Through intimate letters, interviews, and stories, this narrative reveals the impact that a life-changing retreat had on a group of inmates at the highest level maximum-security state prison in Alabama. The 38 participants in the first-ever intensive, silent 10-day program inside the walls of a corrections facility—many serving life sentences without parole—detail the range of their experiences, the depth of their understanding of the Buddha’s teachings gained by direct experience, and their setbacks and successes. During the Vipassana meditation program, they face the past and their miseries and emerge with a sense of peace and purpose. This compelling story shows the capacity for commitment, self-examination, renewal, and hope within a dismal penal system and a wider culture that demonizes prisoners.
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Letters from the Dhamma Brothers
By Jenny Phillips
Pariyatti PublishingCopyright © 2008 Jenny Phillips
All rights reserved.
Twenty prison inmates sat in a semi-circle on plastic chairs in the prison's West Gymnasium. They had just completed a continuous ten-day retreat in which they had meditated in silence and stillness for over ten hours each day. On this day these men became the first inmates inside a United States maximum-security prison to complete such a rigorous program based on the 2,600-year-old teachings of the Buddha.
Now the prison warden and the director of treatment for the Alabama Department of Corrections sat in the audience to listen to the testimony of these men. Various prison treatment and security staff, as well as inmates invited from the prison population of 1,500, had gathered to hear what the men had to say about their personal experiences in this most unusual program. One by one, 20 men stepped to the front of the room, held the microphone, and described what they had been through. They ranged in age from their early twenties to their fifties.
Edward Johnson, a tall, thin man who had spent many years in a segregation cell, thanked the warden and the prison psychologist for believing that he could be a "better man." Their confidence in him had allowed him to survive "the long hours on the meditation cushion." As he spoke, he wept openly. Many of the other men began to weep. Next, Michael Carpenter, a slight young man, came to the microphone and spoke in hushed tones. "Twelve years ago I received life without parole. I thought that was my punishment. But I didn't realize that I could punish myself worse than the judge. During the past ten days I have seen how I have beat up on myself for many years for ending up in prison. But I feel like I am on a new path now and that I have learned what I need to know to go down this path." A young African American named Benjamin Harvey said, "This was a magnificent experience. But at first I wanted to leave. I didn't know I had so much anger, depression and hurt balled up inside. But the teachers told me, 'Don't run. Get to the root.' So I stayed and I worked, and by the eighth day all the garbage had come to the surface and I felt so much better."
As Warden Stephen Bullard listened to the testimony of the men, he was impressed by their open sincerity. He had wondered if they would "fake it 'til they make it" when he had first considered whether to hold the program in his prison. After all had spoken, he turned to them and praised them for their courage.
"People wonder why I choose to work in a prison. I don't want to beat people down. I want to improve this prison." In the prison world of strictly enforced hierarchy and control, Warden Bullard was reaching across the great divide between his office as jailer and keeper of the keys into the realm of the kept and the stigmatized. He now further narrowed the distance between himself and the inmates when he said, "I could easily be sitting in one of your chairs if things had turned out differently. I could still end up in one of your chairs — you never know. But now that this course has ended, I want you to go back into the prison and become agents of change. I am proud of this program and pleased that today we have become part of prison history."
How did this extraordinary program come to be? Prisoners in the deep South, inside a maximum-security prison, had spent ten days practicing an ancient, intensive meditation technique. This was certainly one of the most innovative treatment programs ever tried in a prison. It was carried out with a strong level of commitment and sacrifice in a state prison system struggling with severe overcrowding and an equally severe lack of resources and staff. To answer this question, it is necessary to look more thoroughly into the prison itself, to consider the harshness and hopelessness of daily life there as well as the recent appearance within the prison of countervailing forces for positive change.
The Journey Inside
W. E. Donaldson Correctional Facility is set in the Alabama countryside south of Birmingham, in the midst of thick woodland, red clay soil and tangled kudzu vines. Wrapped around it on three sides, coiled like a snake as it flows south to the Gulf Coast, is the Black Warrior River. Donaldson's inmates live behind high security towers and a double row of barbed and electrified razor wire fences. The wire, capable of delivering a lethal charge, gleams and glints in the sunlight with disarming beauty. This is a place for those who may never be released back into society, inmates with the longest stays and the highest levels of crime. Many are sentenced to life without parole, virtually condemning them to a lifetime behind prison walls. Many others have life sentences, some for nonviolent crimes based on the "three-strikes-you're-out" policy instituted during the 1990s. The prison houses a population of inmates on death row and has a mental health unit for those with severe mental illness. Referred to by its residents as the "House of Pain," Donaldson is the prison where the most unmanageable and intransigent of Alabama's inmates are sent.
