Vipassana mindfulness in prison

Do you know Vipassana mindfulness? It is known as “insight meditation”. What has it to do with prisons? Well, it was introduced for the first time in an Indian prison in 1975. Prisoners observed lasting behavior changes. Since then, the practices have helped reform the prison environment around the world.

Sounds amazing, doesn’t it? Let’s go explore. What is exactly Vipassana mindfulness? And how it helps prisoners in world continents?

What is Vipassana Mindfulness?

What is it?

Vipassana is one of the oldest Buddhist meditation practices. It is roughly translated as ”Insight” meditation. Gautama, the Buddha seemed to teach it himself. Vipassana uses the techniques of mindful breathing. But also, it enables contemplation of the impermanence of all things. “It is a technique of self-realization through self-observation” (Akanksa, Capstone collection).

Its techniques

Concretely, Vipassanā meditation uses sati (mindfulness) and samatha (calm). The practice helps gain insight into the nature of reality. With it, one can become aware of the “perpetual changes involved in breathing”. He or she becomes aware of “the arising and passing away of mindfulness” (Wikipedia).

Its objectives

This awareness is built through long practice. The practitioners observe the bodily and mental changes at each breath. In other words, they become more aware of his or her life experience. It’s objective? See the ”truth of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and selflessness of phenomena” (Gunaratana, cited in India Today).

The first Vipassana mindfulness lesson for prisoners

When and where was the first Vipassana mindfulness lesson to prisoners? You might be surprised. It dated 1975! A long time ago isn’t it? The first country to adopt it was India. A Home Secretary of the State was convinced by the benefits of Vipassana. Thus, he wanted to hold a course in a jail.

I was the Home Secretary of that state. I had myself undertaken a Vipassana course. And I experienced a profound change in myself. I felt that Vipassana was a technique that could solve not only individual problems. But also problems of society […] I immediately asked whether we could arrange to hold a course in a jail […] This was a big challenge!

Mr. Ram Singh, Home Secretary of the State of Rajasthan, India in 1975, source from Vipassana Research Institute, India

Vipassana’s spread in the world’s prisons

So Vipassana in prison started with the idea of an Indian politician. Since then, Vipassana lessons became one of the most beneficial initiatives ever taken in the history of prisons. It soon spread throughout the world: Taiwan (1996), Thailand (2002), Sri Lanka (2004), Mongolia (2005), Israel (2006), Myanmar (2008). Vipassana courses were also conducted for the first time in Latin America (Mexico, 2003, and Colombia, 2011).

Similarly, in Occident, prisons conducted Vipassana for the first time in 1998. It was at Lancaster Castle Prison in the U.K. After that, the US (1997), New Zealand (1999), Spain (2003), Canada (2011) followed (Vipassana Research Institute).

Police cadets meditating (credit to Newsline Photo by Cherian Thomas) – Vipassana Research Institute)

How prisons received Vipassana?

Can you imagine it? The first try in l975 at the Central Jail of Rajasthan was a big challenge.

Prisoners were brought into the meditation hall. Iron handcuffs and ankle locks bound their hands. Long hard discussions and struggles happened. Finally, the chains and locks could be removed. The course started. There was intense anxiety by those who observed.

“But every passing moment was a relief unbounded. Goenkaji started chanting. His ‘metta’ [loving kindness] was flowing profusely. The red-hot eyes of the criminals, the cause of so much turmoil, changed. And their faces beamed. Tears streamed down their cheeks. Tears rolled down my face also. A rare moment filled with joy after such high tension. The efficacy of Vipassana was established!”

Mr. Ram Singh, Home Secretary of the State of Rajasthan, India in 1975, source from Vipassana Research Institute, India

Vipassana mindfulness benefits world prisoners

Inner changes within prisoners

You might have noticed this in the example above. Vipassana mindfulness reforms the prison environment. Above all, it powerfully brings inner change within prisoners.

Research by Kela, Akanksa (SIT Graduate Institute) confirmed this. She interviewed 28 subjects. These consisted of police, and jail staff, current inmates in the prison. The researcher also discussed with released prisoners and community members.

Firstly, Vipassana mindfulness appears to bring a fundamental change to the police. They are more morally responsible for their duty. Secondly, Vipassana gives the prisoners the strength of mind to self-correct. Consequently, they witnessed less hatred and revenge. Finally, released prisoners seem to develop the ability to live in society upon their returns.

‘Te Ihi Tu’ staff noticed a deep change in the attitude of prisoners after learning Vipassana. The participants expressed the willingness to change for better at the end of the course.

Prison of New Zealand – Source Vipassana Research Institute

Lasting behavioral changes

Most importantly, Vipassana mindfulness enhances the concentration of the mind. Consequently, it facilitates deeper psychological introspection. Therefore, it can bring about lasting behavioral changes.

For example, inmates and patients reduced recidivism and relapse. For instance, a 4 year Vipassana trial by Seattle’s North Rehabilitation Facility reported positive results. King County Jail inmates were 20% less likely to return to prison. Additionally, lower use of alcohol, marijuana, and crack cocaine was reported for inmates. Consequently, people observed improved social and psychological functioning and higher optimism (Research by the University of Washington).

As conclusions

So you have seen, Vipassana mindfulness helps the prisoners around the world. With Vipassana practices, each person is more aware of his or her life experience. As a result, prisons in Asia, Latin America, Europe, North America, and Oceania observed lasting behavior changes of prisoners. Incredible, isn’t it?

And Vipassana can help us too, in our daily difficulties. With the techniques of mindful breathing, Vipassana enables contemplation of the impermanence of all things. We can self-observe. Thanks to that, we free ourselves from negative emotions, such as greed, anger, and illusion.

Do you (plan to) practice it too? Will you share with us your thoughts in the comments below?

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