Founder Acharya His Divine Grace
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada

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Prison Counseling in Singapore Transforming Inmates
By Go-Palak Krsna Das and Lila Sundari Devi Dasi   |  Jan 28, 2024

Devotees in Singapore have been visiting local prisons for the past 20 years to bring the philosophy of Krishna Consciousness and meaningful association to inmates. Around ten devotees regularly participate in this weekly service. They have aimed to share spiritual teachings from the Bhagavad-gita, lift inmate morale, build good character values, and provide mental solace for the incarcerated men. The devotees are enthusiastically welcomed by prison leadership and staff. Below, devotees will share some of their experiences with prisoners and the impact Krishna Consciousness is having on their lives. This service is led by Chandrashekara Acharya Das and his son, Go-Palak Krsna Das. 

The sessions are held on weekend mornings and start with Hare Krsna kirtan, followed by Nrsimha prayers. Usually, the devotee counselors will ask one of the inmates to lead the singing of Nrsimha prayers, which is often met with enthusiasm. After this, the devotee counselors speak from a Bhagavad-gita verse, sometimes conducting it as a multimedia presentation via slides and video clips. Often, they elaborate on the verses using pastimes from the scriptures or illustrative stories, with a focus on character building and values. This is followed by one round of maha mantra chanting. The counselors demonstrate how to keep count of the japa chanting using one’s fingers, as the inmates are not allowed to keep japa beads. Through the efforts of the devotees, sponsored copies of the Bhagavad-gita and other books are provided to the Hindu inmates. These are their personal copies that they can read when they are in their cells. 

The response from the inmates has been favorable and, at times, highly inspirational. A number of inmates are chanting regularly and reading the books. Some inmates specifically request vegetarian food so that they can follow the four regulative principles. They have also expressed their gratitude for the personal copies of the Bhagavad-gita they have received from the devotees. The inmates’ families have seen changes for the better, as these inmates have put in the effort to mend the fractured relationships with their families and loved ones. Some ex-inmates have joined our regular programs and started coming to the temple regularly. 

Below, devotees will share some of their experiences with four prisoners and the impact Krishna Consciousness is having on their lives. Note: All names have been changed to protect identities. 

Stories of Inmates

Inmates are encouraged to write to the counselors during the annual volunteer appreciation. The devotees received many such letters over the years. Devotees performing this service have also shared their experiences. Following are some stories shared by the devotees performing the service and by inmates themselves. 

Providing Hope

One of the inmates, Jeya, wrote that it meant a lot to him that we asked them to chant the slokas. He shared that his family has ostracized him as a sinner due to his transgressions with the law. They have purposely excluded him from any family prayers for his departed grandparents, with whom he was very close. In fact, he was asked to leave the place before the prayers could start, as his presence was deemed to be inauspicious during the prayers. When we had encouraged him to chant the Bhagavad Gita slokas during the sessions, he was initially hesitant because he believed he was not pure enough to chant. But the encouragement given by the counselors over many sessions gave him the courage to chant – it must be added that Jeya has a sweet voice and chants slokas very nicely. This gave Jeya a sense of acceptance – that he was not a hopeless case. If there was hope for him to be accepted to chant these slokas, then there is also hope for him that his efforts to change his lifestyle would be accepted by society.

Chanting Helps to Keep a Cool Head 

Another inmate, Arunasalam, was naturally a short-tempered person, and this, along with bad association, led him down a path of crime. He was imprisoned and joined the prison counseling program. He observed that the devotee counselor was unflustered whenever the group was getting noisy and inattentive. Once, he approached the devotee and asked him if he ever got angry. The devotee replied that he does get angry, but when that happens, he will silently sing the Hare Krsna maha-mantra. Thus, with a cool head, what to do next will become clear. Arunasalam mulled over this point and also observed the devotee always took out his karatals and chanted whenever the room got a little noisy. He decided to imbibe this practice and started to chant regularly, and gradually realized that it was helping him – he was becoming a calmer person! This urged him to continue the process even after his release as he experienced a tangible method by which he could improve himself and stay away from crime. Arunasalam still maintains contact with devotees. 

Moving out of the “Family” Home

Selvam, like many of the inmates, came from a broken home and soon was mixing with bad company, which led him into a life of crime. During one of the prison counseling sessions, he shared with one devotee that the prison was his family home – his father had spent most of his life in prison – up to his death; his mother was currently in prison, along with his sister, uncles, and cousins. He added that his life path was already chosen for him – a life of crime and prison time. The devotee replied, asking him to consider moving out of his family home and get another flat to live in. The devotee further added that Lord Krsna is our Supreme Father, and all he has to do is turn to Him for help. When we are sincere in our attempts to change for the better, this will attract Lord Krsna to help us. Selvam just smiled. For the next few months, he continued to attend the sessions, listening to the program but not entirely participating. Selvam did not maintain contact with the devotees after his release. A few years later, the devotee bumped into Selvam. Selvam was working at a home renovation company as a supervisor; in fact, the devotee saw him working at a friend’s neighbor’s house. Selvam was close to tears when he saw the devotee, and it reminded him of the previous conversation they had. He mentioned that he had moved out of this “family house” and narrated that various chances had fallen his way – chances that he believed were the result of the Lord looking out for him. He expressed his gratitude to the devotees for the counseling programs and how the messages from the Bhagavad-gita and the chanting have caused a change in his heart and in his life. 

Second Chance 

Then, there is the amazing story of Sivaraj, who strode to the gallows with a smile on his face. Sivaraj was a hardworking man who cared for his family dearly. He provided a nice, comfortable house to live in and spent his time and money on his children’s education. Unknown to his family and friends, Sivaraj was making frequent trips across the Singapore-Malaysia border with a dangerous mission – to smuggle heroin into Singapore. He knew the gravity of his actions, and one day, he decided this would be his last trip. Unfortunately, he was caught on that trip and sentenced to death under Singapore’s extremely tough anti-drug laws. 

Initially, Sivaraj was inconsolable and couldn’t accept the situation that he was in. Fortunately, his childhood friend was an ISKCON devotee. He visited and gave Sivaraj “The Science of Self Realization” book. A few weeks later, the devotee was surprised to see that Sivaraj was a changed man! He was like a child bubbling with curiosity and asked many spiritual questions during the many visits the devotee had made to see him. Next, he was given the Bhagavad-gita and “A Second Chance,” which he was very pleased to receive. 

The fateful day came when Sivaraj was to be hanged. The prison wardens later remarked how calm Sivaraj was as he walked bravely to the gallows. Usually, prisoners would scream and cry and try to resist before they were hanged. The prison wardens said he had mentioned that he was a spirit soul and not the body and was chanting the maha-mantra repeatedly up till the last moment! 

Devotees were reminded of the following verse, “Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, O son of Kuntī, that state he will attain without fail” (BG 8.6).

Closing Reflections

The stories of Sivaraj, Selvam, Arunasalam, and Jeya are just some of the many stories that the devotee counselors witness in the course of their service. The devotees involved in the Prison Counseling service are tackling a social problem at the root. By changing the consciousness of these inmates, they truly bring about a change in their behavior and conduct and allow them to contribute positively to society.  

Photo attributions: Jimmy Chan and Klaus Hausmann.