Freedom beyond bars

30 inmates’ journey from being criminals to youth leaders

Splashing the water on his face from the slow running tap, the breaking dawn rays pierces in his eyes, waking him up to the just-another day. He takes a bath, wears regular white clothes and a Gandhi cap. Sitting inside a block, he stares at the empty four walls reflecting upon the past, but the shining sunrays gush in, making him hopeful of his future. He is like anyone of us within the four walls of his blocks. Yet outside these walls, he is handcuffed - surrounded by the police and the eyes of the society.

Life as a prisoner involves daily chores and tasks. However, mentally it’s a turbulence of emotions, be it revenge, regret, or sorrow. This was true till a year ago in the Bangalore Central Jail. But in last one year, things, inmates and their behavior have changed – for good.They were convicted for the most heinous crime of taking lives yet, as said, change is the only permanent thing, and they also underwent a transformation.

Now, they teach about living...

It all started a year ago when the Art of Living’s Youth Leadership Training Program (YLTP) was introduced in the Bangalore Central Jail for 30 inmates. YLTP is a program designed to make an individual self-reliant, a leader who can contribute to the betterment of the society.

“We did a 90-day YLTP for them, which is a break from the normal structure of the program. The inmates underwent an intensive yoga and meditation sessions every day, processes to help them come to terms with their past, emotions, and learning to manage their minds. There were also evening sessions, filled with singing and sharing practical tips about life. This program was essential, especially the Sudarshan Kriya breathing technique to bring about the much-needed change,” informs Nagraj Gangolli, Project Director, Prison Program for Karnataka.

The participants chosen were mostly convicts who have spent an average of 1-12 years in the prison. The first batches of participants were handpicked by the police. Seeing the transformations in the first batch of participants, the second batch of participants voluntarily joined.

They underwent two advanced programs which healed them of old emotional wounds, self-concepts, attitudes, and fears. It also gave them access to inner stability and faith in themselves and their future.

“Earlier they would while away their time from playing cards to even planning on how to repeat the same crime again in a bigger way, after their release. But now it’s different,” said Nagraj.

They are leaders now!

Meanwhile, a committee of Art of Living teachers along with the police realized that a more significant transformation would happen when these prison-teachers will teach their fellowmen. This is how erstwhile hardcore criminals became teachers of meditation and yoga to other inmates. The rest of the group would look up to this unusual proud band of prison-teachers, also called as yuvacharyas (youth leaders).

“I was given the responsibility of managing meals for all 4000 inmates in the jail. Training other inmates makes me happy and satisfied when I see the change in them,” shared Mohan Kumar, a prison-teacher, adding, “After the program, I felt the pent-up stress of 12 years disappear. Yoga and meditation brought immense willpower in me. My outlook towards life changed and mind became more focused.”

After living in prison for years together, having a sedentary lifestyle with a diminished hope for the future - this was a welcome change say prison authorities .

S. Ravi IPS, Deputy Inspector General, State Police said, “The transformation in the general well-being is comprehensive. They were habitual offenders, but once they were transformed through these programs, they became more productive, and their all-around personality changed. Now, they would be absorbed in society easily without any social stigma. The training, which empowered them as yuvacharyas set off a chain reaction wherein they began training other inmates.”

Today, each of the 30 inmates stands tall, having transformed the lives of over 2,500 inmates across seven prisons in Karnataka, including prisons in Bidar, Bellary, Gulbarga, Bijapur, Dharwad, and Mysore.

Finally, they meet...

The journey of these 30 inmates from being criminals to trainers in life skills unfolded within the four giant walls of the Bangalore Central Jail. The inmates, astonished of the change, urged the concerned authorities to let them meet the inspiration behind this phenomenal transformation happened in their life. After a wait for a year, they were allowed to step out of their prison for an extra very special appointment at the Art of Living International Center. In a navy-blue van, shunning their everyday uniform, dressed in pristine kurta-pajama, this band of 30 men met Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.This group practiced pranayama and meditated while waiting for Gurudev. Surrounded by policemen who were proud albeit watchful, this group sat without handcuffs – free men as it were, free from a sorry past and determined to live life differently.

Encouraging their transformation and efforts, Gurudev inspired them to continue the good work for nation building. “We should work towards building trust and bringing about human values in people.” The group also sought Gurudev’s guidance on furthering the transformation programs in prisons across the state.

A 32-year-old Mahesh says, “Nowadays, I simply catch anyone in the jail and put them into yoga classes. I am eagerly praying for my release so that I can see my family and be a good citizen of the country.”

Truly they have found freedom of their minds even being behind bars!

Writer: Monica Patel