Crime, like any other action of the
body, is a manifestation of the thoughts in the mind. When the thinking process gets
perverted and/or the mind gets out of control, the actions are bound to be unwholesome,
producing misery and sorrow for both the doer and the recipient of such actions. If the
mind can be brought under control, and purified of dross or negativities which corrupt the
thinking process, unwholesome deeds-the crime-will automatically be avoided. Vipassana
Meditation-a scientific technique to control and purify the mind through self
observation-can thus be of great help in criminal reform. This is one of the crying needs
of modern times, with its widespread crime and violence. The efficacy of Vipassana
in this sphere has already been established by pioneering efforts made in Rajasthan. The
first two Vipassana camps to be held in jails were organized there in 1975
and 1977 in the Central Jail, Jaipur. Since then a number of such camps have been
conducted successfully in jails in Gujarat, in Sabarmati Central Jail, Ahmedabad and
Baroda Central Jail.
It was with the background of this information that the
new Additional-Secretary in Ministry of Home Affairs, Mr. M.L. Mehta wrote to Dr. (Mrs.)
Kiran Bedi, the Inspector General of Tihar Central Jail to explore the possibility of
organizing a Vipassana camp for the inmates. By a sheer coincidence, almost at the same
time, an assistant superintendent in one of the jails spoke
to Kiran Bedi of the benefits of Vipassana. This
was Mr. Rajinder Kumar, who was encouraged by the bold reformatory measures initiated by
Mrs. Bedi and who had himself taken a course in Vipassana meditation. Thus
originated the correspondence between Tihar Jail and the Vipassana Research
Institute (VRI) which culminated in the first ever meditation camp at Tihar.
A series of meetings took place between the team of jail
officials led by Kiran Bedi and the representatives of VRI, to identify the camp site and
choose the participants for the camp. A chief concern was that the camp should be
conducted in a way that would ensure the sustainability of this experiment over a long
Tihar Central Jail is one of the largest prisons in the
world having at present about 8,500 inmates. Out of these only about 800 are convicts, the
rest being mostly under-trials and detainees. To begin with it was felt desirable to have
a camp only for convicts.
As there was no hall available for the purpose of
meditation, it was necessary to construct a tent structure as a temporary hall using shamiana.
Keeping in view these and other requirements, mainly of security, Ward 10 of Jail 2 was
selected as the camp site.
In order to motivate the inmates towards meditation, taped
introductory discourses of Goenkaji, the Vipassana Teacher, were played on three
occasions and clarifications provided regarding the code of discipline and the nature of
the technique. To elicit proper co-operation of the staff and officials, the Inspector
General, Kiran Bedi, was asked to send some of them to regular camps held at Jaipur and
Delhi. Two officials and one staff member attended a course at Jaipur and one of them, Mr.
Ranffit Singh, was so deeply influenced that even Kiran Bedi remarked that there had been
a miraculous transformation in him. She was quite keen that some more staff members and
officials should attend the camp along with prisoners at Tihar. However they did not like
the idea and till a day before the course, none was willing to join. Nevertheless, under
the instructions of the Inspector General, twenty-three staff and officials finally turned
up for the camp.
The course was conducted by Shri Ram Singh. He was
assisted by Shri B.R. Chadda of Faridabad and Prof. P.L. Dhar of I.I.T., New Delhi. The
two jail officials, Shri. Rajinder Kumar & Shri. Ranjit Singh, who had previously
participated in such camps, helped in the management of the course.
Profile of The Participants
Besides the twenty-three members of staff and officers
there were finally ninety six prisoners in the camp. These included ten under-trials (one
of them being a non-resident Indian detainee) and three foreigners. A structured
questionnaire was designed with the help of two experts: Prof. Purnima Mathur of IIT and
Dr. (Mrs.) Adarsh Sharma of Nipcid. This was given to all the inmates about a week before
the camp to get an idea of their personal & family background, nature of crime,
attitude towards others, influence of the imprisonment, and spiritual inclination etc.
Another questionnaire designed to assess the influence of the meditation was given to them
after the camp. Out of ninety-six inmates, seventy-four filled both the questionnaires and
the analysis given below is based on their responses.
Most of the participants in the camp were young (38% below
30 years of age and 77% below 40 years of age); married (70%) and educated (55% having
studied up to secondary school level or higher and only 15% being illiterate). Just over
half of them came from an educated family background with a monthly income above Rs. 2000
Half of the inmates had been convicted or accused of
murder, 22% of drug trafficking and 28% of other crimes like riots, wife burning, etc.
About half of them had been sentenced to life imprisonment, and 10% were under-trials
awaiting judgement. Over 80% of the inmates said that it was their first crime, and only
7% admitted to having committed over ten crimes. More than 74% claimed to have been
wrongly implicated and only 24% accepted that they had actually committed the crime in a
pre-planned manner. About 40% indicated that the crime had been committed in self-defense,
due to poverty or a flash of anger.
