Teaching Indian meditation in US prisons: ‘Twenty in, twenty strong!’
The following is a first person account of a historic life changing experience in the Donaldson maximum security prison in Alabama, US. An unnamed volunteer describes his unique sojourn serving in a 10-day Vipassana meditation course while locked inside one of the most dangerous prisons in North America.
Along with two other men, old students, I had the good fortune to serve on the recent ten-day Vipassana course at the Donaldson maximum-security prison in Alabama (USA). It was one of the most moving and inspiring events of my life. It was certainly a challenge for the twenty students and everyone involved. But at the end of the course, an inmate commented, “Twenty in, twenty out, twenty strong!”
Donaldson is the end of the line in the Alabama State Department of Corrections, a system in the news last summer as underfunded, understaffed and overcrowded. That a ten-day Vipassana course was held at this facility, in the buckle of the Bible belt, is astonishing in itself. Donaldson is a very dangerous place, a dumping ground for the most troublesome prisoners.
Before the course started we had a security briefing during which we were instructed on how to handle ourselves should we be taken hostage. During our stay we were repeatedly reminded, “Always remember where you are; they’re nice guys but they’ll kill you.” Not a comforting thought; however, we felt safe in our meditation haven. At times, the dichotomy of the situation seemed almost surreal: three of us, locked down in the middle of this hell realm, assisting in bringing the lofty teaching of Dhamma to these needy and deeply suffering human beings. We sometimes laughed at the irony of the situation, yet we were keenly aware of its serious nature.
We were also aware that this was perhaps the first time ever that “free civilians” had entered a maximum-security prison and been locked down with the inmates for such a long period of time. It was a commendable and courageous decision on the part of the warden that allowed this to happen.
Our sleeping quarters were in a guard tower directly above the gym where the course was held. We slept on mattresses on the concrete floor. There was an open toilet and sink, which provided the basic requirements but little privacy. Each night the correctional officer (the CO or guard) locked us down, separating us from the inmate-students.
On day one, during the routine afternoon head count, which occurred in the middle of the 2:30 to 3:30 group sitting, an announcement crackled over the COs’ radios: “West gym reporting. Head count 20 and all meditating.” One can imagine the speculation and interest this created in the rough prison environment. We learned that bets had been made about how many would complete these ten arduous days. Very few, if any, would have predicted “twenty in, twenty out, twenty strong.”
The first indication of the effect of the course came when the Correctional Officers (COs) began to serve themselves food and sit down at the same tables and eat with the inmates-an unheard-of situation in such a hostile environment. When the weather turned cold, COs scrambled to find cardboard to block a drafty vent close to the students’ beds. These bulky men, who had no doubt in the past used force on some of these inmates, were now serving them with such touching thoughtfulness. Other effects of the course must have rippled throughout the facility in ways that we shall never know.
As the course settled down and gained momentum, the strong and positive vibrations being created became powerfully tangible. Our students bravely faced their personal demons. For ten to twelve hours each day, Vipassana took these earnest meditators deep into their subconscious minds where all inherent misery lies.
One can only guess how difficult it was for them to face their past and present predicaments. We were unsure whether one student, who concerned us deeply, would stick with it for the duration. He was clearly “shut down”, his face stiff and expressionless, his surly body language mimicking a caged animal. Our numerous efforts to encourage him and win his confidence were rebuffed with almost inaudible murmurs. This went on for days and finally, as often happens, the breakthrough came: a smile-the acknowledgment that he was now working deeply within-and a change in his posture. We felt relieved and joyous at his progress. Soon after silence was broken, this student spoke openly of his disturbed and violent past. It was a significant step in turning the tide of misery that had haunted him for so many years.
The efforts of these men were truly amazing as they battled the storms that inevitably arise during this deep process. Some correction officials have called Vipassana courses a mental boot camp; others have likened them to a mental detoxification. It is no small feat to complete the full ten days. Yet, in spite of enormous difficulties, caused partly by the inadequate conditions-one shower, two toilets, and a sink-the students hung in with determination and tenacity. It was obvious that suffering is a silent and constant companion in these men’s lives and clearly their awareness of it was a strong motivating factor.
Sometimes we urged them to back off and work less intensely. One of the more seemingly unlikely students had spent 31 of his last 35 years in prison and had endured numerous stabbings and beatings during his violent life. Yet this man took to meditation like the proverbial duck to water. Even during break periods he could be seen sitting in the makeshift meditation hall, moment by moment observing the realities that arose within. Part way through the course he grinned his toothless grin and proclaimed: “If it gets any better, I won’t be able to stand it!”
At last, when it came time for the graduation ceremony (done only in prison and jail courses), there was apprehension about what these student-inmates might say. By now they were extremely joyous and excited at their own achievement. These are men who are much more familiar with the gloom of failure than the dizzy elation of success. Our concern was that, in their excitement, they would be inappropriately “over the top.” But once again these guys came through. Each one of them rose to his feet and articulately told his story with heartfelt respect and thankfulness.
Among the students were three imams (prayer leaders) of various Muslim traditions, as well as two devoted Gospel and Baptist followers. All spoke of how Vipassana had helped them gain a deeper and more meaningful perspective of their own religion.
One man, who for much of the course had struggled with a deep fear that his anger would one day again overpower him and land him back in prison, turned to us with tears pouring down his face. His words were few, but the sense of remorse for his past actions, hope for the future, and gratitude for this teaching of Dhamma, were infinitely moving.
Just as ehi-passiko (ancient Pali language for ‘come and see for yourself’) works in the “free world,” it also works in the prison environment. As the (now old) students moved back into the prison population, word of this transforming experience soon spread. As a result, 24 inmates have now signed up for the next course. The prison administration made it clear that they had made no announcements nor coaxed anyone into applying. COs and the warden have also indicated their desire to participate in a course.
The Donaldson administration has continued to support these men’s efforts by setting aside two times each day when the students can go to a designated room for group sittings. Every Sunday, when the prison is quiet, they meditate continuously for three hours, starting at 5:30 a.m.
Reprinted from The Vipassana Research Institute newsletter, February 16, 2003. Vipassana courses continue being successfully held in prisons worldwide, as in Dhamma Tihar, the dedicated Vipassana centre in one of Asia’s largest prisons, Tihar Jail, New Delhi.”
3) Vipassana for Correctional Facilities worldwide
4) Doing Time, Doing Vipassana – award-winning documentary by Karuna Films, Israel.