What does Wildmind do in prisons?

prison doorThe staff at Wildmind are involved in classes at the State Prison for Men in Concord, New Hampshire. Every week we close our office and we take the roughly one hour trip up to Concord.

We didn’t start this group. The tribute for that has to go to Bodhana (formerly Dave Carr), who heroically supported the meditation and Buddhism group in Concord for many years and who continues to play a leading role there.

In the summer, even on the days when the humidity feels like a hot, wet blanket resting on your skin, we wear long pants and carry sweaters, because the chapel in which our class takes place is air-conditioned to the point that even with winter clothing you can find yourself shivering compulsively for the latter half of the meeting.

There have been times when, for several weeks in a row, we have made the 60 minute journey to Concord only to be told that for some reason, usually staff shortages, the group has been canceled. Rarely if ever does anyone from the prison call us ahead of time to let us know this, and learning to live with these disappointments is a major part of our practice as prison volunteers.

Our gathering is actually more accurately described as a group meeting than a class. The inmates trickle in a little after one, and for a while we socialize. Many of the men live in different wings of the prison and don’t have much opportunity to meet outside of this time.

About our inmate sangha

They’re an interesting group of men. Their ages range from early twenties to mid sixties. They’re a bright and intelligent bunch, and several of them have degrees at masters level. Many of them are sex offenders, while others are doing time for a variety of offenses, some as serious as murder. The atmosphere in this group is more friendly than in the average men’s meeting. The inmates are delighted to see the volunteers, and many make a point of shaking our hands as they greet us. Contact with people outside the prison walls is very precious.

When everyone has settled, we stand, salute the shrine that has been set up on the altar while we’ve been chatting, bow, and then sit once again. We chant the Buddhist Refuges and Precepts, committing ourselves to nonviolence, respect for others, honesty, and sobriety. Then we meditate.

We don’t sit for long — usually just 20 minutes or so. The whole time we’re sitting the floor shakes as heavy metal doors slam beneath our feet. Visitors come and go into the chapel, which also contains several offices. They often let the door slam the doors behind them, something I’m told doesn’t happen during Christian services. And the fans of the air-conditioning system — wafting frigid air over our bodies — rattle constantly. Learning to sit in complete acceptance of this noise is a major part of the practice. Often, as the mind settles, we go beyond mere tolerance of the noise and enter the zone of one-pointed concentration where these outside stimuli simply vanish.

After the meditation

Our prison meditation ends with a bell, and then after we have all adjusted to bringing our awareness fully back into the room, we do a check in. Each of us talks, sometimes for just a few sentences, and sometimes for a lot longer, on how we have been in the intervening week. Mostly we just listen with interest and empathy.

We listen with gladness to tales of minor — and sometimes not so minor — victory, where the inmates have used mindfulness and lovingkindness to deal with their problems. Over time we witness men moving from using violence as a way to solve their problems to using mindfulness and compassion.

Sometimes we’ll get into a discussion, as we help a young inmate deal with the fact that his family have stopped visiting him as often and haven’t put money into his phone account so that he can call them, or suggest ways that a prisoner can deal with his anger over having had a borrowed item returned broken.

Some weeks we’ll simply follow through on some issue that has arisen in the check-in, and discuss that fully. Other weeks an inmate or visitor will give a talk and we’ll discuss that. Sometimes we’ll watch a movie together; Groundhog Day gave much ground for discussion about the choices we make and the consequences we face.

Sometimes we’ll take a Buddhist text like the Dhammapada and reflect on what the verses mean for our lives.

These men make immense efforts to practice. Some of them meditate at 4 or 5 AM, because that’s the quietest time of day. Although surrounded by people who are exploitative and irresponsible, they work hard at applying the ethical precepts of Buddhism to their lives. One day, after a heavy rain, one of our group members, “Harry,” was walking across the yard. Another inmate asked him why he was taking such uneven steps, which must have looked very peculiar. Harry explained that he was trying not to step on the worms that were covering the paving. “Why are you doing that?” Harry was asked. Harry stops and looks at the other inmate and says, “Well, can you make a worm?”

Material Support

Two of the inmates in the Concord group make meditation benches in their spare time. Wildmind for a while purchased these benches for sale on our online store, and this helped the individual inmates and the entire group. We passed our online retail activities on to a friend, and so that source of material support continues.

Wildmind has also donated copies of books to the group’s library, and thanks to the generosity of Taiwanese Buddhists and Windhorse Publications had a large selection of books available free of charge to inmates. In 2009 we started winding down our book distribution program in order to concentrate on our teaching activities.

Guided meditation audiocassette

Wildmind made hundreds of copies a guided meditation cassette for inmates. This is another activity we wound down in 2009 in order to concentrate our limited resources on teaching.

4 Comments. Leave new

  • Well…this sickens me. The “man” that murdered my 89 year-old grandfather is doing time in NH and I can only hope that he’s forced to suffer through your Bullshit against his will, or is refused any contact with the outside world. For one, you are not Buddhists; you are fooling yourselves, and apparently Very few others, since the only ones that will suffer your company are in PRISON…
    I see from your webpage that this is some kind of scam to make money (good luck! haha), and forgive me if I am omitting your other possible forays, but I refuse to waste any more time learning of your sad, sad “program.” You speak of empathy, but what about the obvious–the victims, and families of the victims?? These are wretched people with nothing to offer society but a reminder of the evils of which human beings are capable. And we All pay to support their (hopefully) miserable existence. This is a bit of a rant, granted, but anyone in my position should share my stance: these people Got What They Deserve. Or Better! Just let them rot; and keep them from poisoning the rest of us; and Pray they don’t procreate, and haven’t already…Hopefully this has opened your eyes. Now stop pretending and get a Real job.