Nearly all of the inmates indicated that they were joining
the camp because of their own desire to gain peace of mind and become a good citizen.
About half of them had discussed the camp with other inmates after the pre-camp
orientation talks, thus indicating the usefulness of this orientation. .An interesting
fact which emerges from this feedback is that these inmates had a strong
"religious" bent of mind. About 90% indicated that they had a reverential
attitude towards "religious people", 87% were theists and more than 62%
mentioned that they prayed or meditated regularly.
As expected, most of the prisoners suffer from tension;
73% indicated that they were excessively worried about the future, 39% said that they were
very often thinking about the past and 47% mentioned that their mind did not remain
peaceful at all. In fact 16% of them confessed that they were constantly thinking about
taking revenge against the people who were responsible for their imprisonment.
On the basis of the feedback it seems that most of the
inmates continue to have good relationships with their family members. Over 90% indicated
that they had great affection for their family members and 74% felt that the family
members also had similar feelings towards them, and that they did not consider them
guilty. Quite naturally, it was the family relationship, which they missed the most in
Regarding the usual addictions, it seems quite a
significant fraction of them are free from all of them; 54% unequivocally denied having
taken any drugs, 40% claimed to be teetotallers and 26% claimed to be non-smokers. About
34% admitted to be smokers (18% very heavy smokers), 22% admitted that they took alcohol
(4% addicts) and 27% admitted to having taken drugs (4% occasionally and 23% rarely). Most
of them felt that they were not given to excessive quarreling (70%), or anger (50%), that
they had a generally affectionate nature (50%) and had an attitude of brotherhood towards
others (80%). In fact 44% of them were willing to offer succour to the bereaved families.
Considering the fact that for over 25% of the respondents the question was inapplicable
(being accused of crimes like drug trafficking, wife burning, etc.), this is a very
It is generally believed that the prison atmosphere only
increases the motivation to crime. However in this feedback, 85% indicated that they were
now motivated to become good citizens. In so far as the influence of conviction is
concerned, 27% indicated that they had developed an aversion to the world of crime and
another 10% indicated an increase in religious feelings. This rather unexpected response
may possibly be due to the influence of reformatory processes initiated in the jail about
a year ago by the new Inspector General.
Main Observations Regarding
Conduct of the Course
Th is camp was obviously quite different from the regular
camps organized at the centres. Firstly, for most of the participants who belonged to the
same ward, it was just a different activity around their usual residence. That inner
feeling of going to a different place with a specific objective of learning something
useful was clearly missing for them. The inmates from other jails who came for the course
were hardened criminals and trouble-makers, and were reluctant to join the course. In fact
on the eve of the camp, we had to once again reiterate that participation was purely
voluntary and many of those deputed were allowed to leave. All told we had not only
unwilling jail staff, but also quite a few prisoners present in the camp for reasons other
than a genuine desire to learn meditation. (We later learnt that a few inmates of Ward 10
had joined only because they did not want to be shifted to some other place for twelve
days!). Clearly this selection of students was not conducive to maintenance of the kind of
strict discipline normally associated with Vipassana camps. Discipline was
therefore a casualty, and since even the jail officials didn't observe it
scrupulously, the inmates also felt encouraged to be lax. Therefore a rather unusual.
measure had to be taken in segregating non-serious inmates from the rest and even changing
their residence on the sixth day. One officer was allowed to leave the course on the third
day, but he came back under instructions from the Inspector General. Nevertheless about 60
inmates tried their best to meditate seriously and achieved wonderful results. In fact,
about 15-20 inmates achieved very subtle stages in their meditation. Shri Ram Singh felt
that in terms of the results achieved, it was the best camp that he had conducted to date.
The Research Study
The main objective of the study was to quantitatively
assess, as far as possible, the beneficial effects of Vipassana on the inmates.
This was done by soliciting their response to a set of carefully prepared questions, both
before and after the camp. A special questionnaire was also prepared for understanding the
response of the jail staff to meditation. The main findings of this study are given below.
Feedback from Prisoners
All the respondents felt that they had gained something
from the camp, with 42% indicating that it had given a new direction to their lives.
Nearly all said that they would advise their family members to participate in similar
camps at regular centres, and that they were themselves also willing to participate and
help in organization of such camps in future. About 90% of them indicated that they would
maintain the regularity of their practice and would like to participate in group sittings
and one day camps on holidays. More than 90% of the prisoners felt it was very inspiring
to see the jail staff and officials-especially their deputy superintendent-meditating
along with them and felt that it increased fraternal feelings. This appears quite
remarkable in view of the fact that most jail staff did not take the camp seriously.
