A transformational tide is rippling through the prisons of the world, spreading out from the Tihar Central Jail in New Delhi and the revolutionary experimentation of Dr. Kiran Bedi. In 1993, as Inspector General of Tihar, Dr. Bedi invited teachers from one of S. N. Goenka’s meditation centers to conduct a ten-day vipassana course inside the prison. The program was so successful that there is now a special wing of Tihar to house prisoners who meditate, while similar vipassana programs are being initiated in jails and prisons throughout the world. Dr. Bedi has since been given many honors, including the 1994 Ramon Magsaysay Award, also known as the Asian Nobel Prize. In the past few years, a documentary film about the Tihar program, Doing Time, Doing Vipassana, has been inspiring audiences and influencing prison authorities in the West.
Inquiring Mind spoke with Dr. Bedi during her visit to the United States in September of 1999. Joining in the conversation was Lucia Meijer, administrator of the North Rehabilitation Facility, an alternative detention site near Seattle, Washington, who has started a vipassana program in that facility. She has been working in the field of addiction for over twenty years, specifically with hard-to-reach populations that are not well-served by traditional treatment programs. Also participating in the discussion were Harry and Vivian Snyder, teachers appointed by S. N. Goenka’s to conduct ten-day vipassana courses, working especially in prisons. The conversation took place at the KPFA studios in Berkeley.
Inquiring Mind: Why did you introduce vipassana into the Tijar Central jail?
Kiran Bedi: As a police officer and director general of Delhi prisons, I was responsible for creating security inside the jail, and I saw vipassana as a major measure of peace and harmony. Peace and harmony isn’t created by the walls of a prison; it comes from the beings inside, and unless you address individuals, you cannot create a peaceful community. So I introduced programs that would enable individuals to be more peaceful. Vipassana addresses individuals.
As a prison administrator, you can create an enabling environment. If you have no library, you don’t enable the individuals to read. When you introduce a library, some still may not read, but you are subtly sending out a message suggesting the value and availability of books. With the vipassana program, I was suggesting, “This is good. Try it.”
It is my belief that prison per se is punishment, but if you don’t work on reforms and if you don’t work on corrections enabling the individuals to learn and change, then you actually are punishing doubly. When you punish a person doubly, you end up with an individual who, on release, is ready to hurt society; so you are hurting society in the end.
IM: So how did the idea to bring in vipassana first take shape?
KB: Actually, a guard suggested that we initiate this program inside Tijar; it wasn’t me. I had talked about the importance of finding options for prisoners who are driven by revenge and violence and who can’t handle these strong emotions. One of the guards suggested that I look into the vipassana program. When I said I didn’t know what it was, he said, “Let’s invite the vipassana teachers to make a presentation here at the prison.”
So we contacted Mr. Goenka’s Jabalpur office, which is his regional office for north India, and invited the teachers to visit the prison and speak with the prison population. They explained what vipassana stands for, what it means to voluntarily abstain from certain foods and “privileges,” how the diet and lifestyle would be regulated, and how to practice meditation. All of this was shared in a lecture to a large congregation of one or two thousand people. After the talk, sixty volunteered.
IM: Tell us about the first course.
KB: During the first retreat at the prison, we experimented with a small group of inmates in a violent category—those who were incarcerated for life for crimes such as murder. So we started with the most difficult prisoners and came to the easier ones later. That’s just how we did it; I’m not necessarily suggesting that it must be done in that order.
The teachers of the first course were Mr. Ram Singh, a former government official, and professor Dar, who is a teacher in the Indian Institute of Technology. They stayed with the convicts inside the prison to do this program. In addition, these vipassana teachers required the prison guards to take the course and learn to meditate with the inmates.
On the third day of the course, the prisoners threatened the teachers and tried to get them to leave. But the teachers hung on because they had faith in the innate goodness of the prisoners. Of course, they were not without security guards, but the security guards were nowhere nearby because the teachers had insisted on this. The teachers kept their faith, and by the fifth day, the prisoners broke down and started to follow the teachings.
On the eleventh day of the meditation course when we broke silence, we didn’t know what the participants would say. This was our first experiment. The media had been allowed inside the prison, and there we were sitting before their cameramen. The prisoners could have said anything: “To hell with the prison staff! Look what they did to us!” I was keeping my fingers crossed.
But when we broke the retreat silence, some of the men were in tears. I’d never seen these men cry. They only make others cry. As they were crying, they said things like, “I was planning to murder a magistrate or my witness or my victim’s family when I got out, but now I realize the futility of that thought.”
Then they urged me to make this program available for a larger group inside the prison. So we held a second course inside the prison for around 1,100 prisoners. I was dealing with a population of 9,700 people, and if I kept it small, I wouldn’t be able to make a dent. The men who had taken the first course wanted to share their experience with the other prisoners. After completing the course, they urged the others, “Do it! You’re doing time anyway, why don’t you do vipassana?”
For this next large course of 1,100 students, Mr. Goenka came in to teach himself. He said that many decades earlier his teacher in Burma had predicted that one day he would be conducting a program with over a thousand prison inmates. He told us, “For me, it was my teacher’s prophesy coming true.”
IM: What is the current status of the vipassana program at the prison?
KB: Now we have a meditation center inside the walls of Tijar. During their free time, prisoners can go to the center and meditate. One-day courses are offered at the center, with teachers coming in from outside. And Mr. Goenka, on his visits to Delhi, goes back to the prison to lead a program for the prisoners, so there’s a lot of reinforcement for continuation of the practice. Many prisoners have done fourteen of the ten-day courses by now, and some have even done eighteen. The teachers are amazed at the beautiful stage the prisoners have reached. Some of the prisoners are now meditating in one-month programs, which may enable them to become teachers themselves! I left the prison in 1995, but the prison has not skipped a single course according to schedule.
IM: When they take their first vipassana course, what do you think happens inside of those prisoners so that by the time they break silence they are weeping? How has vipassana allowed them to open their hearts?
KB: I think that, most of all, they have realized that they can’t tell lies to themselves anymore. They were always lying externally, but now when they looked inside, who was there to tell lies to? That’s what vipassana means: looking within, looking at yourself. As they continued to look, their denial stopped. Acceptance began. They started to accept and take responsibility for their own conduct and misconduct. When the silence broke, the internal truth became an external statement.
They had committed crimes, but all along, to me, as a police officer, they would say, “We’ve been sent to prison wrongly.” They were always denying their own crimes. It was not what I said, but meditation, this program, that made them acknowledge that they had, in fact, committed the crimes, and that they would take responsibility for their own wrongdoing.
They also learn in vipassana to keep educating themselves. That daily practice of sitting, even for half an hour a day, keeps them looking at themselves, policing themselves.
IM: How about the guards? What do you think happens for them when they go through the course?
KB: The guard who introduced me to vipassana had been a very angry man. He had not been a good family man, but after the course he became a wonderful person with his family. His wife and children testified to that. Another guard who had been addicted to domestic violence and alcohol changed dramatically after taking the vipassana course.
IM: Did the authorities ever express reservations abut offering a Buddhist-based program in an institution of a primarily Hindu nation?
KB: I’ll answer that questions in two ways. First of all, India is dominated by people practicing Hinduism, but it is a strongly secular country that respects all faiths. Second, vipassana is not Buddhist. It was practiced by a man named Gautama who came to be called Buddha [Awakened One]. There’s a very important distinction which we need to make. This program does not turn out Buddhists; it only makes more buddhas.
IM: The vipassana program at Tijar has launched a worldwide movement. There are now ten-day vipassana courses in jails in England, New Zealand and Taiwan. In Seattle, there have been seven ten-day courses so far. Lucia Meijer, as the administrator of the North Rehabilitation Facility in Seattle, will you give us some sense of how your program got started and how it’s going?
Lucia Meijer: Vipassana came to us at a very different stage of development in our institution than in Tihar. The North Rehabilitation Facility (NRF) is an alternative detention site and houses only 291 inmates. It had already benefited from a great deal of enlightened and progressive administration before vipassana was introduced. There were already educational and life skills programming, job training and vocational rehabilitation, already a lot of emphasis on individual growth and development enabling an inmate to become a more self-sufficient, responsible individual.
Vipassana was proposed to me by one of our jail health staff who is a meditator and a teacher. At first, I thought that we didn’t need it because we already had the stress reduction, the acupuncture and the tai chi, the this and the that. I thought to myself, “We’re doing the best that can be done as it is, and we’re still having problems. Why go through all the effort to create a separate wing and to implement such a program?”
But when I saw the film that featured Kiran Bedi’s work at the Tihar prison, it occurred to me that we were missing something important, which was that elusive spiritual component. Spiritual is a word that I have always winced at because it really has only the content that you give it. Anybody can say it’s anything, and I think it has been appropriated by some pretty fringe types. But after I saw the film, it occurred to me that this vipassana is something very old, very practical, and it has tremendous potential to reach that spiritual undercurrent in people. I also recognized that while we were doing the best we could, we still had a lot of problems in the institution and we still had high recidivism rates.
So after a long process, which involved me taking a vipassana course and then convincing my management team to support it (no easy task considering what seemed like possible security risks), we put out the word to the inmates. When we showed them Doing Time, Doing Vipassana, enough of them found it inspirational that we had sixteen men sign up for the first course. It was painful for them to make that commitment because in the culture of that facility, the sentiment was: “Are you crazy?” At least when you’re in the general population, you can smoke, you can watch television, you can get visits, you can have mail. They were challenged from every side, “What’s wrong with you? How can you volunteer to go into this prison inside of a prison for ten days? Who are these people coming in? This must be a cult.” Either that, or the volunteers were accused of sucking up to management. So the inmates who chose to take the course went in under a lot of adversity. Five dropped out and eleven finished.
