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Vipassana in Jails: A Historical Review
Ram Singh

The first course of Vipassana conducted by Goenkaji in a prison was in I975 at the Central Jail Rajasthan. When I was the Home Secretary of that state, I had myself undertaken a Vipassana course, and experienced a profound change in myself. On the fourth day of my course, I felt that Vipassana was a technique which could solve not only individual problems but also problems of society, and could bring reform in government as well. On the evening of the fourth day I met Goenkaji and shared my reflections with him. I asked him whether this technique could be a tool to change the system in government. He agreed, and I immediately asked whether we could arrange to hold a course in a jail. He was very positive and told me he would come if I arranged it. This was a big challenge!

I set about talking to the authorities concerned-the Chief Minister, the Chief Secretary, the jail officials. Initially everybody was very skeptical, but finally a decision was taken to make an experiment!

The real difficulty came when Goenkaji arrived in Jaipur for the course. I had to tell him that it would not be possible for him to stay in the jail; he was to stay in a beautiful bungalow outside the jail instead. He said he had to stay inside the jail twenty-four hours a day, because Vipassana is a deep operation, and he is like the surgeon. The difficulty was the jail manual. Only those who had been sentenced to imprisonment or those under trial or members of the jail staff could stay in the jail. I posed the problem to Goenkaji and he said, "Sentence me!" I was aghast, shocked; how could my Teacher be sentenced to imprisonment? The legal department was consulted and it seemed there was no solution. We issued administrative instructions and resolved the problem.

Goenkaji was allowed to stay in the jail, in a makeshift room in the jail dispensary. Another problem came when the course was just about to start. At that time ankle locks and handcuffs were used for hardened criminals. Four such prisoners were brought into the meditation hall bound in these iron handcuffs and ankle locks. Goenkaji was walking nearby and when he saw this, he was amazed. He asked me what was going on. I told him these were hardened criminals. He exclaimed, "How can people in chains be put before me? This cannot happen. Remove the chains!"

But the Inspector General of Prisons (IG) said that the security in the jail was his responsibility, and he could not remove the ankle chains or the handcuffs. However, Goenkaji was firm. He said he could not give Dhamma with people sitting before him in chains-he had come to remove the chains. The IG told him he could remove the chains from within, but not the outside chains! Goenkaji insisted that those who were meditating must not be in chains. This was a big dilemma, a big problem!

The IG was a very experienced officer. He asked me not to force him to relax security requirements for those prisoners. He said any one of them might try to be a hero, and strangle me or Goenkaji to death in a split second. We discussed the problem and finally came to an agreement to remove the chains and fetters. An armed guard would be kept ready at a strategic point to shoot the criminal if he started to advance menacingly. I told the IG to ensure that any mishap or panic shooting did not take place.

The chains and locks were removed. Goenkaji was pleased. The course started. I sat close by. The IG stayed out of the hall but remained very close. My eyes were fixed on the "Four", heart throbbing and deep anxiety within! But every passing moment was a relief unbounded. As Goenkaji started chanting, his loving kindness (mettaa) was flowing profusely. The red-hot eyes of the criminals who were the cause of so much turmoil changed and their faces beamed; tears streamed down their cheeks. Tears rolled down my face also; it was a rare moment filled with joy after such high tension. The efficacy of Vipassana was established! Goenkaji's narration of Angulimala's story flashed in my mind.

There was another event which was deeply moving. There were two condemned prisoners awaiting execution of the death sentence. They couldn't be accepted in the course. During his morning round, Goenkaji passed through their cells and decided that they could be given Anapana and Vipassana in the cells by loudspeaker from the hall and we agreed. They started meditation, made great progress, and felt happy. They listened to the discourses in the cells, as did many others. We had arranged the relay of the discourses throughout the entire jail campus.

After the course was over, one of the condemned prisoners sent me a message that he had decided to withdraw his mercy petition to the President of India. He was ready to die. He now had Dhamma and felt totally fearless of his impending death! In the meantime his petition had been rejected, and the day of execution by hanging had been fixed. I was invited to witness the sad event. The prisoner came out of the cell smiling and in high spirits. He thanked the jail staff and went to the gallows with a cheerfulness never witnessed before.

In 1976 a course was held in the Police Academy at Jaipur for the police officials, where personnel right from the deputy IG to the constables sat. We had a second course in the Jaipur Central Jail in 1977. These were very successful courses. Then I was transferred to another post. My successor in the office felt that meditation courses might dilute the deterrent impact of punishment, so the programme did not continue. I had a great longing that Vipassana would come there again. I asked Goenkaji about it, and he said that the seed of Vipassana had been planted and it would sprout again some day. Every year I would go and talk to him, expressing regret that this valuable experience was not being repeated. Goenkaji told me not to worry, the time would come.

