Wildmind Buddhist Meditation

Meditation in Prison

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Why teach meditation in prison?

Buddha headPrison life is incredibly stressful. An inmate is frequently cut off from friends and family, thrust amongst people who may be exploitative or abusive, and subject to a regime where he has little or no control over his life. (Please excuse my gender-specific language – I’m of course aware that there are many female inmates).

Prison life is often constantly noisy. Even in the prison chapel in which I teach, which you might expect to be a haven of peace, there is the constant sound of slamming doors — loud enough to make the whole room shake — and the rattle of an ill-maintained ventilation system, not to mention staff and inmates wandering in and out every few minutes, often talking loudly even during our meditations. This constant assault of noise gets on the nerves.

Prison life can be filled with arbitrary and petty mistreatment. Inmates on the way to my group may be asked by a prison officer where they are going, and when they report that they’re on the way to the meditation group they’re told, falsely, that it’s been cancelled. This kind of thing happens to inmates all the time, and creates a sense of frustration and distress.

Inmates have little or no privacy. In the prison in which I teach the best that they can hope for is to share a room with one other man. The room, originally designed for one prisoner, is as long as a single bed and about 18 inches wider. It’s impossible for two people to move around in the room at the same time. The roommate may be noisy, talkative, or needy. This creates further pressures. The less fortunate may share a small room with seven others, making quiet impossible and even making sleep difficult.

At the same time, inmates have an opportunity to pause and to look at their lives: to ask the questions, “How did I end up here?” and “Where did I go wrong?” and, perhaps most importantly, “How can I change?”

This brings some inmates to explore religion and spirituality, including spiritual paths that are new to them. Many become attracted to the idea of learning meditation techniques that can help them to cope with the stresses of prison life and to bring about positive character changes.

Some of us who follow the Buddhist path are moved to go into prisons in order to make available the powerful tools for transformation that we have seen working in our own lives. We try, as best we can, to put compassion into action, and to work for the “welfare of the many.”

Teaching in prison has been one of the most rewarding things that I have ever done in my life. It’s brought me into contact with some extraordinary men, who show a degree of compassion, intelligence, patience, kindness, and good humor in the face of adversity that frequently puts me to shame but more often inspires me to practice more seriously myself.

It’s been an enlightening experience to discover that a person is not defined by the worst thing he has done in his life. A person may commit a horrific crime and still have the potential to do great good.

I’ve known inmates who have, as a result of their meditation practice, move from being violent streetfighters to gentle protectors of weaker prisoners. I’ve seen inmates develop an extraordinary amount of patience with exceedingly trying circumstances. I’ve seen seemingly macho men show a tender concern for others. In short, I’ve seen people who have committed some of the most serious crimes possible — people that some might describe as “animals” or “beyond hope” — becoming better people.

Comments

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Comment from scott magrath
Time: January 21, 2008, 3:20 am

Hi I just wanted to let you know I very much enjoyed your web site.
I teach meditation in prisons here in Australia and I am always looking for different resources keep up the great work.
scotty

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: January 21, 2008, 5:31 pm

Thanks very much for your kind comment, Scott, and good luck with your prison work.

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Comment from Robyn
Time: January 25, 2008, 12:44 pm

I also teach yoga and meditation in prison and am currently looking for scientific studies that would back yoga and meditation being used in prisons. Does anyone have any suggestions, papers you have heard about or read?

Thanks, Robyn

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: January 25, 2008, 7:40 pm

Hi Robyn,

I’d suggest going to the meditation news section of our site and doing a search for “meditation prison” and “yoga prison.” That will turn up stories like this BBC one.

All the best with the good work you’re doing.

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Comment from K.
Time: February 17, 2008, 10:04 pm

Hello Robyn,

I guide meditation in the context of dhrama in a prison in Canada.

I found realy interesting the movie Doing Time, Doing Vipassana, that talk about a reform in a prison in India. It is a movie to see for yourself ans in jail with our friends sangha.

I am not in this tradition, but it show clearly how meditation, and teachings of Buddha can help to control our mind and find peace in our mind. It show clearly that we all have this potential to become a good person by realising the nature of our mind and develop our potential that we all have of love, compassion and wisdom.

hope it help, by understanding that there is no difference between people in jail and us, me, you, and murderers. We are all in the prison that we name samsara, the prison of our delusion.

K.

http://www.dhamma.org/en/av/dtdv.shtml

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Comment from alex84
Time: September 14, 2008, 3:42 pm

I live in the border with Mexico and as is well known the violence and the fear are taking over a majority of our citizens. I would like to teach meditation in a jail in Mexico, becouse I herd that a similar work shop in Mexico City is having great results but I don’t feel ready. What can I do to be prepared?