Although a small trickle of inmates is released back into the outside world, there is a distinct atmosphere within these prison walls of a separate, contained society. Once inside, inmates are stripped of their "free-world" identity and possessions, and henceforth must live on the paucity of standard prison-issue goods. Except for phone calls and occasional visits, they must rebuild their lives inside the prison, associating mainly with other inmates and letting go of the outside world. They live lives of enforced simplicity and regimentation, a large number of people living in a small space on few resources.
I first visited Donaldson in the fall of 1999. Driving down the long, isolated road leading to the prison, there is a sense of having reached a border crossing into a foreign land. Suddenly the prison looms ahead, a long low structure dotted with control towers. At the front office there is a check and search and a walk through a metal detector. Next, a door is buzzed open allowing passage into a metal cage with a gate on either end, both of which are electronically controlled by an armed guard in a tower. The first gate must be closed before the second one opens at the other end. This is followed by a short passage through a no-man's-land, a grassy lawn sandwiched between the exterior and interior prison walls, that brings one inside the prison. After passing the administrative offices there is a final locked door. Once through this door, both the architectural and psychological landscapes change dramatically.
When one enters the building there is a distinct feeling of having left behind all that is familiar and taken for granted. The first person one meets inside is an inmate shining shoes at a stand. Wide corridors form a "V" stretching away from the stand to the east and west. Even though one is now "inside," there is a final metal gate which slowly slides open, traversing this corridor. As it slams shut, the visitor from the "free world" enters an alien place based on forced containment and control.
There is a stench of sweat and disinfectant and an aura of misery and suppressed violence. Painted in hues of brown, the corridors are long, dark and dank. In hot weather, steam and mist rise and drip from the walls, and the floors are slippery with moisture. Inmates in white pants and shirts, with Alabama Department of Corrections emblazoned on their backs, continually move up and down the corridors. Everyone stays to the right, systematically marching along like ants in a colony. They seem to be going somewhere, but their range is sharply demarcated by the prison's physical boundaries. The stereotypical image of prisons is of inmates neatly locked away in cells, of quiet halls traveled by officers with keys. But these inmates are out and about. Much of the traffic consists of a flow to and from the dining hall. Men are also moving to school programs and prison-based jobs. The din and movement, however, is that of controlled activity. Moving among the inmates are staff and unarmed corrections officers carrying night sticks and two-way radios.
All of the inmates are dressed in the stark, white, prison-issue clothing with black, stenciled lettering. Displayed prominently on the left front of each shirt is the identification number whose six digits become an inmate's primary identity. Similarly, each prisoner's address is essentially the location of a bed. Many live with another inmate or two in a small cell on a cell block. One inmate referred to this living situation as "living in a closet with a stranger." Some prefer living in such cells because of the relative privacy they offer. While there is no sense of ownership or property, there is some control over this small space constructed of concrete blocks and metal bars.
By contrast, others live in open dormitories of more than 100 beds separated by less than two feet of open space. This arrangement allows more freedom of movement and access to a large yard and track for exercising. But the trade-off is a total lack of privacy and control of personal space. A prisoner's home is reduced to a bunk and a locked box underneath containing his possessions. Most activities take place on or around this bunk. Life becomes reduced to its barest essentials. There is an open bathroom on one side of this room with a long, shared shower stall, an open urinal trough, and two or three toilets immediately next to each another. Men must sit side by side on these toilets, with no partition or screen for privacy. In this enormous room all activities are communal and open to public view. The noise and activity are pervasive and never-ending. Two television sets blast their programs. Ceiling lights are on all day and much of the night. The smell of crowded bodies saturates the atmosphere.
I decided to visit Donaldson because I had heard that several hundred inmates there had studied the Houses of Healing meditation program and were now meditating regularly. I am a licensed psychotherapist and have a doctorate in cultural anthropology. For several years I had been teaching the same meditation-based group therapy course to men in some Massachusetts prisons. On that first visit to Donaldson Correctional Facility my purpose was to observe the meditation classes being taught by inmates and then to interview some of them about their lives as prisoners.
The Houses of Healing course comes from a book by Robin Casarjian, the director of the Lionheart Foundation in Boston. Published in 1995, Houses of Healing: A Prisoner's Guide to Inner Power and Freedom is one of the tools that Lionheart provides for the rehabilitation of men and women in prison. Lionheart is also working towards a more rational approach to violence prevention, sentencing and incarceration in the U.S. This ground-breaking book caught the attention of inmate R. Troy Bridges while he was working in the Donaldson prison library. Troy had been incarcerated for more than ten years and was serving life without parole. After reading the book, which outlines a meditation-based program for personal recovery and healing, Troy and others began to meet as a study group, following the book's prescribed activities.