The time did come. The seed sprouted, and sprouted so well. In 1990 another course was arranged in the Jaipur Central Jail. My colleague Mr. Tandon conducted that course. It went very smoothly and a big transformation took place. I was very happy. Then the Gujarat Government was approached, but they had a lot of misgivings. I was told by the Home Department of Gujarat that if I conducted the course they would not have any objection. I welcomed the offer. We had the first course in a Gujarat jail in I99I, at the famous Sabarmati Jail, Ahmedabad. Then the courses started in Central Jail, Baroda. Dr. B.G. SavIa led the first course. To date there have been five courses. The Superintendent of Baroda Jail, Mr. R. Vora, has written a book in Gujarati about these courses, entitled "Diwalon Mein Diwyat" (Divinity Within Walls). It is an inspiring story. Baroda Jail is now a house of reforms.

Then came the courses at Tihar Jail, in the capital city of India, New Delhi. With eight to nine thousand prisoners, Tihar is one of the largest jails in the world and, until recently, one of the most infamous. Bringing Vipassana to Tihar was also a difficult journey. I will begin with a brief mention about the first course, which was held in late November 1993.

In July 1993 Mr. M.L. Melita, Additional Secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, wrote to me asking if I could organize a Vipassana course in the Central Jail, Tihar. He knew about the benefits of the Rajasthan experiment in the central Jail, Jaipur. Soon an urgent telephone message came from Ms. Kiran Bedi, Inspector General Prison, Tihar Jail, urging me to arrange the course. It took some time to make preparations, such as training of jail staff, selection of the Ward and course venue, precourse orientation etc., for which we made a few visits to Tihar jail and met Ms. Bedi and her team of dedicated officers and staff.

I was amazed at the enthusiasm and team work at Tiliar under the dynamic leadership of Kiran Bedi. She accorded a high priority to reform measures such as a sustained literacy drive, vocational training, a de-addiction programme, yoga and all those steps that could lead to the alleviation of suffering. Later when Goenkaji led a Vipassana course in Tihar in April, he publicly mentioned that he would like to call her "Karuna" Bedi, for her deep compassion. Once I mentioned that she has kindled the light "Kiran" in the darkness of jail. She blushed.

So the hour struck for the first Vipassana course in Ward I0 of Jail 2. The ward housed convicts of serious crimes and a few high security persons awaiting trials and court hearings. Ninety-six inmates were selected, most of them convicts, and also twenty-three jail officials of different ranks.

When my two colleagues, Professor Dhar and Mr. Chaddha, and I arrived for the course, we found that Kiran Bedi had given a directive that we should have a good room and good food. But she also said that special food would not be given to the course participants because there were about 9,000 prisoners in the jail, and if she gave milk and fruit and such things to only some of them, there would be a big revolt.

Now, what was the prison food? In the morning there was a parotha or bread pakoda; for lunch, there was roti (flat bread) and dal, or roti and subji (vegetables); in the evening there was khichri (mixed rice/dal), a little milk, and sometimes kheer (rice pudding). Evening khichri was a real treat, but the food was very tough-chillies, pakoras and dark tea.

When I found that we were to live in a good room and take good food while the prisoners were deprived of this, I felt that this could not be. So we decided that we would live as the prisoners live. We would not stay in the special room, and we would eat the same food as the prisoners.

The course started. The first night was a very difficult night for me and for my colleagues. The cell in Tihar Jail is a unique structure with two rooms. The first room, with an outside verandah, is open to the sky, with bars across the top and high walls to prevent escape. The inside room has three compartments: space for a bed-a raised platform of stone or concrete about 3 ft by 6 ft, an open water pool for bathing and washing clothes, and a toilet, all close together. It was winter, which in Northern India is very cold. For reasons of hygiene and health, I advised my colleagues to stay in the outside room because the inner room was close to the toilet, and there was a pool of water.

I discovered in the early morning that they had gone to the inner room due to the severe cold. But I remained in the outer room which was open to the sky. The ceiling bars had been covered with blankets, but around eleven o'clock a shrill and icy wind swiftly blew the blankets away. I was shivering, badly shivering, even though the jail authorities had provided sufficient new blankets an

I had my own blanket. It was a very difficult night, and then in the morning came the jail breakfast! I have stomach problems and at my home I am very fussy about food, having boiled vegetables and no chillies, etc. But those ten days I took the prison food, and I can say that nothing happened-no constipation, no burning in the stomach. As the days passed, each one of us felt that we had never eaten such delicious food! In fact, when I returned to my home, I asked my wife to cook the dal I ate in jail! The cook who prepared the food was a convicted prisoner but he was very kind and compassionate. We all felt convinced that his good volition added to the taste.

