Is it possible to find peace even within the confines of prison?
For 43- inmates of the William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility just outside of Birmingham, Alabama, many of whom are serving life sentences without possibility of parole, inner peace has indeed become attainable. They’ve taken 10-day, in house, Vipassanā meditation retreat … and. the results are looking pretty good.
The William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility is the set for the documentary The Dhamma Brothers. The 2007 film focused on the prisoner meditation program and followed four inmates, convicted of murder, through their progress of learning and practicing Vipassanā.
Vipassanā is one of two types of meditation practice in the Buddhist Tradition that is sometimes referred to as “Insight meditation” here in the U.S. Insight into self is the primary focus of this meditation practice: it is a way of self-transformation through observing self. The practice focuses in on the deep connection between the mind and the body. That focus is achieved in meditation by paying attention to physical sensation in the body.
Someone who is in prison can’t go far … there are walls everywhere. But they can go deep. Someone who has been convicted of a crime can’t change their past, but they can get insight into their present, and insight into themselves. Imagine the impact that an intensive study of Insight Meditation could have.
But we don’t have to imagine.
S.N. Goenka brought this technique to the United States and taught the first 10-day retreat at the William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility in 2002. Research on the outcomes of such programs Vipassanā has given some positive results. For example:
A 2006 study looked at impact of the Vipassanā courses held at the King County North Rehabilitation Facility (NRF) on substance use and psychosocial outcomes. They found that after release from jail, the former inmates that participated in Vipassanā courses reduced their use of of alcohol, marijuana and crack cocaine. They also had less mental health issues and were more optimistic about their ability to control their alcohol and drug use.
A 2009 study conducted was at the Tidewater Detention Center (TDC) in Chesapeake, Virginia with 13 female detainees at a facility for women non-violent offenders. Sixteen women participated in the facilitated program for 2 ½ hours per week over seven weeks. Seventeen women went about their regular days. The results showed that women in the meditation groups were able to sleep better, had less guilt, less desire to “act out” against others, and were more hopeful about their futures.
2,000 inmates at six Massachusetts correctional facilities participated in a insight meditation based stress reduction program. The programs were offered at the women’s prison and five of the men’s prison. 1,350 of the total 2,000 inmates completed the 113 required courses. The pre and post results showed that the inmates reported less emotional strain and stress, lower levels of anger and increased self esteem.
The Donaldson project is working with the “worst” offenders who have taken part in any type of structured meditation program. Many of these inmates will never see the light of day and some are even on death row. The thought of providing meditation instruction to those who are deemed lost to society may seem like it’s not worth the expense and time, but consider these results.
The Dhamma Brothers program at Donaldson has shown in pre and post tests after one year, Vipassanā participants had an increase in mindfulness and emotional awareness and improved mental and physical well being. The greatest bonus has been that the participants reported less anger and stress. Because anger and stress in confined quarters is fuel for violence, less rage translated into a reported 20% reduction in violence and solitary confinement and lockdowns. 20% may not seem like much, but it is enough for the Donaldson correctional facility to not only continue the program but to establish a Dhamma Brothers cell block and send its correctional officers to receive the training as well.
Mindfulness can create a sense of greater awareness of the self in relation to the world around us. Knowing what we are feeling in the moment can help us to make better choices in life. Even though the inmates at Donaldson are still prisoners in the physical sense, Vipassanā gives them a chance to no longer be prisoners of their minds.
Perhaps this is the beginning of a significant cultural change within a prison that is known for being the end of the line for so many men – and could lead to a culture change in the places they came from.
— Makenna Berry
Photo by Tony Hisgett (originally posted to Flickr as Dublin Prison) [CC-BY-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons