Prison Dharma


In many ways, Buddhism seems to be a natural path for institutionalized prisoners who make the decision to grow spiritually while incarcerated. With training and some instruction on a regular basis, most inmates should have the time and space for a meditation practice (or other forms of contemplation).

When I volunteered to work with Wiccan inmates at a Washington state prison in the past, almost all of the inmates had chosen their path after they were incarcerated. I expect that this is true for most followers of non-mainstream (which, in America, means non-Christian or Jewish) faiths. I haven’t seen figures to really back this but this is what my Colbertian gut tells me.

The environment in a prison is, frankly, horrid. I doubt anyone reading this would be surprised to learn that. The reality of what I saw, at a medium security facility, was both better and worse than what the media portrays, which is often a vision of maximum security prisons. That said, spending time in a prison was probably the greatest motivator that I’ve ever seen to not want to be incarcerated. This harsh prison environment has a corrosive effect on people in a variety of ways. The loss of control of anything to do with one’s self and of basic human dignity is toxic to people, who seem to respond in a variety of ways. That being case, this very harshness may also act as a motivator to practice and deal with one’s life, at least on a mental level. An inmate has nothing but time on their hands, often many years of it.

The biggest barrier to prison practice that I can see is a lack of training and resources. Inmates, by and large, do not come from the most educated end of society (though there are really obvious exceptions) and lack exposure to spirituality oftentimes except in the most basic of ways. Those that find an urge to develop spiritually may have come to this on their own or, if they are lucky, through exposure to some sort of practice group in prison. Some may have access to a library with a decent range of books (but this is pretty unlikely in many instances). If someone does have an urge to study Buddhism, he or she is not going to know where to start. There really does need to be both a supportive sangha, both inside and outside of a facility, to help people and to reinforce their path. Along with this, inmates need access to both training, in the form of a teacher, and materials to study. For most practicing spiritual groups in a prison, an outside person may only come in once a month or, at most, once a week. The rest of the time, the prisoners are on their own. In many facilities, they cannot even meet as a group without an outside facilitator present. This was the case of the group of people that I worked with years ago in a Wiccan context. This weights things in the favor of Christianity in most institutions since, if they have a chaplain present, the chaplain will almost always be a Christian. Additionally, chaplains have great discretion in what happens with spiritual organizations in a facility (almost dictatorial powers, in fact) and, all too often, are sometimes hostile to non-Christian faiths.

This means that inmates can often only meet if an outsider is present and, otherwise, they must practice alone or, if they are lucky enough to have a cellmate or compatriot in the same part of a facility, in a very small group. This makes it all the more important that inmates are given the tools necessary to practice when unsupervised or alone and the support on the occasions when someone does come in from outside. During the times outside of group meetings, study is possible but materials must be made available. Generally, these must be sponsored by an individual or group outside of a facility and can only be brought into a prison with the approval of the chaplain and other authorities (for obvious reasons, material flowing into and out of a prison is pretty controlled).

Since becoming an active Buddhist, I have no participated in prison work but it is something that I often think about doing. I can honestly say that I think about it with some uneasiness at times because the circumstances (and sometimes the system and individuals) can be so difficult and emotionally challenging. That being said, it is work that is necessary, especially in the United States where we incarcerate so much of our population.

I know of a number of Buddhist prison programs that stand out:

  1. The Prison Dharma Network
  2. The Transformative Justice program of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. (Zen)
  3. The National Buddhist Prison Sangha of Zen Mountain Monastery (Zen)
  4. The Prison Outreach Program of Upaya Institute and Zen Center (Zen)
  5. The Engaged Zen Foundation (whose entire work is prison focused) (Zen)
  6. The Shambhala Prison Community (Shambhala)
  7. The Prison program of Chagdud Gonpa Amrita (Tibetan Buddhism) in my home town of Seattle - This is small in size but I've heard about it for a while now.
  8. Vipassana Meditation Courses from the teachings of S.N. Goenka (Theravadan)
  9. The Mind Body Awareness Project - This organization focuses on youths and teaches both meditation and yoga techniques. </ol> The Prison Dharma Network has published the wonderful book, Sitting Inside, on Dharma practice in prisons. As you can see, most of these programs in the United States are run by Zen groups. I'm not sure why this is except that Zen is fairly well established and is focused on a relatively specific sort of meditation practice (as is Vipassana meditation as taught by S.N. Goenka and his followers). There has actually been a bit of media focus on Vipassana in prisons. There was a video made in the mid-90s about the introduction of Vipassana meditation into an Indian prison called, Doing Time, Doing Vipassana. You can actually watch this online (and I've embedded the first section below). </param></param></param></embed> There was actually a movie made about a Vipassana meditation retreat done within an American prison in the South with maximum security prisoners. This movie is The Dhamma Brothers. You can read an article in the New York Times about it and see the trailer embedded below as well. </param></param></embed> I hope that reading this post encourages fellow Buddhists to think about prisoners, working with prisoners, and the potential role of the Dharma in prisons.