A question for all of the experienced prison dharma volunteers on this site. Do you have any tips for new volunteers who are hoping to start an inside prison dharma group? What advice do you have about how and who to contact in a prison? What would you say to 'sell' your program? What obstacles did you encounter when you were first starting your program? If you had to give an 'elevator' speech to a corrections official about the benefits of your program...how would you phrase it? We hear this question a lot here and if you have any advice, please share here!
1. Find a sympathetic chaplain! Seriously, he or she will be your best friend in arranging things. If there's a volunteer coordinator that's great too.
2. Then figure out whether you are going to start a spiritually-focused group or something like a mindfulness/meditation workshop. The choice is important because one is a religious group for Buddhists (often with certain rights) and the other can fall into recreational group status, which means that inmates may have to choose between coming to your group or doing another form of recreation like the gym or exercise yard or even vocational activities.
3. If you have been corresponding with inmates in a facility you could ask them to tell others of a group forming - this word of mouth 'marketing' could help create appetite for the group and recognition by prison administration of the need for the group.
4. 'Proving' the value of meditation or mindfulness has not been something I've found of interest to administrators; they don't want to see all those cool Vipassana papers from Washington state!
5. Figure out if the facility is really right for a group. Maximum security with a lot of rules about prisoner movement may mean that one-on-one visits are a better option than a group. Remand facilities are also problematic as people move in and out a lot.
6. Finally, be patient. I have been working for a year trying to start a group up here but haven't had success yet.
7. Oh and don't let failure affect you. One chaplain told me she had a group running and it folded because no inmates showed up. In my brief experience disappointment and frustration are common. So it goes. Try again!
wow! great info Paul..thanks so much for posting! We have one program here in Colorado that took years of meetings with corrections staff to finally get going..but it's goin strong now so was worth the wait (as well as a great learning in patience!)
and I also agree about finding an ally in the chaplain. We have been lucky with that and also lucky in finding some very supportive guards and staff members to ally with. The guards, I think especially, see the results of the program on a day to day basis and sometimes are really willing to promote and enroll participants.
I agree with everything Paul has stated. The Buddhist group I started at the state prison is very strong but it has taken 9 years of work. In the beginning I had some classes with only one or two guys but I kept showing up every week. I think it is important to show the staff and the inmates that you will be there for every class.
I started by offering to teach a meditation class for the drug and alcohol program and then offering to facilitate a weekly meditation class for the general population. I was also very lucky to have a chaplain willing to help and support the classes.