The imprisonment of criminals is said to serve many purposes according to Zimring. Some of these may be to physically isolate offenders, to assist in the correction of inmates, to reform and rehabilitate the offenders, to let retribution visit the offending persons and to deter potential offenders from committing crimes. This article will examine as to how Vipassana has helped to achieve some of these objectives.
It is generally known that most prisons throughout the world are fast becoming training grounds for first offenders of petty crimes to graduate into fully-fledged criminals under the guidance of seasoned criminals. This defeats the very purpose of rehabilitation, one of the main objectives of incarceration. In addition the sub-human living conditions under which inmates have to live in most jails and the easy access to drugs and other vices further deters the achievement of this desired objective.
These negative effects of incarceration are well known the world over and it has resulted in a growing concern over such trends worldwide. Many sociologists have shown that reformation and rehabilitation should in a civilized society be the prime aim of imprisonment. It is even said, “the level of a society’s civilization can be judged by the state of its prisons”. Various jails in the West, especially in the USA have now introduced a number of correctional programs like vocational training in different trades, interview therapy, counselling and behaviour modification techniques and academic studies. But Greenberg who has studied these programs held under different conditions has concluded that they may serve other purposes, but the prevention of return to a life of crime after release. So the assertion that could be made is that such methods do not bring very much by way of positive results. Thus evidence of this kind has many to consider that reform programs are ineffective. Other techniques such as chemical pacification are being hotly contested. Recidivism, however, should not be the sole criterion of evaluating the effectiveness of a correctional system. Greenberg’s study, nevertheless, points to the need for a fresh look at this important issue. Vipassana meditation should, therefore, be seriously examined as technique for corrections of prisoners, particularly in view of its well-established efficacy in purifying the mind of its deep-rooted defilements and bringing the mind under control.
Vipassana in jails
Vipassana or experiencing within one’s self has helped many thousands of prisoners suffering inside the prisons. Many prisons in India are now organising Vipassana courses for their inmates as a step in the direction of reformation. Prisons in other countries like UK and USA have also started introducing Vipassana in their own jails. Many prison officials in India on the other hand have started to realise that spreading Vipassana in the society will help prevent crime. Prevention is no doubt better than cure.
The first course in Vipassana conducted in a prison in India was held in 1975. S. N. Goenka conducted the course. It was in the central jail of Rajasthan. This course was said to have been an unqualified success. In 1976 a course was held at the Police Academy at Jaipur for the police officials. At this course officers of the rank of Deputy Inspector-General of Police to the ordinary Constable sat together in meditation. In 1977 a second course was conducted in the Jaipur Central Jail. These were very successful courses. In 1990 another course was arranged in the same jail. In 1991 a course was conducted in the Gujarat Jail. Then came the course in the Central Jail in Baroda. These were all difficult tasks. The most difficult of all was the course conducted in Tihar Jail in the capital city of India, New Delhi.
Vipassana came to Tihar in 1993. Bringing Vipassana to Tihar Jail was a difficult task. But this was possible due to the untiring efforts and the commitment of the Inspector-General of Prisons, Kiran Bedi. This was followed by four other courses in 1994. The crowning moment for Vipassana in Indian Jails came when a course was conducted in Tihar for 1004 male prisoners and 49 female prisoners simultaneously in one single course in April 1994. This was possibly the largest ever Vipassana course held anywhere in the world. The participants were from various categories of prisoners involved in major crimes, including terrorist activities. They were from different backgrounds, religious groups and even from foreign countries. At the end of this course a permanent Vipassana centre was inaugurated under the aegis of the prison authorities with the blessings of the government of India. These courses have now produced many jail officials who have learnt Vipassana. Following the success at Tihar the Ministry of Home Affairs of Government of India have now opted to introduce Vipassana as a reform measure in all prisons in India. This is a very significant move. Success of Vipassana at Tihar heralds a new era of reform and rehabilitation for those who follow a life of crime. It provides an effective way of emancipation not only from a life of crime but from all suffering and misery as well.
The immediate effect of the Vipassana camps in Baroda Central Jail was reduction of offences inside the jail. The inmates observed prison rules voluntarily. Discipline inside the jail improved and conflicts with prison staff minimised. This resulted in better co-operation between the inmates and the prison staff thus bringing about a peaceful atmosphere inside the jail free from tension. Law and order situation inside the jail consequently did no longer pose a problem.
The attitude of the prisoners towards work entrusted to them changed noticeably in that they now worked conscientiously. Another beneficial effect of Vipassana was that it helped them to get rid of their addiction to smoking, drugs and other intoxicants. It also taught how to control their emotions and feelings and also to develop an attitude of positive thinking. Communal harmony was strengthened helping the inmates of different castes and creeds to live together peacefully respecting each other’s rights. They also responded positively to various reform activities by giving expression to their feelings through art and other forms of literary activities. In short the inmates have developed a purpose in life. This is the spiritual reward of Vipassana meditation.
A research study was conducted on the first Vipassana meditation camp in Tihar Jail. The main objective of the study was to assess the beneficial effects of Vipassana on the inmates quantitatively. The research was conducted by getting the inmates to answer a carefully prepared questionnaire before and after the camp. According to the study 42% had indicated that Vipassana had given them a new direction in their lives. About 90% said that they would practice Vipassana regularly. More than 90% felt it very inspiring to see prison staff and officials meditating along with them and that it increased their fraternal feelings. 48% of them conceded that they had committed a crime. This is significant since only 24% had admitted to committing a crime before the camp. It was also significant that many who had carried feelings of hatred and revenge had decided to give up their plans, which they had meticulously prepared before the camp to be carried out on their release. 78% of those who smoked or chewed tobacco had expressed that the feeling was extinct after the camp. Many others reported an improvement of their general health and release of tension. On the other hand, of the prison staff that participated, 66% felt that it would improve the environment in the jail. About 40% reported that they were able to overcome their urge for drinking and smoking.
It is, however, obvious that any scientific investigation will have the limitation that it tests only that which can be operationalised objectively and measured experimentally. It often ignores the unique characteristics of each individual, and the finer aspects of the change process. However, the initial results of this study have been found to be highly satisfactory and needs to be followed up with further research.
In another experiment carried out also in the Tihar Jail the study revealed that most of the prisoners who participated in the experiment said that they had better control of their anger. In others anger occurred less frequently. Most of them also felt that they had gained some mental peace and suffered less from stress. All of them said that their benevolence and compassion towards others – staff and co-inmates increased. Many prisoners gave up smoking and others cut down on the habit drastically. Most of them reported an improvement of health. The study reported fourteen major points of improvements in the prisoners.
Thus, Vipassana has been very useful in reforming the inmates in the prisons in India. It has helped the authorities to successfully transform some of them into good citizens. Further, it has been successful as a tool in the reform process as it helps to achieve the ultimate aims and objectives of imprisonment that have been set by the government. It has also given purposefulness to the lives of many prisoners and rendered the various steps and activities undertaken for the welfare of the inmates more effective and successful.
Vipassana practice makes one a good human being. It enables one to live peacefully and harmoniously with others and helps generate a peaceful and harmonious environment all round oneself for others. Because Vipassana goes beyond the barriers of caste, sect, communalism and narrow nationalism, it improves morality. Thus along with material benefit there can be real happiness for those practicing Vipassana. Further, it can be an effective instrument in national integration and international understanding and is thus a powerful tool for social integration. It is, therefore, of great relevance to the country at this moment of division and hatred.
Vipassana is an art of many things. It is first an art of living. It teaches you how to live happily and harmoniously. It also teaches you how to live with equanimity. Whereas we should be the master of our mind and remain equanimous, we become its slave by surrendering to our cravings and aversions. We should conquer our emotions and regain the balance of our mind. Vipassana makes this possible.10
Vipassana practice makes one a good human being. It enables one to live peacefully and harmoniously with others and helps generate a peaceful and harmonious environment all round oneself for others.11 Because Vipassana goes beyond the barriers of caste, sect, communalism and narrow nationalism, it improves morality. Thus along with material benefit there can be real happiness for those practicing Vipassana. Further, it can be an effective instrument in national integration and international understanding12 and is thus a powerful tool for social integration.13 It is, therefore, of great relevance to the country at this moment of division and hatred.
Vipassana, therefore, is a very effective technique in any reform program for prisoners. The technique is scientific and non-sectarian. Therefore, all irrespective of caste, creed, race, sex, religion, and nationality could practice it.14 Through this technique, a major transformation of behaviour patterns of prisoners could be obtained. It thus helps the authorities in their efforts at reforming criminals.
Besides, there are many therapeutic ingredients relevant to prisons in the ideology and the value system fostered by Vipassana. One of the best approaches to mental health is the value-based approach to making the students follow the five precepts. It is obvious that mindfulness of respiration or practice of anapana for greater control over the mind is helpful in managing harmful impulses. Similarly, it will be a powerful antidote to the negative feelings of the mind such as anxiety, hostility, depression, and fear if one can understand that every experience is impermanent.15
The technique has been found to be an effective means for attitudinal change, management of stress and strain, and instilling such qualities as compassion, equanimity, integrity and efficiency in discharging one’s duties and responsibilities. It is thus an effective instrument for change and reform.
It has been used as far back as 3rd Century B.C. by Asoka the Emperor in India as an instrument of reform in the governance of his vast Empire.16 In recent times the Government of Madhya Pradesh has decided to grant duty leave to those officers joining Vipassana courses held in the State Academy of Administration (similar to our own SLIDA). Now it is the official policy of the Government of Rajasthan to expose police personnel of all ranks to Vipassana meditation courses. In a major policy decision, the Government has granted special leave to all government officers to attend Vipassana meditation courses. It has also decided to organise regular meditation courses in the State Institute of Public Administration, Rajasthan Police Academy and other training institutes. The first ever Vipassana course within a police training academy for cadets was held at the sprawling campus of the Police Training College some 40 km from Delhi in January, 1999. College trains over 1000 cadets. Kiran Bedi the Inspector- General who was responsible for introducing Vipassana meditation to Tihar jail has been instrumental in organizing Vipassana courses amongst the police forces in India. She herself sat at this first course. The course was a success. Following up on this, in what was to be the largest Vipassana course in recent times a 10- day course was organized for 1200 police training cadets at this Police Training College in March 1999. This historic mega Vipassana course was the immediate outcome of the one held in January the same year. This course being a success now arrangements are being made by Commissioner Kiran Bedi to give a travelling allowance to every police cadet and one of his family members to take a Vipassana course in Dhamma Giri at Igatpuri. The leadership in training police officers in Vipassana has thus come from the very top.
Vipassana could be used for better management in business and government as well. Individuals who have practised Vipassana are bound to have an influence on others. The interaction among people, say between employees and employers, be it Government or Public Sector is bound to improve thereby by making the working environment more peaceful and harmonious. As more and more take to meditation the society will keep on improving these relationships. By transforming the attitudes the Vipassana meditation technique improves the lives of executives and business managers. It helps to replace prejudice with compassion, jealousy with joy at the success of others, greed and arrogance with generosity and humility. This transformation of attitude reduces stress and helps to build equanimity and balance. It induces dynamism and creativity in the workforce. Consequently it will help Human Resource Development. Therefore the benefits are many.17 Thus the lessons to be learnt from Vipassana in India are not only in prevention of crime. It also shows that it has potential for good governance as well. It can be used in schools, in Police, in the Armed Services and in fact the entire Public and Private Sectors for harmony, peace and better performance. Who will take the first genuine step in Sri Lanka to make use of this technique for the wellbeing of the society at large?