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Baldry, Eileen --- "It's Always Possible: Transforming one of the Largest Prisons in the World by Kiran Bedi" [2000] AltLawJl 57; (2000) 25(3) Alternative Law Journal 151


It's Always Possible
Transforming one of the largest prisons in the world

by Kiron Bedi, lndra Press, New Delhi, 1999; Distributor: Australian Book Group; $24.95 softcover.

Numerous media reports attest to the fact that Tihar Prison in Dehli, India, was transformed over the period of two years from literally a cesspool (open drains and overflowing toilets) to a fairly harmonious community situated in clean, restored buildings. Not so remarkable, you might say, given the capacity of modern civilisations to transform places and technologies in a flash.

But this is a remarkable story. Prisons present such intractable problems for reformers that positive accounts are few and far between and deserve attention.

Tihar prison, actually four prisons in the one location, was the most notorious gaol in India. When Kiran Bedi was transferred there in 1993, it housed some 8000 prisoners although it was built for 2500, 90% of whom were 'undertrials', or remandees. The prison was rife with corruption, totally neglected by officials, and was filthy. Prisoners received less than minimal nutrition and clothing and basic rights were ignored. When Bedi was transferred out two years later: education classes were booming; self sustaining industries were running; children of women prisoners, who were housed with their mothers until five years of age went to creche; prison officers worked with prisoners to achieve higher esteem and confidence; and large numbers of community members came and went giving freely of their time to work with prisoners.

Dr Bedi had been a high achieving policewoman and had reached the level of Deputy Inspector General of Police in the North East of India in her early forties. She was blocked from returning to continue her career in Dehli by entrenched senior police who apparently did not appreciate her achievements in crime prevention. She was young, a woman, would not join in the old boys club and showed up the poor performance of those her senior. At 44 years of age she was sent to Tihar prison with the malicious intent to pull her down a peg or two. This, though, was a woman who saw everything as an opportunity to enact humanness. She inspired others to do the same and has been awarded a number of prestigious international human rights prizes for her work in the prison. It is not made clear why she was transferred out of Tihar after only two years, but it is hinted that she was too successful. Some in authority had expected her to be defeated by the task and were angered by and jealous of the laudatory attention she received. Vested interests in sinecures and corrupt practices, as anywhere in the world, were being protected.

Her first action, utterly different from her predecessors, was to go into this hell-hole of a prison and see for her­ self. This was a hallmark of her time as the Inspector General of the prison. She was energetic and tireless, constantly going from wing to wing, speaking directly with prisoners to see that the reforms she instituted were carried out. Here was a striking similarity with the style of Australia's prison reformer, Dr Tony Vinson (see his book Wilful Obstruction). For these two reformers, everything would yield to energetic hard work, persistence and application, and decisions and actions were based on ethical principles and building respect, and human dignity. Bedi won hundreds of outside supporters with her belief in the work she was doing and soon volunteer doctors, lawyers, teachers, chefs, writers and child-carers were regular visitors to the gaol as were representatives of the media. From a prison that had been completely closed to out­ side scrutiny, it became open to hundreds of groups and reporters on a regular basis. She persuaded many of the 'old guard' prison officers to participate in the new regime by encouragement, positive reinforcement and goodwill. Those who stuck to the old ways soon had no way of manipulating and using the system as before. There is ample evidence from independent media and other documentary sources that these achievements are not exaggerated.

Perhaps the most amazing section in the book is the story of the introduction of Vipassana, a traditional Buddhist meditation practice, into the prison. One of Dr Bedi's officers suggested that, as well as all the programs and structural changes she had introduced the prisoners would benefit from doing Vipassana because it helped a person rid themselves of 'corrosive emotions'. Such a suggestion was not as foreign to her as It might well be to many in 'western' prison systems. Dr Bedi undertook the program herself first and was deeply impressed and asked that it be offered in Tihar. Some prisoners volunteered to do the first ten-day meditation program led by a senior Buddhist teacher. Its effect was so transformative for many of those participants, resulting in the seeking of forgiveness, changes in violent attitudes and behaviour and a sense of wellbeing, that they volunteered to help run another program for other prisoners. One thousand prisoners participated in the next Vipassana program. Bedi quotes documentation gathered over some years indicating that the positive changes in many of the prisoners have been long lasting, but we have no other proof of this. There is though a video, Doing Time, Doing Vipassana, available from the Vipassana organisation in Australia, that documents the ten-day program and shows interviews with prisoners who underwent the program. This seems to support the contention that the program has at least some of the pro­ found effects claimed for it.

There is a vital conjunction between 'the secular and the sacred' in Bedi's approach. She worked energetically to overcome the structural and human rights failings in the prison as well as introducing Vipassana. There may be a temptation to hope that, by introducing a program that helps transform the hearts and minds of prisoners, bad prison administration could continue with acquiescent inmates. This attitude was anathema to Dr Bedi, as it should be to any prison official.

Would this approach transfer to prisons in a highly secular country like Australia? What was seen in the Tihar prison was an holistic approach. The reform of staff behaviour and the physical setting; reform of the administration of justice internally, such as ensuring people were released on time and remandees were given trial dates and the introduction of work and personal development skill programs, provided the setting for the meditation program to be introduced. It is not clear that just one element, such as the Vipassana program, would work without the rest. Dr Bedi also stipulates that, for Vipassana to work in a prison, the superintendent and some officers have to be willing to do the program themselves. It is also the case that most prisons in Australia already have reasonable physical set­ tings and a range of educational and therapeutic programs available. Those things though, were not at the heart of what happened: that was an attitude of mind and a humanistic belief in the capacity of most people to respond positively given the right circumstances. And then there is the effect of Kiran Bedi herself. It is obvious that the prisoners gained such respect for her that many were willing to try a program that she herself had done and recommended. Her humanness, co-operation, commitment, positive attitude and capacity for hard work engendered the same in others and were an integral part of the Tihar transformation. It is likely that what happened in the prison was the result of a unique combination of factors, the key one of which was Dr Bedi. Nevertheless, as prisons are such damaging places for prisoners and staff alike, why would a dedicated Australian prison official not want to try and adapt an approach which seems to have had such positive effects?

Its Always Possible is not marvellously well written, is somewhat tedious in its detail in parts (although the detail including helpful diagrams of the pro cesses, is of much interest to prison administrators), is academically unsophisticated but, for all that, is an inspiring, practical and important read.


Eileen Baldry teaches Social Policy at UNSW

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