Another remarkable conclusion which emerges from the responses is that after the camp, 48%
of the prisoners conceded that they had committed a crime while before the camp only 24%
had conceded it.
A general attenuation in the inner feeling to take revenge
against the people who had (falsely) implicated or (wrongly) convicted them was another
important influence of the meditation camp. This was rather dramatically expressed by one
convict in front of the Press. He confessed that he had prepared meticulous plans in the
jail to kill the judge who had convicted him, and he had burnt the plans on the seventh
day of the camp!
Another interesting conclusion which emerges from the
study is that, out of the prisoners who smoke or chew tobacco, etc., 78% indicated that
this desire had been extinguished. Many of them also indicated other positive effects on
their health through diminution in backache, stomach disorders, respiratory ailments,
piles and sleeplessness.
The general observations made by the meditators after the
camp were also quite interesting. Most reported a release of tensions and felt greater
calmness and peace. Many felt that they were exposed to pure Dhamma for the first
time in their life. This observation is quite revealing because after the discourse on the
seventh day, there were some murmurs amongst a few meditators that proper respect was not
shown to the deities of a particular religious belief. Many inmates also mentioned that
they had fewer digressive and troubling thoughts about the past and future. There had
arisen an inner desire to become a good citizen and serve others. Some of the participants
who could not observe the various precepts very scrupulously felt sorry and were keen to
get another chance to reap greater benefit from meditation.
Feedback from Jail Staff
Out of twenty-three staff members who participated in the
course, the response of twenty-one could be collected. About half of the respondents felt
that this experience gave a new direction to their life, 38% felt that it was a good
learning experience for them and 14% mentioned candidly that they somehow managed to pass
The greatest difficulty faced by the staff, and the reason
that they were basically unwilling to join the camp, was the stigma associated with living
with criminals inside the jail. Six of them indicated that "continuous wandering of
the mind" was the biggest difficulty. Although only two of them actually mentioned
"living with prisoners ' as the most difficult aspect of the camp, the actual number
of participants who felt so was much higher; five people did not respond to this question
and eight indicated "other problems" as most significant. This conclusion is
corroborated by the fact that while an overwhelming 86% of them mentioned that they would
continue daily practice at home, only about 20% were fully willing to participate in group
meditation or one-day camps if organized within the jail.
Again about half of the participants were willing to
recommend the meditation to their colleagues only in the camps held outside the jail.
Two-thirds of them were keen to advise their family members to attend such camps.
The lack of appropriate basic facilities (like toilet and
bath) also contributed to the lukewarm response from the jail staff. This is quite clear
from the fact that 38% of them felt that such camps should be held in a separate campus
for both jail inmates and staff. It should be noted that an equal number felt that such
camps should be organized only for the prisoners and 14% felt that such camps should not
be held at all. It is clear from the feedback that at least two of the staff members did
not receive the course positively. They felt that such courses would spoil the discipline
and therefore should not be held in future. However the majority of them (66%) felt that
it would improve the jail environment.
About 80% of the staff members indicated that they did not
have any feeling of contempt towards the prisoners even before the camp and that after the
camp they felt even more sympathetic towards them.
Out of fifteen persons who had either smoking or drinking
habits, about 40% felt that they had overcome this habit and the rest also felt a decrease
in its intensity. The general observations made by the jail staff after the camp were also
in consonance with the responses mentioned above. Most of them felt that Vipassana
was a good technique to gain peace of mind but they also felt that the discipline was very
demanding. Most of them would prefer to do camps separately and not along with prisoners.
They also felt that a separate site should be identified for such activities in future.
And yet, personal discussions with them after the camp reveal that none of them has any
negativity about the camp and most of those who could not do the camp seriously were
willing to attend another camp to reap the benefits.
The imprisonment of criminals, as succinctly summarized by
Zirnring  serves many purposes: to physically isolate offending populations, to assist
in the correction, reformation and rehabilitation of offenders, to express society's
retributive feelings towards them, and to deter potential offenders from committing
criminal acts. There is clearly a need to assess to what extent these purposes are being
It is common knowledge that most prisons throughout the
world are fast becoming a training academy where youngsters come in due to some petty
crimes and graduate into full-fledged criminals under the patronage of the people serving
long term sentences. This clearly defeats a very important purpose of the imprisonment.
Again, insofar as the corrective role of imprisonment is concerned, perhaps the less said
about it the better. The subhuman living conditions in most jails, coupled with the easy
availability of drugs, only help in the brutalization of the inmates.
There is a worldwide concern about these negative effects
of incarceration and many sociologists have stressed that reformation and rehabilitation
should be the principal functions of imprisonment in a civilized society. Some of them
even go to the extent of saying that "the level of a society's civilization can be
judged by the state of its prisons" . Accordingly, a number of correctional
programs like academic education, vocational training in various trades, individual
interview therapy, group counselling and behaviour modification techniques have been
introduced in various jails in the west, especially in the USA.
