The Leadership Review Team

Kiran Bedi and the Transformation of Tihar Jail

The Leadership Review Team

Kiran Bedi and Transformation of Tihar Jail

Dr Kiran Bedi took charge of Tihar Jail as the Inspector General (IG) – Prisons on May 1, 1993. This maximum security prison complex was spread over 180 acres of land and housed four independent prisons. However, given the massive population of India, it was over-populated and accommodated 10,000 inmates – four times its sanctioned capacity. This pressure, coupled with massive incompetence and corruption on part of jail authorities resulted in prevalence of drug addiction, sexual abuse, violence, and disease.
She observed that all the other IGs (P) who preceded her were given an additional charge of Tihar. So, the prison and its inmates never made it to their priority list. The prison was thus left without any effective leadership and the jail superintendents felt powerless without the backing of the headquarters. Lower rung officers functioned as they deemed fit and it often entailed violence, manipulation and graft.
However, within just two years of her stint at Tihar, she transformed the place. When we talked to her, we tried to unravel the fundamentals of her transformational leadership.

Role Model for a Disorganised Force

Now, she came with a fierce reputation. There weren’t many people who had not heard of ‘Crane Bedi’ – a moniker she had earned during her traffic policing days in Delhi for getting VIP cars (including one belonging to then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s office) towed away with the help of cranes. However, she was not from the prison cadre and belonged to the union territory cadre. This meant her staff knew that while she could be transferred, she could not transfer them; prison cadre is non-transferable. Moreover, her staff in the prison was not used to a lady top boss! So, she began with demonstrating that she meant business. Every morning she would make rounds of all the four jails, talking to her staff and the inmates, and understanding the problems of Tihar firsthand. In the beginning, whenever Dr Bedi would go for her morning rounds, the jail wardens would move ahead of her creating a security parameter with the use of baton. She discouraged it and while it was not out of ordinary for her to walk freely among dangerous criminals, the jail staff and inmates alike got awestruck.
Also, even though she knew that her staff was ill-treating the inmates, she did not rush to call it out. It would have created a sense of unrest in the staff. So, whenever she saw physical or verbal abuse being meted to the inmates, she would confront her men. But even then she would very patiently explain to them what is wrong with such actions. ‘If we do not use force, the inmates would have us by the throat’ was met with ‘that means you need more security, not more acrimony’. “To explain that they were the custodians and bodyguards of the inmates, one-on-one dialogue worked much better than any amount of theoretical lecturing,” reminisces Dr Bedi.
In her rounds and these interactions, the jail staff understood that she was a no-nonsense person and would not approve of corrupt and exploitative ways. While she was creating a strong positive influence on her men, she also needed her jail superintendents to do the same. So, to present a unified face of leadership to the jail staff, she would have lunch every day with the four superintendents. These lunch meetings were open sharing spaces. She would brief them about the issues she witnessed during her rounds and would solicit their input to formulate strategies for their resolution. These lunch meetings soon gave way to proper briefing sessions where even the warders were invited.
This empowering of her staff amplified their influence too, with which they would help Dr Bedi bring about one of the greatest transformations in Indian prisons.

Getting the Message Delivered

Dr Bedi believed that Tihar was a center of reformation and not that of retribution and despair. And to transform it into a one, she needed to get her jail staff to assume the role of custodians of the prisoners and the inmates to take responsibility of their own reformation. However, before she could start orienting her jail staff and the inmates with her vision, she had to get them out of the drug induced haze. “It was impossible to turn Tihar into a center of reformation till the time the menace of drug abuse wasn’t defeated,” says Dr Bedi.
The jail was overcrowded and a significant numbers of prisoners were drug addicts, detained under the non-bailable Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act on 1985. There existed an unholy nexus of jail staff, drug peddlers and inmates who were addicted to drugs. In fact quite many on the jail staff were also addicted to drugs like Proxivon. To worsen the situation, the jail dispensaries were desperately low on any alternative medication. Drugs could easily come in and get distributed amongst the addicted; even those who were undergoing de-addiction treatment. To put a check on this, Dr Bedi tells us, “I gave the addicted men on my team a simple choice – either go for treatment or be dismissed.” Few who did not choose treatment and continued to peddle drugs inside the prison, were actually dismissed. One of the drug peddling warders was also jailed. Those inmates who would trade in drugs were penalised too. Their visitor privileges were taken away. They were not allowed any eatables from the outside. They were not allowed any ‘luxaries’ from the jail canteen as well. And they were kept under surveillance. Dr Bedi had successfully strangulated the supply of drugs.
Once the easy availability of drugs was controlled, the focus shifted to the de-addiction treatment of inmates. It was important to win their trust and turn them into active participants. Dr Bedi saw the opportunity in Raksha Bandhan (a Hindu festival celebrating the brother and sister bond) day and it was celebrated in Tihar premises on August 2, 1993 and sisters of the prisoners were allowed in the prison premises. With every smile that came on inmates’ faces, with every rakhi on their wrist, and with every tear of joy oozing out of their eyes, their confidence in the intentions of jail authorities got strengthened. They were now able to trust the intentions of jail authorities on being asked to enroll for drug de-addiction treatment.
Jawans guarding Tihar Jail
Since the only de-addiction center running in the Tihar premises was falling awfully short to accommodate the large number of drug addicts, they were sent to Navjyoti Centres (which were incidentally set up by Dr Bedi during her fight against drug addiction in Delhi North district). Many NGOs were brought in to help in the treatment and counselling of the patients and over time three more de-addiction centers became operational in the Tihar premises.
The drug menace was defeated, drug addicts were reformed, and everyone in the prison started believing that Tihar could truly become a center for reformation.

