What makes a prisoner? Sarvananda, a prison Buddhist chaplain, has an inside view of life in jail; and he reflects that we are all prisoners of our mental states
Twice a week for the past seven years I have visited Norwich Prison in eastern England, in my capacity as a Buddhist chaplain. Recently I have been wondering why I am drawn to this work. Apart from the desire to spread the Dharma and the fact that my teacher Sangharakshita has encouraged his disciples to undertake such work, a certain fascination has drawn me to prison visiting — a fascination with prison life itself and with the people I meet.
I was brought up in an affluent, suburban district of Glasgow, Scotland. Criminal acts seemed rare. Graffiti was hardly seen and, if it did briefly blossom, it was gone by the next morning. No, the forces of darkness lived over the river. Just across the muddy waters of the River Cart lay the Castlemilk housing estate. In the summer, when the river was low, our suburban stronghold was often invaded by the Castlemilk youth. They stole from shops, and chased people with ‘blades’. On my way back from a shopping expedition I was once mugged by some of these dreaded ‘Cassies’. I still remember the grinning, handsome face and bright eyes of their ringleader. I staggered home in tears without my mother’s groceries and with fear and anger in my heart. Yet ‘the Cassies’ also fascinated me.
I have always had the middle-class boy’s curiosity about those who live on the other side of the tracks. It has determined my tastes in literature, and even my choice of friends. This fascination has extended to my prison visiting and ties in with my other incarnation as someone who attempts to write plays.
These men understand immediately that a successful Buddhist practice could, literally, make the difference between life and death.
When I visit the prison, I have to rein in my curiosity. I am there to communicate the Dharma, the Buddhist teachings, and to be, to the best of my ability, a spiritual friend to the men I meet. Although I have access to the prisoners’ files I never read them. Nor do I ask them why they are in prison. I let them offer that information – or not. There is a danger that my own curiosity can be a distraction from my primary purpose. Still, I am curious …
I usually feel tense as I ring the little bell and wait by the enormous double doors of the prison. This is not because I feel apprehensive about visiting the prisoners who have asked to see me. In seven years visiting the prison, I have never been threatened or felt intimidated by a prisoner (which was certainly a fear when I started). The men I meet have asked to see me and always treat me with friendliness and respect. The tension has more to do with the difficulties I have experienced in getting to see prisoners, or finding a room in which to meditate, or establishing my credentials.
‘What are you doing?’ barked an officer one day, as I wandered aimlessly down a corridor searching for a prisoner who had no doubt been transferred to another prison.
‘I’m the Buddhist chaplain.’
‘You don’t look like the Buddhist chaplain.’
‘I am,’ I assured him. ‘I’m the Buddhist chaplain.’
And I showed him my card with the little photograph of me that makes me look like the prison’s longest-term resident. But the card did undeniably say ‘Buddhist chaplain’.
‘Sorry, sir.’ His voice changed. ‘Probably best not to wear a maroon sweatshirt [regulation prison gear] when you come here. Gave me a nasty shock seeing a prisoner with keys.’
‘Who are you?’ is a question I often get asked as I enter the prison, a question often accompanied by the unselfconscious stare of an inmate. It’s the kind of stare you don’t usually get on ‘the out’.
Being a member of the Western Buddhist Order, I don’t wear robes, so I’m not immediately recognisable as a chaplain, and I sometimes envy the Christian chaplain his immediately recognisable dog collar, his chapel, and the weight of his western tradition. I am a curiosity for officers and prisoners. And I’ve had some interesting conversations about Buddhism with landing officers while waiting to see a prisoner.
The first thing that hits me when I enter a prison wing is the noise – shouting, slamming doors and blaring radios. The atmosphere at first seems casual. After all, these are just men getting on with their daily routine. But I always detect an underlying frustration. These men have been locked up against their will, deprived of their freedom and their ability to make choices is hugely limited.
There is often, too, an atmosphere of jokey comradeship, something even mildly homoerotic. As I walked up a stairwell recently I noticed one inmate kissing another through a wire mesh.‘ What are you two up to?’ demanded a scandalised third party.
‘We love each other, man.’
‘You’ve been in here too long, mate.’
I meet the men I have come to see in various locations. It is sometimes difficult to find an appropriate room and I have been sequestered in a small treatment room with a bewildered inmate and two angry budgies, irritated by the invasion of their personal space. Sometimes I meet with a prisoner in one of the Christian chapels. It seems strange meditating under the Stations of the Cross, but these rooms have a spaciousness and tranquillity that I like. I often use one of the multi-faith rooms, which have few artefacts or images and are sterile and drab because they have been designed to give no offence to any religion. Here I set up my Buddha figure, light some incense, perhaps put on a tape of Tibetan chanting, and try to create a pleasant atmosphere. The men I meet, suffering under the routines and rituals of prison life, respond positively to the ritual and artefacts of Buddhism. Incense is particularly popular. Perhaps burning incense marks them off as being Buddhists – as well as disguising the pervasive smells of cooking, detergent or toilets.
Occasionally, just occasionally, I find myself envying aspects of their lives.
Sometimes I see the prisoners in their cells, which vary in size and quality. ‘M’ wing houses prisoners of an enhanced category. They have pleasant, spacious cells with a shower. Other cells are small, shared spaces with a bunk bed. There are also small, single cells with a toilet. These are particularly smelly, cramped and unpleasant. Whatever their size or quality, prisoners spend a substantial amount of their prison lives banged up in these cells.
The prisoners choose to decorate their cells in different ways. Some are neat with a little shrine on a table and Buddhist images displayed on the walls. In others naked women are plastered everywhere and it is a relief to shut one’s eyes to meditate.
