After leaving her Mizoram assignment incomplete in September 1992, Bedi had to wait eight months for a new posting. In May 1993, she was posted to the Delhi Prisons as inspector general (IG).
The Tihar Jail of Delhi was built as a four-jail complex with a capacity of 2,500 prisoners. However, by the time Bedi became its in-charge, its prisoner population varied from 8,000 to 9,500.
About 90% of its inmates were undertrials, who had been accused of non-bailable offences. Some of them had been waiting for years to get a trial in a badly clogged court system.
The prison had a budget of 15 crore, which was just enough to pay for basic expenditure, leaving little for welfare programmes. Tihar was notorious as a violent and unmanageable place, and no officer wanted to be posted there.
The post had been lying vacant for nine months, before Bedi was posted there.
Bedi decided to turn Tihar into a model prison. She introduced several reforms. She arranged separate barracks for the hardened criminals, who had been using their time in prison to recruit gang members, sell contraband and extort money. These prisoners unsuccessfully challenged Bedi in court for unfairly segregating them.
For other prisoners, Bedi arranged vocational training with certificates, so that they could find a job after their release. During her tenure, Indira Gandhi National Open University and National Open School set up their centers inside the prison.
Legal cells were set up to help the undertrials. Bedi banned smoking in the prison. The move faced a lot of resistance from the staff as well as the prisoners.
She introduced yoga and Vipassana meditation classes to change the prisoners’ attitudes. She organized additional activities such as sports, prayer, and festival celebrations.
She also established a de-addiction center, and pulled up or imprisoned the staff members involved in drug supply. A bank was also opened inside the prison. A bakery and small manufacturing units, including carpentry and weaving units, were set up in the jail. The profits from the products sold were put into the prisoners’ welfare fund.
Bedi went on daily prison tours, observing the staff, listening to prisoners’complaints, inspecting food quality and evaluating overall management. She developed a panchayat system, where prisoners who were respected for their age, education, or character represented other inmates and met every evening with senior officers to sort out problems.
She also established petition boxes so that prisoners could write to the IG about any issue. While the jail had suggestion boxes earlier too, the jail staff would destroy the complaints received through these boxes. On the other hand, the prisoners writing to Bedi received acknowledgment and information about the status of their petition.
In this prison reform programme, Bedi involved outsiders – including NGOs, schools, civilians and former inmates. As a result of Bedi’s reforms, there was a drop in the fights and disturbances in the jail. Even the hardened criminals, who had been isolated in separate barracks, started behaving well. Bedi then arranged for them to attend education and meditation courses.
In May 1994, Bedi organized a ‘health day’, during which around 400 doctors and paramedics were invited to attend to Tihar’s patients. Based on visits to two of Tihar’s adolescent wards, a cardiologist associated with the Delhi Government’s AIDS Control Programme, claimed that two-thirds of the inmates had acknowledged engaging in homosexual acts.
He recommended distribution of condoms in the prison, a move supported by Delhi’s Health Minister Harsh Vardhan and National AIDS Control Organisation. However, Kiran Bedi opposed the move pointing out that there were no HIV+ prisoners in Tihar. She stated that the distribution of condoms would encourage homosexual activity (illegal as per Section 377) among criminals.
Based on a survey conducted through petition boxes, she claimed that incidence of consensual homosexual activity was negligible, and that the doctor’s claim had hurt her prisoners. In response, the activist group ABVA filed a writ petition in the Delhi High Court demanding distribution of condoms in Tihar. Bedi termed the move as an attempt to force “western solutions” on “Tihar Ashram”, and filed a counter affidavit opposing the demand.