I will leave my question(s) as short and sweet as possible for the sake of drawing in as wide a range of assistance and advice as possible:
What -in your experience- are the most important steps in setting up a prison Dharma group?
Where does one start?
What obstacles should one look out for?
Please feel free to answer any or all of the above points - or expand on them where you see fit.
Thank you, community members, in advance, for your help and understanding.
The answer to the first two questions is the same.... start with the Chaplains Office and find out who the Chaplain is for Buddhism at that facility (if one exists)....
Realize that they have very few practicing Buddhists in prison so don't expect to have a Chaplain just for that.. but they usually have one that is assigned to Buddhism.
These are the guys/gals that know the ropes of their particular facility and can help you get started without breaking any rules that would get you or one of your inmates in trouble. (this takes care of question #3)
Due to the randomness of a lot of the questions we have gotten from the inmates we have started sending out Buddhism Correspondence Courses (the same ones we take at Sangha) to the inmates and the chaplian at one maximum security facility managed to get them set up with their own meeting room to gather once a week to meditate and study as well as compare and discuss the course questions/answers.
Above all HAVE PATIENCE both with the prison and the inmates... things take time to unfold in those environments and if you try to 'push the rope' you will just bog things down with egos getting in the way.
Good luck and welcome to a very rare group of individuals that are willing to take this on. Once you get started though it kind of takes on a life of its own. I really try to let the inmates work out things for themselves as much as possible because I don't live there and if I try to give direction from my point of view it just might get them messed up.
If you have more questions or need clarification on anything just send me an e-mail and I will get back to you.
Just a few thoughts:
You may want to start by offering meditation to the prison/jail. I began by offering meditation as a way to relieve tension and slowly developed the sangha from there. I have found that a six week intro course works well to get things off the ground. Every prison/jail has there own preferences as to how to structure a program.
As several people have stated the first contact would be the programs director, chaplain, director of the drug and alcohol program, volunteer coordinator.
Keep prison politics out of your group!
Above all, if you are able to start a group, show up when your classes are scheduled and continue to show up even if only one person or no one shows for that class.
Patience will be needed at every step!
I've been working for about a year and a half with a small Buddhist sangha in a maximum security institution in Southwestern Ohio; 1-3 of us go out once a week; we typically have a Dharma discussion, frequently based on a book that we're reading together (we've done a couple by Thich Nhat Hanh, and we're currently about a third of the way through David Loy's "Money, Sex, War, and Karma". That one works well because the chapters are short, and they are relevant to the lives the inmates have led. (And David has been, until very recently, a key member of our group). We then typically finish up our 90 minute session with about a 20-minute sitting meditation. The inmates are serious about learning Buddhism, and about their practice; the discussions are incredibly worthwhile.
The most difficult part of getting things started was dealing with the system, and the personalities of the people in charge. (There had been an earlier Buddhist program, but that had not been active for a couple of years when we started ours.) We had some problems in the beginning, because the Chaplain didn't really know much about Buddhism and was inclined to distrust it. While he wasn't actively hostile, he didn't really go out of his way to make things easy for us. I also do meditation training at the same institution, through the Mental Health division, and that is enormously simpler.
The institution we're at is a long way from town - it's about a 40-45 minute drive out there. And we really don't have a large enough core group who've made the commitment to support the effort. So the burden of keeping it going tends to fall most heavily on just 2 or three of us, and there are times, especially during the summer, when we can't get a team together for the trip. (And, of course, there is the enormous problem with paperwork getting each new person approved; I've been going out there regularly for almost two years, and I still don't have a permanent pass.)
If you're primarily concerned with meditation training, you might want to consider trying to work through the Mental Health department; they tend to be very knowledgeable about the benefits of meditation for things like impulse control, anger management, and coping with anxiety. But if it gets noticeably Buddhist, you'll have to work through the Chaplain's office, and there it's going to be pretty much a crapshoot.
Te rewards of the work certainly outweigh the difficulty, and the change we've seen in the men who attend regularly is quite wonderful.