In 1996 Robin Casarjian received a letter from Bridges recounting the benefits he and others had derived from the regular practice of meditation. They had formed a core group which met every Thursday night to meditate in the tiny area next to his bunk in a crowded 100-man dormitory. "I have a bed by the window and three feet of space between the bed and the wall. I decided to temporarily move my bed away from the wall another two feet, and we could then sit on the floor and meditate. We spread blankets on the floor and were able to accommodate eight men. We have been meeting for over two months now, and every one of the original eight gives this weekly group meditation top priority. I noticed some of the rough edges of the personalities beginning to soften. They smile a little more, criticize a little less, and approach life in a calmer manner. We have all learned to use the noise and confusion of our adopted temple not as an annoyance but rather as our mantra."
After Bridges established a correspondence with Casarjian, the Lionheart Foundation began to provide guidance and assistance to the inmates and some prison staff by sending books, training manuals and, later, a videotape series used as a teaching tool for facilitators of the program. During the next six years more than 300 inmates at Donaldson participated in the Houses of Healing courses and support groups, initially under the tutelage of Bridges. Over time many more group facilitators were trained by Bridges and others, and they too began leading groups. From this pool of meditating inmates emerged a growing readiness to cultivate inner healing and wisdom through the practice of meditation.
I am not sure exactly what I expected would emerge from those first interviews with the meditating inmates at Donaldson. But as I met with the men one by one in the privacy of an office and taped them in long interviews, I found them opening up about their lives inside prison. What they told me was often surprising and remarkable, and listening to them changed my professional course in ways that I could not have anticipated.
I was deeply stirred by the power of their stories and the quandries they experience as men in prison. They live inside a dangerous social world in which there is incredible pressure to establish and demonstrate their manhood through aggressive behavior. They often feel compelled to join gangs and fight to prove dominance over one another. Violence, deprivation and stigmatization, in an environment of pervasive overcrowding and hopelessness, drive some men to an extreme acting out of perceived manhood-enhancing behaviors. Cut off from normal social avenues for constructing their reputation as men, these prisoners experience a need to publicly demonstrate their masculinity. In this depleted prison world their lives become a struggle to gather resources to build a reputation for strength and impregnability. They must show a readiness to fight to protect themselves and their possessions. The harsher the environment and more difficult the access to symbols of status and power, the more intense and protracted the battles become.
After meeting with the men at Donaldson and hearing them speak so frankly about prison life, I found them difficult to forget. I could not shake off the memories of what I had seen and heard. I wanted to learn more, to find out if there were solutions or alternatives to the aggressive culture of prison manhood. I wondered if it were possible for men in prison to live with a sense of inner peace and the freedom to experience and express a full range of emotions.
In my conversations with the inmates at Donaldson, they seemed to be seeking opportunities and skills to establish more productive and peaceful lives, even if there was no possibility of their release from prison. Perhaps this is because inmates face such difficult existential questions. They can either act out and distract themselves from the realities and consequences of their lives and crimes, or they can choose to face it all and try to make changes within themselves. Yet facing one's situation, really looking inward and focusing awareness upon the bleakness of incarceration, requires significant skills and guidance. I had already seen the benefits of teaching men in prison to meditate on an intermittent basis. But now I began to wonder if this approach offered them enough safety, privacy and direction to do this work in an environment with such high levels of distraction, stimulation and danger. After each meditation class prisoners must step right back into the daily stream of motion, noise and threats. I was searching for a way to provide prisoners with the sought-after safe space, extended time and specialized skills necessary to practice at a deeper, more lasting level of self-examination.
Sowing Seeds of Change
After my initial visit to Donaldson Correctional Facility in 1999, I sent two films to the prison psychologist, Dr. Ron Cavanaugh. The first, Doing Time, Doing Vipassana, (1997, Karuna Films Ltd.) tells the amazing story of the introduction in 1994 of a ten-day meditation program to 1,000 inmates at Tihar Jail, located outside New Delhi. With a total of 10,000 inmates, it is the largest prison in India. Tihar was once a site of violence, crime and overcrowding. Kiran Bedi, the prison warden, was looking for treatment programs that would address the serious psychological and social issues among the inmates. She had heard that S.N. Goenka, the renowned Vipassana meditation teacher, had been providing meditation courses at other Indian prisons since 1975. She decided to request Mr. Goenka to conduct a large Vipassana course at Tihar. This inspiring documentary shows the transformative power of prisoners systematically learning to develop deep inner awareness. It documents a reduction in violence and an improvement in the quality of life for a large prison population. Today there is a permanent Vipassana unit offering ongoing courses within Tihar.
Excerpted from Letters from the Dhamma Brothers by Jenny Phillips. Copyright © 2008 Jenny Phillips. Excerpted by permission of Pariyatti Publishing.
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Table of Contents
The Dhamma Brothers,
Address By S.N. Goenka At Donaldson,
More About Vipassana,
About The Author,