If you haven’t heard of Dr. Kiran Bedi – put your seat belt on. I had the amazing opportunity to hear her speak last week and I wanted to share her story with you.
First all all, she is not even 5 feet tall, but she stands like a giant in a room. She has a presence – you can truly feel her enter the room. She was running a little bit late (not surprising – when you are changing the world, you can’t always be on time) and seriously, the whole dynamic of the room changed the second she entered it. It did not become hushed – but energized. We moved to the side a little and she walked to the podium soaking us all in. As if she was there to learn from us – it was so interesting. She laughed that women are women – always talking, always laughing. She seems to take in every moment – acknowledge every smile.
She began her talk by saying that her job has always been to spread cheer. In every aspect of her life, she aims to spread cheer. Not to necessarily move mountains or shatter barriers, simply to spread cheer. Although the result of her spreading cheer has certainly been mountains moving and barriers shattering and much, much cheer spreading.
Kiran Bedi began her career in 1972 when she joined the Indian Police Service. She was the first woman to do so. She made so many waves and captured enough positive media attention that it was decided that she should take 9 months paid leave. Dr. Bedi said it was during that time that she began to write down her stories. She has published several books including “I Dare”, “It’s Always Possible”, and “What Went Wrong”.
Then someone wised up and decided that Dr. Bedi should not be paid for not working and put her in charge of the Tihar prison. I guess they thought that they would show her. Ha. She was given the position of Inspector General of Prisons for Tihar jail. It housed over 10,000 inmates. If I remember correctly, Tihar houses every type of criminal and even houses a maximum security area. It is one of the world’s largest prison complexes. You can check out its website here – it is unlike any prison I have heard of before. First of all they have a factory where inmates work and learn a trade – like pottery, weaving, paper making, baking, etc. Now, there’s an idea.
During Kiran Bedi’s time at the prison (which I believe was only two years), she made radical and effective changes. The repeat offender rate of the Tihar jail inmates is significantly lower than most prisons across the world. She walked the prison floors everyday and interacted with the prisoners – no one had ever done that before. Previous Inspector Generals seemed to have stayed very far away from the actual task at hand. They found their air conditioned offices much more comfortable than being inside the prison walls. Everything was disconnected.
Immediately upon arriving, she saw drastic change was necessary to give the prisoners a sense of hope and humanness.
One of the first things she did was instituted a daily meditation ritual. She would pray with the prisoners every day. Dr. Bedi feels that this is what western prisons are lacking. It is easy to get too caught up in spirituality being religion and then conflict ensues. She said that meditation (spirituality) allows a person time to reflect – time to learn that the path they are on might not be working so well. She said we all need time to think about our choices. Daily meditation allows that – daily prayer offers hope. Both are essential for reform and rehabilitation.
This is one of my favorite parts of her story. She saw in the rules that “transistors, watches, and books were not permitted, unless permitted.” So she simply permitted them. She did not need a high court decision or a council meeting or a vote – she simply wrote down on a piece of lovely green paper that transistors, books, and watches are now permitted and she thumb-tacked it up on a bulletin board. Brilliant.
She gave prisoners back the privilege of having watches and transistor radios because she did not want them disconnected from the outside world. She felt that if the inmates were unaware of what was happening outside of their walls, it would further alienate them when they returned to society.
Dr. Bedi also gave the prisoners books. She said she would visit local schools at the end of the year and take away their discarded text books. Talk about trash to treasure! She had many volunteers who would come in and teach classes. Companies would donate school supplies. Many of the inmates pursued degrees of various levels.
She realized the medical costs of running a prison were eating into her budget. So she declared the prison a smoke-free environment. She felt the poisons from cigarettes were damaging not just the physical health of the prisoners, but their mental health as well. She was concerned about the effect of second-hand smoke, so she simply said “no more”. And she saw a dramatic decrease in her medical expenses. Tuberculosis cases significantly decreased.
She was not without sympathy for the withdrawal symptoms the prisoners would face and instituted detox facilities. She also listened intently to the prisoners concerns that smoking was “all they had”. She asked them for alternative solutions but together they could not come up with a viable answer. So, Tihar remains a non-smoking environment.
In India, women can take their children to prison with them. My understanding is that there is not a social welfare system in India and there is great concern when children are separated from their mothers – no good can come from that. So the children often go with. Dr. Bedi started a preschool program for the children. Some of the women in the prison were interested in learning to be childcare providers – so they learned by watching the children in the prison. The mothers of those children could either take school classes or weaving classes.
When the children turn about 6 years old, their mothers can choose to send them to a boarding school where they get a proper education. Even if the mother is released from prison, the children can stay enrolled in school.
I asked Dr. Bedi if some women commit crimes just to have their children get these advantages. She simply said “sure”.
Dr. Bedi also instituted a petition box where the prisoners could share their concerns and complaints. She gave them a voice.
The thing that amazed me most about Dr. Bedi was the joy she described in every single thing. She truly seems to have no complaints whatsoever. She took being put on leave as an opportunity to write. She described the note that she posted on a bulletin board about watches and transitors being allowed and smiled so genuinely about the lovely soft shade of green the paper was. She laughed about the cobwebs and the rats that infested her not-so-new office at the prison. She joked that she challenged the rats to see who would be there longer.
I had the opportunity to have lunch with Dr. Bedi and four other ladies after her talk. Dr. Bedi has advised government leaders and been invited to speak to the United Nations. She has her own television show that is similar to Judge Judy – but with more of a slant on teaching the law and explaining its nuances to Indian citizens. She is famous here. More than famous. It was a treat to have such a small audience with her.
One of the women asked her what Dr. Bedi thought was the reason for her tremendous success. I know the answer. She is letting her life take her where she is meant to be and she is finding joy along every step of the way. There are no obstacles, only opportunities. She strives to improve her life. She has recently given up eating meat because she was trying to find what else she could do to become a better person.
One of the other things she said that I found so interesting was that institutions will survive us all. So, we must work to make institutions that mean something, that have a positive influence on the world – long after we are gone. When she left lunch with us, she was off to attend a meeting with people who are working to start a taxi business for women drivers.
She is changing the world and she is spreading cheer.