Doing Time, Doing Vipassana

1997, Movie, NR, 52 mins

Review

DOING TIME, DOING VIPASSANA
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The only thing more unexpected than the sight of hundreds of hardened inmates peacefully meditating in a prison yard is how effectively such behavior has improved conditions in one of the planet's largest and most notorious prisons. Located in a suburb of New Delhi, India, Tihar prison is a sprawling, overcrowded institution housing some 10,000 inmates, only 1000 of whom have actually been convicted of a crime. The other 9000 are simply "under trials," accused of everything from hashish possession to murder and awaiting trial — an event that could take place in a month or in several years, depending on the vagaries of India's notoriously slow-moving justice system. Over time, this uneven and unjust split in the prison population resulted in the evolution of a brutal hierarchy and a deeply rooted culture of gang violence, drug use, extortion and widespread corruption affecting not just the prisoners but the prison officers as well. Much of this dismal situation changed when Kiran Bedi assumed the post of Inspector General of Prisons in 1993. A courageous visionary with a radical approach to prison reform, Bedi arrived convinced that fear of punishment wasn't conducive to rehabilitation. He was determined to transform Tihar into something more like an ashram, where society's miscreants could develop as people. After all, how can prisoners be expected to rejoin normal society unless they're treated like normal people? Bedi immediately set about improving prison life based on this understanding and saw encouraging results, but not until a prison officer told her about the centuries-old Buddhist practice known as Vipassana did she find a way to effect really substantial change. Attributed to the Buddha himself, Vipassana seeks to control the reactions of the mind and body to outside stimuli by seeking a way of passive observation — a discipline perfectly suited to a population accustomed to responding with crime, vice and violence. The Eliona Ariel and Ayelet Menahami's film isn't as direct in its appeal as the recent spate of Falun Gong "documentaries," which function more like infomercials; they do gloss over any shortcomings or failures associated with the Vipassana prison program (it's nice to think there haven't been any, but seems unlikely). Nevertheless, this 50-minute film offers substantial food for thought on the subject of prison reform, and Ariel and Menahami close by noting that Bedi's example has been followed in Thai and — surprisingly — U.S. prisons with encouraging results. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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