At the end of the course, we had a reception, just as they do in India, so that the family members and other inmates could receive the guys who had sustained this commitment. Considering the climate under which they had gone into the course, they didn’t know what kind of reception they were going to get when they came out. They didn’t know if people were going to (figuratively) throw eggs at them or what.
We were all in the gymnasium, and the crowd, mostly consisting of inmates, settled down. The fellows walked in, all eleven of them, in single file. Spontaneously everybody stood up and cheered. It was a wonderful moment of solidarity. This is something that I see happening a lot with vipassana. It brings the staff together; it brings the inmates together behind a positive effort; it brings staff and inmates together with one another in making this effort.
KB: What did they say on breaking silence?
LM: Very similar things to what was said at the end of your program. First of all, they expressed their gratitude. This surprised me, because typically at these events the remarks seem self-aggrandizing. When we have a graduation from an educational program, the prisoners say, “I’m so proud of myself, and you can all be very proud of me.” They tell long, sad stories about themselves and how much better they are now; then they cry. Everybody has a catharsis; there’s lots of hugging; maybe the judge lets them go home early.
I bring a skepticism to these graduation events. As the administrator, it’s my job to be more skeptical than anyone else. I’ve seen what happens a week later, a month later, a year later when they are sent back having committed more crimes. Tears do not move me. But when these guys came out saying, “Thank you,” I have to tell you, I was close to tears myself. I had to leave the room. God forbid anybody should see me tearing up.
[Turning to Kiran Bedi] There is something you were saying that really rings true for me. At this event, following the experience with vipassana, I saw an authenticity that I had not seen before.
IM: How does that authenticity manifest?
LM: It is just what Kiran said. The prisoners are not lying to themselves anymore. After other programs, they would come out blaming themselves. There’s a big difference between blaming yourself and taking responsibility. Coming out of the vipassana course, they were taking responsibility in an eyes-open way.
Now, old habits reassert themselves fairly quickly. You take people out of the environment, and even though they can continue to practice for several hours a day, those old habits are very deeply ingrained and they’re going to reassert themselves sooner or later. So vipassana’s not a magic bullet. But for our sixty-six inmates who have now completed courses in vipassana, something has become easier. It’s like stretching a rubber band. There may be a lot of resistance the first time, but having had that experience, that sense of taking responsibility comes a bit more easily. I see it as an incremental process.
IM: What exactly do you mean when you describe prisoners as taking responsibility?
LM: I see them understanding cause and effect. If I do this, then such-and-such happens; so if I want things to happen differently, I need to do things differently. This is something that we call self-efficacy. It’s hard to develop self-efficacy if you grow up in a world where you have no control over anything, where things just happen no matter what your intentions or actions. Many of our inmates have histories of prior physical and sexual abuse, of growing up in very chaotic, drug-infested, violent situations. They haven’t developed that self-efficacy because they couldn’t make the connection between what they did and what happened afterwards. When they sit a vipassana course, that connection may become clear for the first time.
IM: Within the prison environment, what is the difference between the effects of a ten-day vipassana course compared to a once-a-week stress reduction training or meditation class?
LM: First of all, with vipassana we’re not looking to reduce stress, to run away from it, to cover it up, or smooth it out. We’re learning to face stress.
Vivian Snyder: We’re often asked, can you please come into our jail and do one hour a week of vipassana. We’d like to be able to say yes, but vipassana, as taught by Goenka, is offered only in ten-day courses, and this is for several reasons. For one thing, it takes ten days of personal experience to get a grasp of the actual techniques so that at the end you can take it with you and continue to practice. Otherwise you’re having a relaxing experience, and that is all. But ten days of meditating twelve hours a day becomes a very deep, very profound experiential time. You meditate day after day, with each day building on the next and the instructions building on your experiences from the day before. That’s what is needed because you’re getting a tool for the rest of your life, not an experience.
Harry Snyder: Goenkaji has insisted that this technique won’t work unless it’s conducted for a minimum of ten days. So, we conduct the same course in prisons that we would conduct at the California Meditation Center or in our centers in Washington, Texas or Massachusetts. We go and live inside the prison and teach a ten-day course. Goenkaji has also insisted that some officials with responsibility must take the course first so that they understand its value and are supportive of it. Otherwise, we’re laying something over the top of a nonsupportive environment; then, even if the inmates commit to the course, they risk having it ridiculed or demeaned afterwards.
