Why do you work or want to work in prisons? What drew you to this world? This was a question that was suggested several times in our recent feedback survey and a question I get asked often. Please tell us know what causes and conditions brought you to the prison dharma world.
In 1974, I was involved, in Omaha NE, in prison advocacy work for women. The corrections officials were much more difficult to deal with than the women, and my life was in flux so after three years I stopped prison work. In 2006, now older and a Buddhist nun, and living in Syracuse NY, I had the opportunity to go back to prison work as a Buddhist chaplain. It felt as though I was completing the circle, after 30 plus years. This time, it's Dharma work and not advocacy; but when people need or want advocacy, I know who to tell them to call. It is wonderful working within a prison, with men who have a strong Buddhist commitment. There are so many opportunities there for growth.
My exposure to prisons has mainly been in the context of addiction and political work. When I was a young teenager my best friend's older brother was in the punk scene and spent time in and out of jail for both political actions and drug use, and many of my friends were involved in the sex trade and/or the drug trade. Later in life I found out that a family member had spent time in prison for fraud to support an addiction; for a few years I worked at a needle exchange where most of my clients had had experience with the police and/or prison system related to their addiction.
As a parallel thread, as a young teenager I got involved in support of political prisoners through mainstream organizations such as Amnesty. In my early 20s that took a more personal turn when a partner went to prison for several years for political activities. Through organizing his support campaign and general political involvement I connected with more people who were doing time for political activities, as well as people who were not political prisoners in the classic sense but were incarcerated for political reasons (e.g., people who were in for minor crimes and got heavy sentences while in jail as retribution for their activism as jailhouse lawyers; people incarcerated due to racism within the legal system).
From my life experience, which includes doing things classified as illegal (although not getting punished as a result of race and class privilege making me less visible to police than most of my friends), it is easier for me to identify with prisoners -- easier than identifying with people who think of prisoners as "bad" people. At the same time, having experienced violence and having worked with some very violent people I know there are real issues that need to be addressed around community safety. It's not simple. But unless we can collectively face the disturbing realities of violence, abuse, and addiction I don't see how we can be whole. To me prison seems like a deluded response to aspects of ourselves that we do not want to face. If we are ever to be whole I think we must develop alternatives to control and punishment.
The prison piece came early but the dharma piece came much later as I only started formally practicing with a sangha a couple years ago. Although I love my sangha in many ways, it is not at all reflective of the diversity of my community and I have struggled with the privilege of most members. I often feel lonely and crazy in my sangha because my life experience is so different than the other sangha members. Out of a desire to connect the threads of my life I started looking for prisoners intersted in the dharma. Mostly I was motivated by a selfish desire to connect with people who I can relate to more on a basic level than the people in my sangha. Having dharma pen pals (as well as non-Buddhist prisoner friends) is a rich and satisfying aspect of my life and I'm really grateful that they make the time for me to be part of their community. Zen practice also provides a framework to more directly experience things as they are, rather than avoiding that which makes me uncomfortable. In that respect it is a place where I can return home over and over again to deal with the painful things I've experienced, including friends still in prison, as well as the tremendous violence in my community.
Well Joshua, I relate to a lot of what you say. However, i think I would be one of the privledged members of the Sangha. However, i came to a similar desire to become a pen pal and eventually a Buddhist volunteer. I went inside last weekend for the first time and gave a short Dharma talk. I was very nervous and actually cried while i was telling them about my experience coming through the gate. I told them I thought that all I would see was suffering inside but what i saw was wasted potential and this made me angry. Buddha seeds are being stepped on in prison and nobody but pen pals and volunteers will clear the way to pour the water of Dharma on these thirsty seeds. They consoled me and told me about some of their fears and told me i would get use to it they eventually did. I talked to them about karma and moral discipline. I use to be not a very nice person and by making strong moral discipline and compassion my main practice they seemed to see the wisdom. They obviously saw the strength that a mind of compassion can manifest. I say the same thing to you i told them - we all suffer the same we just have different karma. My karma may be different than yours but last Sunday inside Sumter CI in Florida our paths crossed even if only for an hour or two. I appreciated very much all you said i found it very helpful.
Thanks for your post. It is a habitual pattern for me to be judgmental and that includes making judgments about people with more money or other kinds of privilege having less suffering. I am slowly learning from discussions with rich people in my sangha that although they are insulated from a lot of day to day worries around money, they suffer a lot, sometimes in different ways and sometimes in the same ways as my friends who live in poverty. It has been challenging (in a good way) to have exposure to a more diverse range of people from various class strata through my sangha as that has made more conscious my stereotypes about rich people, and served as a reminder that rich people are also human beings who have struggles and need help. Although I tend to still be judgmental and value some kinds of suffering more than others there are moments of clarity that it is not so much a question of who suffers less or more but of perceiving more clearly different kinds of suffering and from that knowing what tools can help reduce/end the suffering.
