By: Anbarasan Ethirajan (BBC News, Dhaka)
At first glance a room filled with a group of people practising meditation may not look unusual.
But the men and women who are sitting sitting calmly and trying to focus their minds are a little different from most.
They are prisoners in the central jail in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, serving sentences for committing violent crimes.
It is not their aim to attain bliss – or nirvana – but it is their objective to reduce anxiety and make a new beginning.
This is the first time that prison officials in Bangladesh have introduced a meditation programme for inmates.
As meditation trainers play audio which teaches them how to focus their minds, prisoners follow the instructions dutifully and peacefully.
Both male and female inmates have been given a chance to try meditation – not only to lower their stress levels but also to give them a chance to reform and succeed in the outside world.
“Our traditional counselling method to reform prisoners was not fruitful. Many of the prisoners simply reoffend and end up back in jail adding to the prison population,” says prisons inspector Gen Muhammad Ashraful Islam Khan.
“So we are now trying this meditation programme to help our prisoners.”
Life is not easy in Bangladesh’s overcrowded prisons. The 67 jails in the country hold more than 75,000 inmates – three times their official capacity.
Activists say Dhaka’s central jail is currently holding 540 female prisoners, although the facility officially has capacity for only 134 women.
“This not only results in issues of overcrowding, but also the consequences of overcrowding, including sanitation and infectious diseases,” says Faustina Pereira, director of the human rights and legal aid department of Brac, one of the country’s largest non-governmental organisations.
“It gives us a scenario of overall stress levels caused by confinement.”
As we walked through the prison yard we could see hundreds of male prisoners herded together in open spaces and some in small enclosures.
Many of them were not wearing prison uniforms. Prison guards were keeping a close watch on them. We could hear a number of women chatting loudly and screaming children as we walked through the women’s section of the prison though we could not see them.
Another small building had a few small box-shaped cells through which we could see a few women prisoners behind the bars.
Activists say that the situation has reached a critical point because prisons are filthy and unhygienic.
They say that many inmates end up getting contagious diseases like tuberculosis which cannot be treated properly because jails lack medical facilities.
And human rights workers say prisoners are often victims of violence inflicted either by fellow inmates or by prison guards.
Independent observers and rights activists are not normally allowed in to see the condition of the prisoners.
Our visit to Dhaka’s central jail was tightly controlled and officials did not allow us to film what it was like inside.
It is hoped that the meditation course will help inmates eradicate the scars of prison life and give them a platform to launch a new life.
“This meditation course makes me feel better. I can feel that my health is also getting better. Now, I can focus my mind,” says Nadim Khan, a repeat offender who is back in the jail for the fifth time.
“Nowadays, I can sleep well and feel free of tension and stress. When I am released from here, I would like to do something positive in life, may be I will search for a good job.”
The course is organised by the Quantum Foundation – a non-profit organisation – in Dhaka.
“The response from the prisoners has been excellent. They are feeling better than before and they are eager to continue with the programme,” says Suraiya Rahman, one of the meditation trainers.
The meditation programme is the latest in the government’s efforts to improve the quality of life inside the prisons following criticism over conditions.
If the programme proves successful, officials say meditation classes will be gradually introduced in jails across the country.
Earlier this year, the government released more than 1,000 long-serving prisoners in an attempt to ease chronic overcrowding.
Even if the programme may not change the lives of inmates all together, it does at least provide a contemplative break from the monotony of their daily routine.
Activists have welcomed the latest initiative saying it is a step in the right direction – but they argue that it does not require much deep thought to realise that far-reaching and meaningful reforms are urgently needed to improve the appalling living conditions inside the country’s jails.