Making Peace in Prison

By Tanja Taljaard on Tuesday September 29th, 2015

Prison Freedom project in South Africa

Yoga and meditation are transforming the lives of inmates around the world

Yoga and meditation are being taught in prisons with remarkable results, creating the possibility of personal transformation under dire and difficult conditions. Nelson Mandela said “You may find that the cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the processes of your own mind and feelings.”

Vipassana meditation is being used as a means of rehabilitation in some of the harshest prisons in the world. Alabama’s most violent and mentally unstable prisoners are incarcerated in the Donaldson Correctional Facility. Four times a year this prison’s gym is transformed into a peaceful Vipassana meditation hall.

Inmates meditating at the Donaldson Correctional Facility in AlabamaInmates meditating at the Donaldson Correctional Facility in Alabama

For 10 days, inmates wake up at 4am and meditate at intervals until 9pm. They eat a vegetarian diet, and cannot smoke or drink coffee. There is strictly no conversation, only an internal examination of how the body is reacting. The meaning of the word Vipassana, and the goal of the intense program is “to see things as they really are”, in their true nature.

By watching the physical sensations that accompany thoughts and emotions, and understanding their impermanent nature, one can start changing the habit of blind reaction. “Between the two poles of expression and suppression lies a third option – mere observation”. Initially the state put an end to the program soon after it started, as there was concern that it might not be in keeping with Christian values. However the warden could see the dramatic results it yielded and had it reinstated.

Trailer for ‘Dhamma Brothers’, a documentary about the Donaldson Correctional Facility’s meditation program

Bringing peace to a notorious prison in India

The Tihar Prison in New Delhi, India, houses 10 000 inmates with 9000 of them awaiting trial. In 1993 Kiran Bedi became Tihar’s new Inspector General, and launched a series of reforms to improve prison conditions. Wanting to achieve deeper transformation, Bedi used Vipassana once she learned that the technique had been used with astonishing results in other Indian jails.

In April 1994 at a special facility in Tihar, one thousand inmates participated in an 11-day Vipassana course. It was the largest event of this kind in history. Subsequently, the prison opened a meditation centre within its precincts offering the prisoners regular Vipassana courses.

Meditation at Tihar Prison in New DelhiMeditation at Tihar Prison in New Delhi

South African inmates learning to surrender and connect

SevaUnite’s Yoga for Africa project teaches yoga to inmates in South African prisons as part of the Prison Freedom project. Bradley Hess, sentenced to 35 years in prison, was arrested when he was 17 years old. He discovered yoga through another inmate whom he felt drawn to because of his peaceful behaviour.

We’ve learnt about the body, mind and soul and, because I came from a really harsh background, it wasn’t really what I learnt from my parents or my society in general. One important thing I’ve learnt through Oscar bringing me to yoga, is that you need to surrender much of yourself because in life, it is all about the mind, and in prison especially. I believe that being neutral will make you understand that you’re a part of something very big, and I’m part of everyone’s puzzle piece and life itself. Yoga has taught me to become one with All. – Bradley Hess, South African inmate

The shift from ‘punishment’ to ‘rehabilitation’

The United States has more people in jail than any other country on earth. Many of the prisons are privately run “for-profit prisons”, a highly lucrative industry with a reputation for corruption. Two thirds of prisoners re-offend within three years of leaving prison. Professor James Gilligan states that if any other institutions in America were as unsuccessful in achieving their supposed purpose as their prisons, they’d be shut down immediately. He argues that the only rational purpose for a prison is to restrain those who are inflicting harm on themselves or others, while helping them change their behaviour to one that is nonviolent and even constructive so that they can return to the community. He encourages rehabilitation rather than punishment, because to inflict pain for the sake of revenge or to “teach them a lesson” only reinforces inflicting pain on others.

Prison population by country

People learn by example. Norway has the lowest re-offending rate of prisoners in the world at 20% compared to the 76.6% of the US. Norway also has a relatively low crime level, and relies on “restorative justice” that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behaviour. Many of their prisons are safe and secure home-like residential communities.

In Norway, removing someone’s freedom is punishment enough. Prisoners can apply for a transfer to these prisons when they have up to five years left to serve of their sentence. For the victim, the justice is that the offender is in prison. Justice for society is that, when prisoners are released, they are less likely to commit more crimes. They give prisoners respect as a way of teaching them to respect others, and they are given an arena to develop responsibility through farm work, gardening, cooking and other actions.

Life inside a restorative Norwegian prisonThe life of a Norwegian prisoner

Inspiring peace in the world from inside the prison walls

Millions of people who get stuck in the criminal justice system never leave it. These programs that assist prisoners in seeing the value of their lives, and help them to regain self-respect can change their world. The Dominquez State Jail in Texas ran a class called Inner Peace, based on the teachings of Prem Rawat. A former inmate at this jail, Trinidad Silva, said, “To see everyone at peace in prison would shock the world. If you can find peace in prison, then surely it would motivate the world to find peace out there”.

WInner Peace program at the Dominquez State Jail in TexasInner Peace program at the Dominquez State Jail in Texas


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Tanja Taljaard

Contributing writer for Uplift.




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