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.