    • If your grandfather was indeed murdered (and you’re not one of those obnoxious trollers just trying to provoke a response) then you have my full sympathy. You ask about empathy for victims. I also work with the victims of crimes. There have been days when I’ve worked with child-rapists and with the victims of sexual abuse, so I know about crime from both sides.

      You seem be be regarding the work we do as some kind of reward for people who have committed crimes. I don’t see it that way myself. People are capable of change, and we help give people access to tools, like meditation, that can help them become better people. These tools promote impulse control, which helps people to get out of the habit of doing stupid, impulsive, and harmful things. They also promote self-awareness and empathy, so that criminals who have harmed others can begin to feel genuine remorse for their victims. That’s a painful process to go through, and not a “reward” in any ordinary sense. And most criminals are going to get out of prison, so you’d better hope they change. In the absence of self-awareness, many inmates become worse criminals than when they went in.

      I don’t know if you’ve ever visited a prison, but the idea that “these are wretched people with nothing to offer society but a reminder of the evils of which human beings are capable” applies to very few inmates. There are certainly some people who are psychotic, incapable of remorse or empathy, and beyond change, but the overwhelming sense you get while meeting the vast majority of inmates is how ordinary they are. Many in fact do come out of prison and contribute to society.

      Incidentally, in regard to the pain you’re giving expression to, you might want to consider the wise words of Esther Lederer, who said “Hanging onto resentment is letting someone you despise live rent-free in your head.” It’s not possible to experience hatred and love at the same time, and every moment you hate your grandfather’s murderer is one in which you’re not loving your grandfather. I feel saddened thinking of you wasting your mental energy in this way, and hope that you can find peace.

      • This was a really great response to an incredibly bitter post. I can tell the original poster is full of pain and anger; likely resenting the fact that the man who murdered his grandfather got to live while his grandfather did not. It does make me sad that he seems to carry so much hatred and anger in his heart. Forgiveness is not about the person you are forgiving—it is something that will release your own burdens. I it takes so much more energy to hate someone than to be indifferent.

        With that being said, I’m a survivor of a stalking that eventually led to being abducted and sexually assaulted repeatedly and attempted murder. I’m very lucky I survived. I’m telling you this because I can only hope that, if the man who did that to me was ever caught, he would be lucky enough to discover a program like the ones you speak of. He was just a very tortured and confused individual who had uncontrollable urges. Am I excusing his behavior? Absolutely not. Do I forgive him? I have, and quite awhile ago. I even have a great deal of empathy for him and hope that he can somehow learn to control his urges and live a better life where no one else suffers the way I did. I was angry for a while about this crime and it took me a good deal of therapy and reflection to get to where I am now. I often think of my attacker—sometimes, it’s ptsd and fear-based: will he find me again and start stalking me and eventually kill me as he’d intended the first time? Sometimes, it’s concern for future victims. Sometimes, it’s just to contemplate why he chose to act that way in the first place. I feel like the fact that he didn’t kill me says a lot about his character. I was able to convince him that it wasn’t what he really wanted. He grew upset and uncomfortable. He continued to sexually assault me until I was able to make my escape, but he didn’t try to end my life after that talk I had with him. That tells me he isn’t a person devoid of empathy.

        Anyways, just wanted to share my experience, from the eyes of a survivor and my appreciation for your program to help inmates.

  • Matt, I understand the intense feelings you express towards your grandfather’s murderer, it’s natural to feel this way. You must be allowed the time to move through these feelings and move beyond them. It’s my hope that you will do this consciously, perhaps with the guidance of a counselor, priest or other trusted individual whom you can trust. If we don’t move beyond such intense negative feelings (hate, anger, rage…you choose the word that feels right to you) science shows us it has a debilitating effect on our psychological health and on our physical well being.

    In your anger (choose another word if that’s not the right one) you condemn all prisoners with a horrific description of their nature – in doing this you have anointed yourself an all knowing God who can describe the nature of an entire group of people. This is the mode of thinking that gives rise to racism and all of the horrors it has lead to around the world.

    You maintain these folks are not Buddhists; in saying so you demonstrate the same thought process that allows you to condemn all inmates as humans without any redeeming qualities.

    By the way, I am not a Buddhist, I came to this website while seeking information on meditation – which is an activity which western medical practice has demonstrated to have positive psychological and physical benefits to its practitioners.

    Finally, I just like to express the opinion that your wish that all inmates suffer in prison is ill advised for practical reasons – nationally, 95% of all inmates are released back to our communities. Individuals like yourself who so strongly support inmates suffering in prison is why we have such a high repeat offense rate in the U.S. What every inmate needs (yes, the child rapist, the murderer, drug dealer, etc) is help. The fact that they are in prison means society has done has you wished – judgement has been passed and the nicest prison setting is still a terrible experience. The people are being punished, as you wish by virtue of the fact that they are in prison. Lets apply rational thought and do all we can to rehabilitate them so when 95 out of 100 are released back to your neighborhood they don’t go and murder you grandmother (or Mom, or child or you).


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