My work is working as a Dharma Guerrilla. I am a retired warrior, a special operations warrior. In that career I was told that the best way to lead was to lead by example. As a Guerrilla, I dont preach or quote Thich Nat Hanh or Jack Kornfield, though it would be an honor and a privlege to do so, I dispense loving kindness in a very precarious way as that of a staff member of a detention center. I follow policies and procedure to the letter, but in doing so I set an example of fairness and peace. Most would think that this would be difficult in this situation, but as in any environment, one will be beset with coworkers that have the same difficulties and hidden agendas that some inmates have. In my military career, I attended several schools that gave me instruction on how to survive as a prisoner of war. With this training under my belt,I have a little more insight as to how it feels to be a prisoner and I can tell you the military, even in a training environment didnt pull any punches, (litarally). I have also had the experience of seeing how other countries treat their inmates. Its not very pretty. Out of any country in the world I would much rather be an inmate in the US.
Like everyone else I have my difficult days, and I dont claim to be an expert at anything. I call myself a Guerrilla because in doing my job with lovingkindess and keeping mindfulness as a means to carry out my duties the kindness and peace does not just stay in one place, it spreads. I do right by you and treat you as my brother or sister, it starts a vibration that passes from one to another, and most of the time, comes right back to me. I have found that wherever I work, and belive me. they have assigned me just about everywhere, from the worst of the worst mentals to first offenders, with just a little metta, harmony ensues. I would be doing the same Guerrilla Dharma if I worked at McDonalds, housepainting or running a daycare. It is my responsiblity as a follower of my tradition to dispense metta to all that I encounter, no matter how difficult. In my environment there is so much to work with, there is so much potential to make positive out of negative, just by attempting to follow the paramitas. Every day is a challange.
Dave, I bow to you and your approach as a Dharma Guerrilla. I only recently fell into work at our local jail as a long term substitute GED teacher, only ten weeks. I worked with juveniles up to age 22 who still came under my school system from which I am retired. I didn't know how much I would love working with this population. I was sorry not to be able to continue since I don't wish to work full time. I took your approach and didn't have the difficult role you have, but you're so right that kindness and peace does not just stay in one place and that being fair and peaceful, even while upholding all the rules and regulations (which I broke a few of until I got the hang of things), means you respect the inmates and it pays off. It's amazing how quickly the bravado and cockiness of one student toned down when I kept being softspoken but firm and non-reactive to some smart comments. I find I care very much about my students. Our jail is well run and most CO's okay but there were the occasional ones who could rile up an inmate in seconds. I've decided to pursue this work seriously, therefore my finding this blog and website. I've managed to start meditation groups there and keep thinking it would be good if we could have them for the staff too. Thank you for your example of metta and the inspiration.
Not to be redundant, but no matter where you are and what your employment is it is a wonder of wonders to be able to observe the magic of metta as it gilds the conversation, burnishes the mood and feeds the peace. I could do this flipping burgers, washing cars, running a company or changing diapers. The more one practices it, the more the surrounding humans pick up on it, get infected and unconciously run with the ball. Its a delight. Much peace, safety and ease of life to you.
I stumbled across this organization through BookMooch; someone I mooched from had this organization listed as his recommended charity, and I had recently become a practicing member of a local sangha. I explored the website and was inspired and fascinated by the work being done in prisons, particularly by the videos posted by Kate (Thanks, Kate!). Partially as an exercise in destroying the judgmental part of my psyche, and partly as a way to be a part of this immense positive work that is being done, I decided to become a pen pal. I have been corresponding only for a couple of months, but I am blown away by the teachings I have received from both of my friends. Thank you for creating such an amazing forum for us.
I teach social studies in the SC Juvenile Justice school system. After 17 years, I know that many of my young men are searching & don't know how to even ask about alternative paths. There is much community involvement from the Baptist churches and I appreciate what they are trying to do. Still, after I saw the film from India about Vipasana (sp?) used in the prison system, I have been trying to educate myself and research what possibilities there could be for my students.
The students' anger, guilt, shame combined with impulsivity & often toxic homes usually means failure. I am so weary of our horrendous recidivism rate, wearier still with trying to show them how manipulated we are by advertising...making us believe that the right clothes, car, whatever, will make life better. Most of them attend church services & programs for the food treats and/or to get out of the dorms for a while.
Am I wasting time by hoping that I'll be able to create a meditation program for these teenage offenders? I'm not a Buddhist & I don't even know which Buddhist group in town I should approach for help. I'm reading introductory books on Buddhism and meditation, but I am still most ignorant.
You are not wasting your time. I commend you for your kindness and your aspiration to assist. There is a trove of information on how to meditate, both in written and downloadable audio format at the insight meditation society web page. Vipassana meditation is one of the simplest and easiest methods of meditation to teach. I will pray for positive results in your endevour. I will do a little looking for you on the net and get back to you if I find anything that will help. Check out the insight meditation society web page, you wont be dissapointed. Again, thank you for your kindness. Dave