Bringing Participative Reforms

The next step towards the transformation Dr Bedi took was to turn the inmates into equal and empowered partners in making Tihar an ideal reformation center. While before Dr Bedi was transferred to Tihar, there still existed suggestion boxes in Tihar, but the ‘suggestions’ prisoners made were screened by their warder and the real concerns never made it to the prison leadership. So, it was replaced by a ‘petition box’ system where the locked box became mobile, was taken to the prisoners and not the other way round, and the keys to this box did not remain with the jail staff but were in custody of a gazetted officer at the police headquarters. The petitions were sorted out by this gazetted officer called petition officer and presented to Dr Bedi herself. Inmates’ issues were looked into and problems were sorted. The inmates were even updated about the progress made on their petitions by sending them pink cards symbolising acknowledgement of the petition and green cards symbolising action taken. The identity of petitioners was kept secret if they requested so or if the petition officer deemed it necessary. This system allowed Dr Bedi to be in constant touch with the state of affairs in Tihar and significantly reduced the need for judicial petitions; thus saving courts’ time and costs associated with legal proceedings.
Another system that worked in conjunction with the petition system to empower inmates as equal partners in bringing reforms was the panchayat (forum) system. “The panchayat had representatives from each barrack and they were the fulcrum for all the reforms that were being brought about at Tihar,” Dr Bedi tells us in a beaming voice. The panchayat members met jail authorities daily and they discussed issues, their solutions, and new reforms that should be implemented in the prison. Panchayat members would also motivate and mobilise other inmates to actively participate in implementing the reforms. Take for example the introduction of education in Tihar where the idea was to reform the prisoners through education. The jail was turned into a school for half the day, different courses were on offer, and efforts of the panchayat members ensured high excitement levels in their fellow inmates. Some of them also played teachers themselves and also helped in identifying right inmates for the teaching roles. The commitment of these teachers was accessed regularly and to keep them motivated, a weekly payment of Rs. 200 was done to them. Such was the transformation that a former drug addict was now in charge of the education cell of juvenile wards and was called guruji (Hindi word for teacher denoting respect).

Making Individuals Count

While Dr Bedi got the group to participate actively in the transformation process, she did not let concerns of individuals and smaller groups slide away unnoticed. There were around 40 hardened criminals and gangsters in the jail who did not show any inclinations towards supporting the ongoing reforms in Tihar. Not that their non-cooperation would have had much of an impact on the rate at which reforms were being accepted by other inmates, but Dr Bedi tried her best to integrate them as well. As a gesture of good-faith she allowed them to watch Wimbledon and FIFA World Cup games on TV in their barracks. Slowly she also extended other facilities to them. But what worked most was the lack of prejudice on her part. She did not see them as sub-human demons that need to be isolated from the society. In one of her previous assignment, she had arrested a dreaded gangster who mentioned to her about the illness of his wife and promptly she got the wife of this gangster admitted in a hospital where she delivered a healthy baby.
Another group in the prison which was ignored by most was that of women. There were around 400 women prisoners also lodged in Tihar jail and many of them were mothers to little children, who lived with them in their prison cells. Living in the prison environment 24/7 surely takes a psychological toll on young children and considering this, Dr Bedi, with the help of social welfare department, organised regular trips to places like Raj Ghat lawns and Delhi zoo. The women prisoners were also provided with part time jobs and bank accounts were opened for them. They were given the details of interest accrued in their accounts during weekly visits of bank officials.
While her reforms were working, it was taking a lot out of her staff and it did not escape her concerned gaze. She got the duty hours staggered so that they could also give time to their families. Now corruption and bribery were things of the past, and to keep it that way she also focused on increasing family earning of her staff. She started an institute for their wives and daughters where they could develop vocational skills and become financially independent. An auto-part manufacturer also came on board and trained the families of Tihar staff to make filters. During the training they got Rs 30 per day and after the completion of the training they got paid Rs 1000-2000 per month.

The Surge – Involving the Community

As the results of this transformation at Tihar were presented in the public sphere, help started pouring in from various sections of the society. The problem of garbage and resultant health issues was solved through community support. The onus of converting heaps of garbage from the prison into odourless manure was taken by a Mumbai based firm, which made Tihar a hygienic place and saved the authorities a large amount of money they already were falling short on. An ayurvedic cum homeopathic clinic was opened in the prison premises with the help of various NGOs and government’s central health services scheme. January 26, 1994 was celebrated as the Medical Day in Tihar and 500 health professionals came to Tihar and all the inmates received a free health check-up. Thanks to the donations of medical supplies, the prison health care system was strengthened.
Yoga, Meditation and Reformation at Tihar
Efforts towards education and character building were also supported by individuals, organisations, and institutions with a great zeal. IGNOU set up a higher education center in the Tihar premises for the staff and inmates. Many NGOs ran AIDS awareness programs, behavioural development programs, and counselling sessions for the inmates. Soon, a well-received course on Vipasana meditation was launched for the staff and inmates with the help of Vipasana Sadhana Sansthan. “In a survey, most inmates who underwent the course reported an improvement in their control over anger, peace of mind, concentration, physical well-being, tolerance and acceptance of others, and self-discipline,” says  Dr Bedi with a sense of fulfilment.
She had changed the name of Tihar Jail to Tihar Aashram (Hindi word for hermitage) and now it was living up to it.

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