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: September 15, 2008, 5:41 pm

Alex: I guess what you need first is an effective practice and experience in teaching in more conventional circumstances; there may be people who do their first teaching in prisons but I’d imagine they’d be rare.

You also need a healthy dose of common sense and a good deal of self-confidence. But in the end you’re never ready — you just start doing it and grow so that you can meet the demands of the situation.

There are a couple of books that would be helpful — “We’re All Doing Time” is one and “Sitting Inside” is another. But of course no book can really prepare you…

Good luck!

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Comment from Julia
Time: February 17, 2010, 3:59 pm

Hey! I currently am volunteering for a charity called Freeing The Human Spirit. We set up yoga sessions in Canadian Prisions
and send the inmates different reading materials. One of our famous request is “We’re all doing Time” that was mentioned
above. We recieve a lot of letters from inmates thanking us for the program and the reading material. They also mention
how yoga & meditation is helping their everyday life!

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Comment from Jenny Wright
Time: May 11, 2010, 5:03 pm

Fantastic! This coming from one of the most “conservative” counties in Southern California. Our Indigo Lotus Buddhism Group and I have just begun a meditation program at the local detention center. We are really excited about working with the inmates, sharing Dharma and listening to them as well.
One of the big differences between them and the rest of the population? The got caught.

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Pingback from Inmates Find New Definition of Freedom Through Meditation « Dialogic Magazine
Time: February 9, 2011, 12:27 am

[…] Wildmind: “Prison life is incredibly stressful. An inmate is frequently cut off from friends and family, thrust amongst people who may be exploitative or abusive, and subject to a regime where he has little or no control over his life. (Please excuse my gender-specific language – I’m of course aware that there are many female inmates)…At the same time, inmates have an opportunity to pause and to look at their lives: to ask the questions, “How did I end up here?” and “Where did I go wrong?” and, perhaps most importantly, “How can I change?” This brings some inmates to explore religion and spirituality, including spiritual paths that are new to them. Many become attracted to the idea of learning meditation techniques that can help them to cope with the stresses of prison life and to bring about positive character changes.” […]

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Comment from Michael
Time: April 27, 2011, 3:12 pm

Hi I have been meditating for over 35 years and found it shch a help on meeting the challenges of daily life. Just let two flats to ex prisoners. How could I teach meditation in a prison near London?

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: April 27, 2011, 3:55 pm

Hi, Michael.

You’d probably want to get in touch with Angulimala, the Buddhist Prison Chaplaincy organization, who would be able to help you.

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Comment from Michael
Time: April 27, 2011, 4:35 pm

Thanks for the suggestion but I don’t think Buddhist Prison Chaplaincy organization would accept me as I have been following the Sufi path for many years. I know a lot of the Sufi practices are Buddhist and I have very much enjoyed visiting Buddhist temples but would I be acceptable?

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: April 27, 2011, 6:27 pm

I’d imagine you’d have to be a Buddhist…

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Pingback from Into Prisons « Follow your Nose
Time: April 30, 2011, 11:13 am

[…] A friend of mine told me years ago about the Canadian nun, Sister Elaine MacInnes, who teaches meditation to inmates and was awarded the Order of Canada for her work, and Google reveals there’s also a place in Boston, Wildmind Buddhist Meditation, that has some participants who teach meditation in prisons. […]

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Comment from Mark Bremer
Time: October 2, 2013, 6:08 pm

I am interested in teaching meditation in the detention facility at where I work (I am a probation officer) here in the U.S. Apparently, the jail staff has expressed return interest, but I have no idea where to even start, how to conduct classes, frequency, etc. Any resources out there to help me get started would be appreciated.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: October 3, 2013, 12:20 am

Hi, Mark.

That sounds like a great thing to do. The Prison Dharma Network may be able to help you: http://www.prisondharmanetwork.net

All the best,
Bodhipaksa

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Comment from Lawrence
Time: January 3, 2014, 11:11 pm

Mark,
I do yoga and meditation in South Florida. Dr Landau in No Carolina of the Ananda Marga group made a manual. But the best and of-the-heart way is to call as many persons doing this as possible and ask their advice.

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Comment from Donald Castellano-Hoyt
Time: May 11, 2014, 10:31 am

Hello, Bodhipaksa,
in the five years I worked in the Texas prison system as a social work counselor, I found prisoners eager and hungry for techniques and ideas for changing themselves. I saw radical changes in prisoners after only a few sessions of using Benson’s Relaxation Response, SRF’s hong sau technique, or mental affirmations (among others).
I am preparing to volunteer to conduct a weekly meditation group at the local Dominguez State Jail here in San Antonio.

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Comment from Greg White
Time: September 14, 2014, 11:23 pm

Ram Dass whose real name is Richard Albert teaches prison inmates meditation it’s called the Prison Ashram program.

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