each participant is free to attend the complete course, and will not be called out for hearings, visits, medical appointments, etc.
- A final list of participants should be prepared with the following details: name, age, education, profession, and duration of sentence. This information should be prepared by staff and a copy given to the teacher prior to the course.
For more information about the North American Vipassana prison program, prison personnel may contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Two documentary videos are available from Pariyatti Book Service: www.pariyatti.com; 800-829-2748. “Doing Time, Doing Vipassana” shows the challenge and results of introducing Vipassana in a large jail in India. “Changing From Inside” documents a Vipassana course for women in a Seattle prison.