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Tuesday, 25 June, 2002, 16:01 GMT 17:01 UK
India's meditative model jail
Tihar prisoners at a meditation lesson
Prison authorities have adopted an holistic approach

The massive Tihar jail complex just outside the Indian capital Delhi was until a few years ago a place to be feared.

I found a new kind of mental freedom in jail

Tihar inmate
Comprising six separate prisons sprawling over 400 acres, Tihar - the biggest prison in Asia - was notorious for drugs, corruption and violence.

Overcrowding is still a chronic problem, with 12,000 inmates filling the institution to almost three times its capacity.

But Tihar is now regarded as a model prison, welcoming delegations from far and wide who come to study how prison authorities turned the place around.

The key to their success, they say, is an holistic approach to reform and rehabilitation.

'Golden cage'

Meditation and yoga are now widely practised by inmates, and more than 1,000 prisoners are enrolled in education programmes or degree courses.

"For the past 18 months, I've been into meditation, both yoga and Vipassana meditation, and it's helped me a lot," said Ravi Chandran, who is awaiting trial for murder.

Tihar Director General Ajay Agarwal
Agarwal: rehabilitation must be mental

He said Vipassana, which involves ten-day silent meditations, had helped him "eradicate the vicious complexes you have inside".

"And it helps a lot to eliminate the agony which you have created," he said.

Critics of Tihar call it a "golden cage" full of amenities for prisoners to enjoy for free, instead of a place where they go to be punished for their crimes.

But Ajay Agarwal, the Director General of Tihar, defends his prison's alternative approach.

"In the western world, what happens is that a person is incarcerated physically, but mentally there is no effect on him," he said.

"As a result, when he comes inside, or when he goes outside, there is practically no difference whatsoever."

Mental freedom

One inmate who has noticed a difference is Leo Sandigasnier, a Norwegian national sentenced to 10 years in 1997 for trying to smuggle two kilos of cannabis from Nepal.

The gate of the Delhi's Tihar jail
Delegations visit from far and wide

"Before I came here, my impression of jail was like some black hole in my mind," said Mr Sandigasnier, who was just 19 when he was sentenced.

"Coming here, I see that there is a lot of positive initiative, a lot of people who want to help us evolve, and somehow, I found a new kind of mental freedom in jail," he said.

New circular cells have been built for prisoners who want to do the 10-day Vipasana meditation course, which authorities say gives them the time and space to come to terms with their actions.

"After three days, [the prisoner's] mind starts bursting, he starts laughing and shouting, but by the fourth day onwards, peace starts descending on the man," Mr Agarwal said.

"After 10 days, he starts realising the futility of having committed a crime."

Further education

Non-governmental organisations come in from outside to oversee some of the initiatives, but in many cases then hand over the running of the projects to the prisoners themselves.

Products from the jail factory
Tihar helps prisoners help themselves

About 800 inmates are enrolled on various education programmes.

And more than 300 are taking degrees with the help of the Indira Gandhi National Open University and the National Open School.

The typing and secretarial class is popular, and the female section of Tihar jail, which houses 532 women, even has its own beauty parlour.

Ruby, a female prisoner who has trained as a beautician in Tihar, summed up the view of many of the inmates.

"When I entered the prison, I was scared and apprehensive about how jail would be," she said.

"But seeing that there are many opportunities here, it calms one's mind."

See also:

30 Mar 02 | South Asia
07 Mar 02 | South Asia
30 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
01 Jun 00 | South Asia
02 May 02 | Country profiles
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