The Jail "lunger" where food is prepared is an institution in itself. It is very neat, clean, efficiently run and managed by the convicts, an ideal community kitchen.

On the second day I discovered to my great distress that out of one hundred and nineteen students, about thirty were smoking, and many were talking. They broke the rules of silence and sila [precepts] with impunity. I was alarmed, and called a meeting with them to ask why they were doing this. They said I couldn't stop them from smoking. They also said they would talk, whether there was a course or not.

My colleagues and I discussed what we should do in these circumstances. We called another meeting with the inmates, who argued that they had been told that smoking or talking was not permitted in the "shivir" (which they interpreted as the Dhamma hall) and was therefore allowed in their rooms, which they called "chakkies." [This term refers to the grinding stone used for the arduous work of grinding corn, a reminder of enforced hard labour in prisons.] We were very firm and said we would not compromise on this; if they did not observe this sila, they would not be allowed to continue in the course.

As a result of this discussion some agreed to abide by the rules, but still there were others who were very adamant. We decided to separate those who were unwilling to follow the discipline. I told them they would be segregated; they could attend the discourse, but not the rest of the course. The next morning, some of them came and said that we had made them outcasts! They wanted to join those who were meditating and I made them promise not to smoke or talk. I implored them not to betray us. The course proceeded and they kept their promise. Many threw away their bidis [cigarettes], and one person who had smack (heroin) also threw that away. Seeing all this was a wonderful experience and made us very happy. Man could fall to any depth but he could rise to any height also.

On the sixth day, another volcano erupted. There was one hardened criminal on the course. Even the jail staff feared him. After the evening discourse, he said to a jail official, "What kind of meditation is this? Observe the breath, observe the breath. This is not meditation." He continued: "In the discourses, the Teacher is critical of our beliefs and tradition. I'll break this TV set, and teach a lesson to these teachers! They will run away from here!" The jail official came running to me and said that the situation was very bad, and asked me what to do. I became a little anxious, but I was confident. I said that nothing would happen and he should not worry.

During the night, something else happened: loud shouting started coming from the cells. Some prisoners were chanting: "Jay sia Ram, Jay sia Ram, Jay sia Rarn." I called the ward-in-charge. He said this was an alarm signal and anything might happen. He said our lives might be in danger, because these fellows could do anything. He advised us to remain in our cells and offered to lock them, then escort us to the Dhamma hall when necessary. I said that he should not worry and that we would face the situation. I told him not to report this matter to the Superintendent or the IG.

At about midnight, after much deliberation, Professor Dhar and I decided that in the morning we would go together to meet the man who was threatening us. But I thought, Professor Dhar is a young man with family responsibilities, and I am an old man-so I should go first.

So while Professor Dhar was taking his bath, I went to the cell of the hostile convict. He stared at me, and I looked at him. He looked down; I also looked down. Again he stared at me, and I looked at him. Then he said, "Why have you come? What do you want?" I said, "I have just come to see you, to see how you live and what you do." Then he said, "Be free of care! I will protect this jail and we will act according to your instructions. We will not smoke. If anybody smokes, I will take care of him. So be assured, nothing will happen. And don't depend on these jail officials. They will not protect you. We will protect you."

After hearing these words, I felt deeply relieved. I made a round of the wards, then Professor Dhar came running! After assuring him that everything was fine, we together made two more rounds and talked to the prisoners. Most of them were calm-no anger, hatred or disappointment.

A big change came in the whole environment. I and my two colleagues felt we were working with familiar people. They were good human beings! They worked sincerely and worked hard. Many inmates were suffering acutely and felt full of revenge. Some said they had previously decided to kill those people who were responsible for sending them to jail. But when they finished the course, they said, "Now we have no hatred against those who implicated us. We are so grateful to have had this opportunity. If we had not come to jail, we never would have had this experience. When we are released from this jail, we will be messengers of Vipassana." I found that about twenty to twenty five of the inmates reached a very subtle stage of meditation. We could discern a deep calm within them, glow and hope on their faces. Real change took place.

On metta day [the tenth day when silence is broken], arrangements were made for some press people and Doordarshan [national TV] to come. The IG and some officers from the Home Ministry also came, including Mr. Mehta. Students-both inmates and jail staff-shared their experiences. These were very inspiring expressions from people who had undergone a deep transformation.