Such programs held in conventional prisons and
reformatories and also in unconventional institutions with a more congenial family-like
atmosphere have been studied in depth by Greenberg . He finally concludes: "Much
of what is now done in the name of "corrections" may serve other functions, but
the prevention of return to crime is not one of them. Here and there a few favourable
results alleviate the monotony, but most of these results are modest and are obtained
through evaluations seriously lacking in rigour. The blanket assertion that "nothing
works" is an exaggeration, but not by very much."
No wonder, with such evidence mounting, that reformation
programs are considered ineffective. Drastic techniques like chemical pacification, that
is, the use of psychoactive drugs to tranquilize prisoners are being hotly debated .
Certainly recidivism, i.e. return to crime, cannot be the
sole criteria for evaluating the efficacy of a correctional service, as this is influenced
by many forces impinging on the offender after his release . However Greenberg's study
brings out the need for a fresh look at this important issue.
The results of this camp mentioned above indicate that
Vipassana meditafion should be seriously explored as a correctional technique for
prisoners; its efficacy in purifying the mind of its deep rooted defilements and bringing
the mind under control is well established. The feedback mentioned above is of course only
indicative of the possibilities since it was taken just near the conclusion of the course.
It is necessary to carry out further studies of the participants after three and six
months and even after longer periods to identify the lasting effects of Vipassana.
The attitude of the general public (and it was to a great
extent true of me too!) towards prisoners, especially those convicted of heinous
crimes-the murderers, dacoits, drug traffickers-is invariably a mixture of scorn, contempt
and fear, as if these people do not belong to the human species. This camp provided an
opportunity for a close interaction with "such people" for a period spread over
a month, especially during the eleven days we lived with them in the cells. I must confess
that this experience has been an eye-opener for me as 1 experienced for myself the Truth
behind the profound words of Khalil Gibran on "Crime & Punishment:
Often times have I heard you speak of one who commits a
wrong as though he were not one of you, but a stranger unto You and an intruder upon Your
But I have that even as the holy and the righteous cannot
rise beyond the highest which is in each one of you,
So the wicked and the weak cannot fall lower than the
lowest which is in you also.
And as a single leaf turns not yellow but with the silent
knowledge of the whole tree,
So the wrongdoer cannot do wrong without the hidden will
of you all.
Like a procession you walk together towards Your god self.
You are the way and the wayfarers.
And when one of you falls down he jails for those behind
him, a caution against the stumbling stone.
And he falls for those ahead of him, who though faster and
surer of foot, yet removed not the stumbling stone.
You cannot separate the just from the unjust and the good
from the wicked;
For they stand together before the face of the sun even as
the black thread and the white are woven together.
And when the black thread breaks, the weaver shall look
into the whole cloth, and he shall examine the loom also.
... the erect and the fallen are but one man standing in
the twilight between the night of his pigmy-self and the day of his god-self
And that the cornerstone the temple is not higher than the
lowest stone in its 'foundation.
The interaction we had in this camp clearly established,
at least in our minds, that many people are driven to crime mainly because of the
"conspiracy of circumstances" which exploit some weakness of their mind. These
weaknesses are not peculiar to them, but are present to differing degrees 'in all of us.
There is thus no difference between them and the rest of the citizens, as put poetically
... The erect and the fallen are but one.--
We, the so-called respectable citizens of the country,
need to appreciate the fact that these brethren of ours have fallen "with our silent
knowledge", since we "though faster and surer of foot, yet removed not the
stumbling stone." The astonishing fact that almost twenty of the prisoners reached
very subtle stages of meditation only shows that they have attained purity at a deeper
level. Clearly Vipassana meditation could be the technique to eradicate the
"pigmy-self " and reveal the "god-self " in all, whether they be the
"criminals" or the "respectable citizens."
. Ziniring, F.E. "Punishment and Deterrence: Bad
Checks in Nebraska-A Study in Complex Threats." p 173-192 in "Corrections and
Punishment, (Ed) Greenberg, D.F., Sage Publications, Beverly Hills, USA, 1977.
. Jacobs, J3, "Macrosociology and
Imprisonment", p89-1 10 in Greenberg, D.F, op cit.
. Greenberg, D.F., "The Correctional
Effect of Corrections: A Survey of Evaluations." pI 11-148 in Greenberg, D.F., op
. SpeigIman, R., "Prison, Drugs, Psychiatry and
the State", p 149-172 in Greenberg, D.F., op cit.
. Conrad, J.P., Crime and its Correction, An
International Survey of Attitudes and Practices. Univ. of California Press, Berkeley,
Special thanks to
Phramaha Witoon Thacha for retyping this article.