‘It’s about the only curves you see in prison,’ one of the more philosophically minded inmates reminded me, by way of apology.
Lines. No curves. From their striped blue shirts, to the wire mesh, to the bars on the windows … The masculine, ordered geometry of prison life wearies the eye. Prison is an ugly, ugly environment.
And the ugliest part of this ugly environment is ‘A’ wing, the old Victorian part of the prison. There seems a particularly tense atmosphere on this wing. Generations of men have tramped these landings, called to one another from these balconies, have spent years of their lives locked in these cells … The geography of the wing makes the whole place a well of sound. Noise is what I would find most difficult to endure in here. It is what the more sensitive inmates complain about. It’s difficult to meditate with blaring radios, yelling and slamming doors being amplified, flung up and around the four landings on the wing …
I often wonder how I would cope in prison. The men I meet (usually one-to-one, but sometimes in groups) range from lifers convicted of violent crimes to young men convicted of selling drugs. Many of those I meet are there for drug-related crimes. Occasionally I meet someone from a similar background to myself but usually the environment from which they have emerged has been difficult, harsh and often violent. A lot of them have been in institutions of one kind or another all their lives.
Normally I have a general chat, talk about basic Buddhism and we meditate together. Some have found in Buddhism an alternative to conventional religion, a spiritual path without God. Some have a good, consistent meditation practice. Others find meditation difficult and prefer just to talk. Many are struggling with addiction and it is no coincidence that, at the moment, the majority of guys I see are on a special wing that helps them to deal with their addictive behaviour. These men understand immediately the Buddhist attitude to craving and that a successful Buddhist practice could, literally, make the difference between life and death.
When I talk with the prisoners I always try to follow Khemadhammo’s advice – to stay with the Dharma. Ven. Ajahn Khemadhammo, an English Theravadin monk, started Angulimala, the UK’s Buddhist prison chaplaincy organisation to which I belong, in 1985. Its 45 or so chaplains attend regular meetings, which provide mutual support and encouragement.
I try to follow Khemadammo’s advice: not to psychologise, nor sort out the prisoners’ problems for them, nor take sides, nor get into the cloudy areas of the rights and wrongs of their specific case. I try to come back again and again to the basics of Buddhism – the importance of creating the right conditions in establishing an effective practice; the need to take responsibility for one’s mental states; the law of karma as expressed by the Buddha in the Dhammapada:
‘What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind. If a man speaks or acts with an impure mind, suffering follows him as the wheel of the cart follows the beast that draws the cart.’
‘What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind. If a man speaks or acts with a pure mind, joy follows him as his shadow.’
In returning to these truths I also remind myself of the basics of the Dharma that I so easily forget. And those prisoners who have some genuine grasp of these basics move on most effectively. It is easy to underestimate the struggle many of them have. I visited one man who seemed to be getting on well. He was usually calm and bright and had a seemingly effective meditation practice. After he was released I happened to spot him in the city. His face was haggard and bruised and he was having a fierce argument with some of the drunks and drug addicts who frequent that part of town.
Occasionally, just occasionally, particularly if I am busy, I find myself envying aspects of their lives. In many ways their lives seem simpler than mine. They do, of course, have a lot of free time. They seem less subject to the tyranny of choice. ‘The amount I could get written, the amount I could study, the amount I could meditate if I lived in here!’ I occasionally reflect.
Prison visiting helps me to make wiser choices…
Some of the men I meet say that being in prison has been beneficial, in that previously they never had the time or the space to consider their lives. And I often suggest that they try and see their time in prison as a semi-retreat. I stress that they may never again have the spare time seriously to meditate and reflect.
But my attraction to their life is superficial. There are 500 other good reasons why I would not want to be a prisoner. These men have been deprived of their freedom and, in the process, I sense that they have lost something else. This is difficult to put into words, but it is something to do with the blue striped shirts and the maroon sweat shirts, the fact that their letters are opened before they read them, that they’re called by their second name, and are subject to a sometimes baffling bureaucracy. If I’m late for a prisoner or can’t manage to see him, it doesn’t seem so important to me as it would if I was inconveniencing someone on the outside. It’s a subtle, semi-conscious feeling, which I fight against, that these men are second-class citizens, that broken promises affect them less, that they live on the other side of the river. Prison life can deprive them of dignity.
I am writing this article on a solitary retreat. On the face of it I have the freedom to go where I want, do what I want and think what I want. But I have been aware, while meditating here, how much my ability to think or act freely is limited by deep-rooted negative habits. I am imprisoned by these habits, and here is another fascination in my work: the prison provides me with a metaphor. It reminds me that my world is similar in many respects, that the dividing river is not really a divide and that, like the men I meet in Norwich prison, I am subject to the imprisoning mental states of greed, hatred and delusion. The difference between a free person and one without freedom is not bars or doors, but the extent to which they can take responsibility for their mental states.
In the end, however, my world is not one of bars and wire and slamming doors. Every time I walk out of the prison I experience a sense of relief. Choice can be a tyrant, but prison visiting helps me to make wiser choices, to make the most of my physical freedom. Hopefully, in communicating the Dharma to those men I meet, I can help them, too, to choose wisely.
Sarvananda was born in Scotland and is a member of the Western Buddhist Order. He lives in Norwich, England.
Under the name Alastair Jessiman he is a noted writer of plays for radio, who has had many of his works produced by the BBC. His most recent production is Boxer and Doberman, a comedy police drama, which was described by the Telegraph as “funny in a wonderfully macabre way.”