On the morning of the eleventh day, Kiran Bedi asked the prisoners if they had any request. They asked her not to let us leave, as they wanted more courses for their colleagues. Many said that they wanted to sit the next course. The IG asked us for a response to their request. I said it was not possible as no assistant teachers were available and so much planning is always needed. She insisted that we give our assurance to the prisoners! So I told the prisoners that we would arrange more courses. They said, "No, we will not let you go!" After much discussion I said that very soon we would have four simultaneous courses. I was confident that Goenkaji would agree and send experienced teachers there, which he did. Our departure from Jail No. 2 and it's grateful inmates was tearful and moving.

The next four courses were from January 1 to 12, 1994, held in Jails No.A, No. 3 and No 4, for a total of about three hundred students. So, we fulfilled our promise to have more courses soon, and the courses went smoothly. Separate arrangements were made for the assistant teachers' stay and the jail menu was greatly improved for all.

However, Kiran Bedi would not rest; with 9,000 people in the jail, she said we had to proceed faster for change to come. She argued that she might be sent to another post! She wanted all in Tihar to learn Vipassana. I said politely that we could not go faster. She asked us to make it possible! She wanted a course for at least 1,000 people. Then I recalled Sayagyi U Ba Khin's prediction that one day Goenkaji would teach Dhamma to 1,000 people. I thought the time had come.

Goenkaji agreed. The historic course for 1,004 male prisoners was held at Tihar Jail No. 4 from April 4 to 15, 1994. Goenkaji and Mataffi conducted the course, assisted by 15 male assistant teachers. Two female assistants conducted a simultaneous separate course for forty-nine women in Jail No. I.

This may well have been the largest Vipassana course ever held in the world. The congregation of over one thousand prisoners under a shamiana [a large tent] was unique and implied serious security risks as well. The participants came from all the four jails of the prison complex: under-trials and convicts involved in major crimes including terrorist activities. They came from different backgrounds and religious groups, and there were also some foreigners. No coercive vigil was kept in or around the shamiana.

The course started smoothly and the group responded well to the training given to the Master Teacher himself. They were, indeed, a privileged group. As the training progressed, they felt deeply relaxed, their tension and anguish greatly mitigated. On the metta day we witnessed an overwhelming expression of joy and gratitude by the participants. Most of them felt assured that through the practice of Vipassana, they could emerge from the life of crime and lead a happy life. Some said that on release from jail they would dedicate their lives to the propagation of Vipassana and the redemption of society from crime and terrorism.

On day eleven, a permanent Vipassana centre was inaugurated in Jail No. 4 by Goenkaji, in the presence of the IG, jail officials, the prisoners who took the course, and guests from the international press and the governments of India, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Two courses will be held at the new centre every month. A one-day course for old students will be held on the eleventh day of each course. Goenkaji named the new centre "Dhamma Tihar." The historic course was a profoundly rewarding experience.

There are now about thirty jail officials who have learnt Vipassana. They will be a great source of support and assistance. Also, some of the inmates who were students in the first course served as Dhamma workers in the next courses. My colleagues' comments were that these prisoners were the best Dhamma workers they had ever had. They had done only one course; moreover, they were persons condemned by society who had committed murders and other serious crimes. Through Vipassana, they had become gentle, calm, kind and compassionate. They served so well. It was a pleasure to see them working so wholeheartedly and with so much devotion.

This is a brief historical review of how Vipassana came to jails. I wish to make one more comment about prisons in the larger context. The system of incarcerating people started in antiquity, long, long back-we can't say when exactly. Very unfortunately, all societies, ancient and modem, have committed human degradation in prisons.

Times are changing. There is a new trend in India and many parts of the world, with the realization that the role of prisons is not to inflict punishment but instead to confine the wrong-doer to prevent further mischief and to reform him. More and more, prisons are being viewed as institutions of reform and rehabilitation rather than places of humiliation and punishment.

Following the success of courses at Tihar in January, the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, 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 India.

This is a very significant development. The initiative Mr. M.L. Mehta took in getting Vipassana to Tihar Jail and the success of the experiment heralds a new era of reform and rehabilitation for those who fall to crime. Vipassana provides an effective way to liberate them, not only from the life of crime but also from all suffering and misery. I am confident that the inmates not only of jails in India, but of all jails in the world, will get the benefit of Vipassana.

Special thanks to Phramaha Witoon Thacha for retyping this article.


Updated: 3-5-2000

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