Questions & Answers About the U.S. Vipassana Prison Program

Vipassana Meditation is currently being introduced in Jails in the U.S. The teaching of Vipassana meditation in a prison environment was first tried in Jaipur, India in 1975. After that there were only a couple of other courses durirng the next 15 years. In 1994, Vipassana Courses began in Tihar Jail in New Delhi, introduced by the Inspector General, Karen Bedi, who was looking for an effective rehabilitation techique. This was followed by many other courses, including the largest course held in modern times, taught by Goenkaji for over 1000 inmates. Today there is a permanent meditation center in Tihar Jail, where courses are regularly conducted. In the past few years there have been prison courses in many jails in India, and courses have also been held in prison facilities in Taiwan, Thailand, New Zealand, and the U.K..

There has been a lot of interest and questions about Jail Courses in the U.S. Here are a few that are most frequently asked.

Have there actually been 10 Day Courses in U.S. prisons?
Yes. So far there have been over ten 10-Day Vipassana Jail Courses in the U.S. All of them have been at the same jail, the North Rehabilitation Facility, (NRF) a minimum security Jail in Seattle, Washington. There has also been one course for men held in Lancaster Castle Prison in Lancaster, England, several courses in a prison in New Zealand, several in Thailand and one in Taiwan.

When were these courses in the U.S. held?
The first one was a menís course in November 1997 followed by alternating men's and women's courses held every few months

Are more courses scheduled there?
Yes. This Seattle Jail has been having regular courses every 3 months, alternating between men and women until recently.

How many inmates have completed the courses in the U.S. prison?
Several hundred so far. Courses have varied between 5 and 20 inmates each course.

How did these inmate/students respond to their courses?
With great enthusiasm and happiness!

On the morning of Day No. 11, after each of the courses was completed, there has been a "completion event" at the Jail. The jail staff, officials from other Jails, inmates families, other Jail residents who are interested, and local Seattle Vipassana meditators have attended. The residents who have taken the course have had an opportunity to talk about their experience. They have all expressed gratitude and appreciation for the tools that they have been given and the path that they now have which can help them face their problems and addictions. They very often expressed great benefits, such as, "I never thought I could experience such peace."

Are the courses organized just like ones at Centers? Is the course schedule the same?
All Vipassana courses everywhere are essentially the same. The schedule and instructions are exactly the same. Of course explanations, clarification, and definitions are always individualized in order to communicate most effectively with individual students.

Are there Dhamma Workers (Volunteers) at these courses?
Yes. Two or three experienced old student Dhamma Workers have come in to serve each course. They donít have to cook at the jail, but they have a lot to do, from serving the food, to cleaning, to supporting the students and the course in many ways.

On virtually every course there has been one Staff Member/Dhamma Worker. A jail staff member must take a 10 day Course a regular center so that they can serve on the next course or be available at the facility during the course. These Jail Staff/Dhamma Workers have been invaluable. They not only know the residents well, they are trusted by both residents and staff, and they function as Security Guards for the Course, doing hourly head counts, etc.

Do the inmates return to their cells each night?
During the course inmates normally share small rooms or dorms with the other inmate students. For many Vipassana Courses, an entire wing of the Jail is completely cleared, and turned over to the Course, and everyone at the course remains within the site for the entire course.

Is the food vegetarian?
Yes. The cooks at the facilities have generally enthusiastically learned vegetarian recipes, which he prepares just for the course. The food is usually beautifully displayed and served, and is quite similar to food at a Center. In other cases where this has not been possible, food has been prepared outside the prison and brought in each day.

Has the Jail Staff been supportive?
Yes, very much so. Initially there was some hesitation, some concern about whether the Vipassana Courses, especially having outside people come in to stay there for 10 days, would conflict with jail security and routine.

The Jail certainly has needed to make adjustments. For one example, each time there is a course, several counseling staff people have to vacate their offices for 2 weeks, and move everything to another part of the Jail. There are many other changes and inconveniences too, each time a Course is scheduled. But instead of complaining or resisting, the staff has generally been very supportive and cooperative.

Has the Jail Staff noticed changes in the students?
Yes. Staff enthusiasm and support increased after seeing the results of the first course. They say that the students participate more in other prison programs, get along better with each other and with staff, follow rules better and with less resistance, and have better relationships with their families. Generally whenever anything is requested from the prison Staff the most frequent response is, "Sure, no problem!"

Has there been any follow-up with the Jail students? If so, how are they doing?
There is one formal study in progress at the University of Washington based upon our experience with inmates at the NRF facility in Seattle. In addition, NRF Jail Staff and Vipassana Staff have informatlly kept in touch with quite a few of the residents who have completed the Courses. Those who remained in Jail at NRF continued to practice Vipassana, and did very well. They had regular group sittings there and the Jail Staff found them more relaxed, more cooperative, and more abiding of jail rules.

We know about some inmates who have been released. A few have taken additional courses at our Centers, and one has even served a course which his mother attended. Some are working and doing fine; others are successfully participating in drug or alcohol rehabilitation centers.

Where have Vipassana Courses been held in the United States?
Courses have been held in the North Rehabilition Facility (NRF) in Seattle, Washington, the San Francisco Jail, and the W.E. Donaldson Correctional (Maximum Security) Facility in Bessemer, Alabama, Several other facilities, including prisons in California, Texas, Massachusetts and Vermont, as well as the Federal Prison system have expressed interest.

How are Jail residents different from students at a "regular" Course?
There are far more similarities than differences. However, and this is a generalization, Jail residents tend to be highly motivated. They know the First Noble Truth; they know that they are suffering. They sincerely want a tool and a path to help them make changes.

However, some do have more difficulty with impulsiveness, attention, following noble silence and in general following rules and regulations.