Meditation in Prisons -- A Silent Escape to Freedom
We are All Prisoners!
We all live in prisons – prisons of likes and dislikes, and cravings and aversions. Are we not prisoners of fears and phobias? Are we not prisoners of habits and tendencies? Are we not prisoners of hatred and animosity? Are we not prisoners of passion and attachments? Are we not prisoners of consumerism and greed? Certainly, we are all prisoners whether we believe it or not
What if we are not confined within the walls of a State Prison; what if we have never been convicted by the court of law, we all live confined within the un-penetrable wall of ignorance. And yet we call ourselves "free". But as long as we have compulsive or recidivistic tendencies, we can not say that we are free. Can prisoners be ever happy?
Prison Meditation Courses in India
The practice of Vipassana meditation in a correctional environment was first tried in Jaipur, India in 1975. Despite three successful courses, one for police officers and two for prisoners, no further prison courses were taught for almost 18 years.
In March 1993, Kiran Bedi – a dynamic and tough lady cop – became Inspector General of the Tihar Jail in New Delhi. In her search for a technique of rehabilitation that would not only prepare her inmates for a successful return to society but also render the prison environment more peaceful and harmonious, she learned about Vipassana and its earlier experimentation in Indian prisons. Thus started the biggest humanitarian experiment in one of the largest prisons of the world – Tihar.
Vipassana Meditation in Tihar Jail, Delhi
With about 10,000 inmates, Tihar is one of the largest prisons in Asia. The prison campus covers several hundred acres at a suburban location in New Delhi. To better manage such a large population of prisoners, Tihar is divided into four separate jails. Inmates from all four jails participated in the April course.
The first ten day Vipassana meditation course at Tihar was held in late November 1993 in which 96 prisoners and 23 jail staff participated. The next course was held in January 1994 when 300 prisoners joined the course.
Three months later (April 1994) history was created – 1003 male prisoners joined the meditation retreat – the largest ever Vipassana meditation courses held in modern times. Simultaneously, a separate Vipassana course for female prisoners was organized at another location within the prison boundary, attended by 49 inmates. The courses were assisted by some trained volunteers from outside the prison, and about 60 "old student" – prisoners who learned meditation in recent 2 courses.
After the success of the 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. Vipassana is now recognized as an effective method for reforming prisoners.
The First Permanent Meditation Center Inside A Prison!!
The courses 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, 1994 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. The roots of the silent reform are now 15 years old and still growing.
Today there is not only a permanent meditation center within the walls of Tihar Jail, but also in several other Indian prisons, at which regular Vipassana courses are conducted. In addition, courses for police cadets are regularly held at the Police Training College in New Delhi. Following the establishment of this technique in the prisons of India, Vipassana courses have been successfully organized in the prison facilities of Taiwan as well as the United States. They are also being currently considered by many other countries as a program to try and stem the rising tide of recidivism throughout the world.
You may like to read an account of how the meditation course at Tihar Jail became a reality.
A Heart Touching Film
"Doing Time, Doing Vipassana"
- A Film That can Leave You Dumb-founded
The news of Tihar experiment soon spread worldwide that brought Israeli film makers to India. They explored the events, which brought Vipassana meditation to Tihar prison. They also conducted extensive interviews with jail officials, including the super-cop Kiran Bedi, and inmates at many different prisons who participated in the courses. The result of their efforts was an extremely powerful 52-minute documentary film entitled – Doing Time, Doing Vipassana.
The film describes the way in which Vipassana has been successfully used within the Indian prison system to dramatically change the behaviour and attitude of the inmates and jailers who participated in the courses and, thereby, improve the entire atmosphere of the prisons.
The Vipassana Prison Trust
The Vipassana prison trust is a volunteer organization that offers correctional managers and policy makers a way to access this practical method to induce positive changes in the inmates’ behavior. It offers readily accessible information and material on Vipassana meditation courses offered within institutions as well as in the community.
During last 25 years Vipassana meditation courses have been organized in prisons located in India, Israel, Mongolia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Thailand, United Kingdom, Myanmar, and United States. Since all courses are 10 day long and residential in nature, they are conducted within the walls of the correction center. Conducting teachers and volunteers who manage the course also live with the participants for the entire duration of the course.
What Inmates Say
“While I was here… I was not happy and did not want to be here, obviously. But now I can look back on it with nothing but gratitude… It has totally changed my life.”
- A Former Inmate
North Rehabilitation facility
King County, Washington
“I had been drunk all my life before taking the first Vipassana course at NRF in 1997 Since then, I have not had a fight, not a drink. I have a family life. My family appreciates it so much.”
- Former Inmate
North Rehabilitation Facility
King County, Washington
“I’m able to deal with situations more calmly than before because now, I can see everything in a better perspective… Vipassana can make such a difference in the collective minds of the men here.”
W.E. Donaldson Correctional
Prison Courses in United States
Vipassana meditation courses have been organized in North American correctional facilities since 1997, with measurable success in lowering recidivism rates and improving inmate behavior and coping skills. The courses are offered in 10-day residential courses by experienced volunteer teachers and course assistants, and are completely free of charge or compensation of any kind. Vipassana courses have been held in three U.S. correctional facilities:
- The W.E. Donaldson Correctional Facility, a level 6 maximum-security state prison in Bessemer, Alabama, near Birmingham;
- The San Francisco Jail; and
- The North Rehabilitation Facility (N.R.F.), which was minimum-security facility of the King County jail system in Seattle, Washington.
Lucia Meijer, the administrator of N.R.F., has played a key role in introducing the courses into North America prisons. After Lucia attended one of the 10 day courses herself at the Northwest Vipassana Center, she and her staff had to overcame many administrative, security, and facilities related hurdles to arrange the first course for men in November 1997. Since than several courses for both men and women have been conducted at N.R.F. with very positive results.
“In silence, the mind naturally turns within to observe its own nature.”
– Rick Smith, Dhamma Brother
More Films on Effects of Meditation on Inmates
One of these courses, conducted for women inmates at N.R.F., is also the subject of a documentary film entitled "Changing From Inside" which deals with the concerns of the administrative and security staffs within correction facilities.
Released in 2007, The Dhamma Brothers is a documentary film on prison meditation program at Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer, Alabama.
The film concentrates on four inmates, all convicted of murder. It also includes reenactments of the inmates’ crimes, interviews of guards, prison officials, and local residents. The film was directed by Jenny Philips, a cultural anthropologist and psychotherapist, Andrew Kukura, a documentary filmmaker, and Anne Marie Stein, a film-school administrator.
Philips has also releasing a book, titled: Letters from the Dhamma Brothers: Meditation Behind Bars, in late 2008 based on follow-up letters with the inmates.
This wonderful book and the DVDs of all the films mentioned above are available in US at the Pariyatti Bookstore.
Click this link for a worldwide list of Non-US Retailers.
A Message of Sanity to the Insane World
- Staring at Death, and Finding Their Bliss
Prison meditation activities in North America
- A Descriptive Account of Prison Meditation in India
In 1994, a 10-day residential Vipassana meditation Camp for 1000 inmates and jail staff at Tihar Jail in Delhi was an extraordinary event in the history of Prison reforms. It provided a realistic model of prison reforms across the world.
- Vipassana Research Institute
VRI is responsible for publication of numerous books, CDs, and DVDs designed for spread of Vipassana meditation.