Kiran Bedi shakes up India's jumbo jail

Kiran Bedi’s list of achievements are little short of astonishing, she was the first female ever to serve in the Indian Police Service, a national tennis champion, and founder of two NGOs. An avid Wimbledon fan; she even tipped Andrew Murray as the deserving winner ahead of his victory at the 2013 Wimbledon final.

But, for Bedi there is far more to tennis than trophies and tantrums. It was a sport that set her on a path towards becoming one of the most notable leaders of our time; and cemented her character with the guile to disrupt the status quo, as the first ever policewoman in India.
“Discipline was a huge part of being a tennis player. You can’t lack discipline and be a national tennis champion. That sporting discipline and policing fitted very well together,” Bedi told me, emphasizing the logic behind her defiance of the reigning assumptions about gender roles in 1970s India.
When Bedi first approached the police service, she was met with suspicion and solicitous efforts to divert her from a risky career path. It’s a totally different situation in India now she told me: “Now they need more women working in the police service…”
But, Bedi’s first obstacle was just the tip of the iceberg, as she journeyed further into the world of prison management, and took office at Tihar prison – the world’s largest dwelling of prisoners in the democratic world.
Holding goats
Located in Tihar village, approximately 7 km from Chanakya Puri, to the west of New Delhi, the prison has almost 12,000 inmates, among them social activists, international serial killers and a smattering of disgraced politicians. From 1993-1995, Bedi had 400 women and 9,200 men in her custody.
“It would have been frightening for anyone” she told me. “These men were there for committing all forms of violent crimes,” she said. “They had gangsters who would go after your life if you handled them wrongly.”
But, in Bedi’s eyes, beyond the challenge of dealing with the chaos of prison life, there was a chance to radically reform the entire running of the prison and “an opportunity to address the needs of humanity”.
“When I arrived, it was like a holding place for goats” she explained. The whole system revolved around a head count. “The primary goal was to make sure no head was missing, because if a head were missing, a head would roll – and it would be that of the supervisor,” she said.
The prison evolved under Bedi’s orders, from a holding place, where men were accounted for like bags of rice, to its very own municipality – a healthy, ethically run, self-governing township.
“I used all the principles of township management into running a municipality, where everyone contributed as citizens. I wanted to run a reformatory school,” Bedi explained.
The same rigorous time management that Bedi had learned as a successful sportswoman suddenly took on a new significance, helping to allow the humane treatment of the prison’s inmates. “Everyone had a spiritual hour, and everyone went to sleep without drugs. It meant people stopped waking each other up in the night howling like jackals from withdrawal symptoms.”
Today, the prison –styled as a correctional institute– boasts a thriving bakery, carpentry workshop (a rocking chair will cost you 7,300 rupees), and textile mill. There is a library, music academy and meditation hall.
“Yoga was introduced, with the understanding that it wasn’t to do with any religious conversion, it was all about mind, body and soul balance,” Bedi explained.
"Yoga is an amazing nourishment", she told me reflecting on her own down time. "My only prayer is that I could do more. But, my community duties and responsibilities don’t allow me”, she said, offering a glimpse of the unrelenting schedule that sets the rhythm of her life.
Letters from inmates
At Tihar prison, Bedi would interact with the inmates on a daily basis. She had a direct line into the very heart of the prison, and a close up of prison life in all its gory detail. “I had full knowledge of what was going on – and my staff used to be afraid that the boss would soon know everything” she told me.
Through letters she received, in a confidential feedback box, she built up a picture of routine drug deals, communal violence and corruption; a hidden reality which saw staff extorting money from prisoners, prisoners extorting money from each other and gangs breeding.
Whilst violence and crime was prolific, the letters were many, and diverse. “There were letters of gratitude, and I sent thank you letters back. Someone wrote me a poem, another sketched me a drawing.” Others expressed family concerns for husbands, wives and children left behind. “I still have thousands of letters, I’ve preserved every one,” Bedi told me.
But, she is careful not to indulge assumptions that she injected a woman’s touch into the running of things: “Whether the change was attributable to me as a woman or as the person that I am… I think that’s a mystery,” she said.
And, in spite of her access to the personal lives of the prisoners, she adamantly refuses to be thought of as a mother to the individuals she managed: “It’s not a question of liking or loving them, but of being humane with them. Of course, I was authentic with them. I didn’t put up a show – that was my duty.”
Ahead of her keynote speech at the Partnering for Global Impact conference on Wednesday and Thursday this week, Bedi offered a portion of the insight she will share with her audience. For Bedi, it is crucial that civil society learns to adequately fill the gaps where government fails to deliver.
“In India the big question is matching resources with needs. There are more than a billion people, and you need the highest quality leadership at the political and administrative level, with the right people in the right places,” she said.
“Inadequate resources, from people to finance were my biggest handicap: I turned it around with community participation: I invited corporates to pitch in their role as partners in security keeping, as watchman or publicity material before the term Corporate Social Responsibility was coined.”
Bedi’s message places a strong emphasis on the power of collective efforts to address challenges, “this is where my strength has been, bringing in people to help policing, and helping a collective corrective and community-based model emerge,” she said.
Her audience at the global social enterprise gathering on Wednesday will learn that even if your tools are rusted and your resources are inadequate, achieving your own goals and meeting the expectations of those around you is always possible.