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meditation in jail

Doing Time, Doing Vipassana (1997 documentary) a guest review by David Colussi of Mayne Island, British Columbia:


The prisoners of  India’s largest jail, Tihar, are the subject of this documentary. These prisoners–and all prisoners in the world–are living nightmares for the rest of us. They symbolize brutal violence, cruel intimidation, reckless aggression, unthinkable acts against those closest to us. 


doing-timeIn many senses, there is no cultural gulf for Canadians to cross in seeing this Indian film. You can read the editorials and letters to the editor in any Canadian newspaper and find there the expressed desire to “put away” criminals forever – and “put away” is of course a slang term and euphemism for ending their lives, because we don’t want to think of these people ever being set free. When violent prisoners are given parole, or complete their prison sentence, a ripple of fear passes though our society. Then there are cries to see these prisoners designated dangerous offenders, so that they can be held in prison indefinitely. The death sentence in Canada is still abhorred by the majority, but we also say jail is too good for prisoners. We cannot forgive them. We say their sentences are too short, do not fit their terrible crimes, that the criminal justice system is too soft, and that the life of prisoners in prison is too comfortable. 


Given these feelings, many and perhaps even a majority of Canadians would look with approval at the Indian Justice system as glimpsed at Tihar jail. The prison has, in its primitive facilities, ten times its designed capacity of inmates. We are told that 90% of the inmates in Tihar have not had trials as yet, and they may be in prison for three to ten years before their trial is complete and they are finally sentenced. The film shows us a prison system that is worse than what we have in Canada in terms of offences against the human rights of inmates and natural justice for them. And yet the Vipassana program brought in by Ms. Kidar Bedi, Indian director of prisons in the 1990’s, is better than anything we have in Canada to change the behaviour of these violent and vengeful incarcerated persons. 


The prisoners volunteer to spend 10 days in noble silence. For the first time in their lives, they hear thoughts from deep inside them. The noise and bedlam of their lives has hidden their ultimate questions–as they are hidden in all of us.Their repeated testimony about the Vipassana program makes the point that their terrible thirst for revenge against the society that put them into prison, softens. They have begun to make a change in their life. 



Click here for a short youtube video on meditation in a Sri Lancan prison.



2 responses »

  1. ps: I have had some minimal experience of prisons as a consultant. Our “correctional institutions” in Canada, as in the rest of the world, do not correct, but warehouse. This is a burden on all of us, but I could see it most clearly in the eyes of the guards, the ones who must actually see what happens in our prisons, while the rest of us express our feelings of fear and loathing from a safe distance outside the walls. There is something obscene about the warehousing of human beings, and it profoundly impacts upon the guards. They are doing this job on our behalf, and its impact on them is another act for which we must bear collective responsibility. Most of the guards, I found out, would change out of their uniforms before going home, because they carefully hid their occupation from their neighbours. They feel great shame.

  2. also: the world rate of incarceration grows:prisoners per 100,000 population are 738 in the USA, 594 in Russia, 144 in England/Wales, 107 in Canada, 78 in Sweden, 31 in India
    [2006 figures) – This film gives some hope to the world that the warehousing of people in prisons perhaps one day may change, freeing us all.


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