LM: That’s an important point. If you are going to change the climate of the institution, you can’t just start with the inmates. You have to simultaneously work with the staff. In the ten-day vipassana courses at the North Rehabilitation Facility, the security people get paid for their regular eight hours a day of work as they do the course. But they volunteer for the other sixteen hours a day. Just like everyone else, they are volunteering to meditate.
VS: It must be an amazing experience for the inmates to open their eyes, as one does now and then, and to see the administrator of their jail sitting and meditating with them. Or to see their security guards, eyes closed, sitting and meditating along with their fellow jail residents. This has to be very inspiring.
IM: Just seeing that must be quite an experience for you as administrators as well. When you’re on the cushion and you gaze out at the prisoners in their orange jumpsuits sitting so still, it must look like you’ve got a room full of bhikkhus. It’s a different kind of robe, but still the threads of the Buddha.
Meanwhile, aside from your official role, how have the vipassana courses affected your personal lives? Do you still practice?
KB: Yes. As I was explaining to her [nodding to Lucia Meijer], now when I have time on my hands, I do my own meditation program. Let’s say I am traveling on an eight-hour airplane flight, it feels to me as if I have eight hours to meditate. I find that the practice develops and grows within me. Most importantly, it’s allowed me to be more at peace with myself. I have become less demanding on myself. I perform my duty to the best of my ability, but I’m not under pressure to take on the whole world and achieve the whole world.
LM: I think my experience probably wouldn’t sound much different from any of the inmates. I have been able to face many of my fears, to find courage that I didn’t know that I had, to get past my own ego. In fact, I have gotten a sense of what a big pain in the butt that ego has been. I’ve noticed that I have been more accessible to my family and a much better boss to my staff. But this is not because I have been suddenly filled with grace and compassion. It wasn’t anything that I put on, like a coat. Because of vipassana, my own ego was not getting in the way as often— so a more compassionate attitude just naturally came forward.
IM: Do either of you have any suggestions about how a vipassana prison program can be designed so it is most effective for the long-term benefit of the people involved?
KB: This is a very good question, because there is something that needs to be stated here. People who have done this program at the Tihar Central Jail have to be housed separately. After finishing the program, we thought, “Oh, it’s through now, fine.” No way. We immediately found that the prisoners who had completed the course were very uncomfortable in the general population. They pleaded, “Please, separate us from the group, because they don’t understand that we need our silence.” So we did. We rehoused the prisoners who had done vipassana, and then give them scheduled meditation times and programs.
Separate housing provides another enabling environment. The moment we rehoused them, they created a whole new world of their own. There were no more nude pictures and pin-ups. In fact, the entire atmosphere changed, and along with that, their needs changed. It was important to have a teacher available, to have a warden who understood them, and to have an easy way to get the group together for scheduled sittings. That’s what has kept it going. What they experienced in the ten-day course continued to be reinforced.
IM: Pretty soon you’ll have people outside the prison picking a pocket so that they can get inside the prison and participate in these programs!
KB: Interestingly, enough, something like that has been happening at our facility. When non-prisoners haven’t been able to get seats in vipassana courses on the outside, they haven’t minded coming into the prison and sitting with the prisoners.
LM: We’ve had a similar experience in Seattle. Because we’re a jail, lots of people are incarcerated while awaiting trial. Many of the folks that go into the vipassana course call their attorney, or the judge, and say, “Don’t release me until after I’ve completed this course, okay?” Many of them had hearings that would come up during the course, and they waived their right to those hearings so they could finish the course.
There was one man who took a course and was released on probation. A condition of his probation was that he go to an A.A. meeting every day for ninety days. After he had been released for some time, he came back to the jail. We asked him, “What happened? Did you reoffend?” He said, “No, I didn’t reoffend. I was going to the A.A. meetings, but everybody was unhappy and agitated. So I went to the judge and asked, ‘Please, let me finish my ninety days at NRF. At least there I can take another vipassana course and continue my education. It’s too depressing at the A.A. meetings.’ So the judge said, ‘Okay.’” And the man came back to NRF and took another course.
KB: What she’s describing happened in exactly the same way in New Delhi. People were getting release orders during the time that they were sitting the program. Again and again, they insisted, “I don’t want to be disturbed.”
IM: It’s wonderful, what you are doing in these programs. This is truly a vipassana revolution in progress. Some day, you’ll have monasteries right inside the prison.
KB: Our prison has almost become a monastery. It’s a monastery that is full of joy and happiness, internal joy and internal peace. It’s that kind of monastery that is silent and healthy.
IM: So when you walk from one side of the prison to the other where the inmates are doing vipassana, you truly notice a difference?
KB: You notice a difference written on the faces. In fact, you can tell if a person is a meditator. He’s at peace with himself. He’s got a natural smile already, because he’s accepting the moment. The others are denying it and quarreling with it. That’s the difference. One man is doing time doubly; the meditator is living time, not doing time.