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Meditation in American Prisons from 1981 to 2004

Buddhist philosophy is a thought process that can be easily applicable in the die-hard competition of the Modern era. It can bring solace to the human mind once applied correctly. Buddhism has an often-overlapping quest for the ultimate end in life- Enlightenment. The concept of enlightenment in Buddhism is called Nirvana, a Sanskrit word that connotes extinction or extinguishing (of passions). It is a state of mind and existence that is free from emotions and thoughts of desire, lust or cravings- the ‘Kileshas’, and is marked by inner peace, contentment, and freedom from sorrows or ‘Dukha’. This state of “the highest happiness” as defined by the Buddha in ‘Dhammapada’, is not a ephemeral, material happiness, but an enduring and transcendental one integral to the calmness attained through enlightenment. Thus if this component is kept in mind much of the stress would be comforted. This principal was well applied in US prison system.

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Prisons are usually institutions, which are a part of criminal justice system of the particular country or nation. Imprisonment is a legal penalty that may be imposed by the country or state of the country (as per justice system of the nation) for the indictment in a crime. It is one of the major types or ways of retribution for the act of felony crimes in the United States. United States currently two million people presently jailed in America’s prisons, where freeing them is not a valid option. Staggering statistics reveal that the United States has the highest rate of imprisonment of any country in the world, with the cost of imprisonment of this many people is now at twenty-seven billion dollars. Now it is considered growth industry. Two percent of U.S. children have one or both parents in jail. With change in attitudes toward crime has constituting laws which tend to treat youth as adults. Currently almost five thousand children have been sent to adult jails rather than juvenile correctional facilities, as a result of this.1

Statistics show there is increase in jail population in 1980 of approx 500,000 to 2000 to about 2,000,000, sharpest increase in jailed inmates. This is the time American jails starting with Reagan’s get tough policies through Bush Jr.’s first term. Prison inmates live with a lot of mental stress and anxiety in a sometimes atrocious and malicious system. In such bitterness, anger, depression and despair in the atmosphere of prison, Buddhism in many of its forms can offer much needed hope and give a positive atmosphere to prison life. In the moral discipline of Buddhism there are five teachings; those are not to kill, not to steal, not to commit sexual wrongdoing, not to lie, and not to use intoxicants like alcohol or drugs. This might help keep them out of danger, in the first place. This same morality and discipline can help jail inmates survive in the dangerous and treacherous world behind the jail. Meditation is one of a useful way to spend one’s time in jail. Practice of meditation will help jail inmates attain power to change them. In some practical cases, it has been reported that even the fellows have observed in their increased calmness, patience, and good humor. This morality and meditation may help inmates change successfully after they are released form jail.2

One of the forms of meditation applied over time is Vipassanā. It is one of the oldest forms of meditation in India, attributed to Gautama Buddha. Vipassanā in Buddhism tradition means insight into the nature of reality. In the context of Theravadin, there are three marks of existence which shows insight into the existence. In context of Mahayana, it involves the way, often described as sunyata, dharmata, the inseparability of look and emptiness, clarity and emptiness, or happiness and emptiness. It is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation, attributed to Gautama Buddha. Through a method of self-observation (knowing his self) and introspection, one can self- transformation himself.

The Buddha elucidates immersion into Nirvana as achieving ‘deathlessness’ (in Pali amata or amaravatai) or ‘ the unconditioned’ and the highest spiritual attainment, which can be acquired through following a life of virtuous conduct by ‘Dharma’. Buddhism approaches the concept of life through a sense of the higher and inner Soul or the “I” that describes the notion of void and selflessness. In Buddhism ‘Moksha’ or salvation happens when the soul or ‘jivatman’ recognizes its union with the source of all phenomenal existence – the Brahman. Advaita Vedanta says that the Self or Supreme Soul is formless, beyond being and non-being, beyond tangibility and comprehension. An analogy is that the soul is like a drop of water, which upon salvation, merges with the ocean or the Supreme soul. The concept of non-duality through enlighten is best summed through the Sanskrit phrase – ‘Tat Tvam Asi’ or ‘Thou Art That’. The focal point of the course was to make the inmates aligned with the meditation system through Samatha.

Samatha is all about concentrating, peace-making and calming meditation, it is general to many traditions in the world, especially yoga. It is often used as a beginning for preparation of vipassanā, bringing peace inside the mind and increasing the concentration, to permit the work of insight. It is often described as that, while samatha can bring calm to the mind, it is insight that can reveal in which way the mind was disturbed, which guides the way to prajna (wisdom) and jnana (knowledge) and this understanding of one self helps preventing it from being disturbed again. In context of jailed inmates if they know how and why his/her mind was disturbed, then they can be able to control emotions like anger and fear.3

This was non-sectarian technique, was not aimed at any particular community or sect. It is a way of self-transformation and makeover through observation of one self. It focuses on the deeper connection between mind and body. Vipassana is this observation based on one self.4 Thus, it is obvious that the proper implementation of Buddhist philosophy can be very relevant in the world of corporate competition. This tool that can be used to grant solace to the soul and mind is otherwise tattered by the stress of work pressure. The Buddhist philosophy is the medicine of such stress and once stress is negated out of the equation, it is logical that one would be successful in job and personal life and this case, it was to be seen whether it applied to violent prisoners too.

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In United States Public, the opinions and policies about incarceration are wide-ranging and debatable. Supporter of rehabilitation are often perceived as immature and lenient while advocates of more disciplinary actions are often accused of being pessimistic and malicious. Jails or prisons facilities that do observation that rehabilitation of inmates as a feasible alternative to punishment, are often found hesitant to try out new ideas that falls outside the preview of the type of involvement characteristically used in the Western world. However, there is common belief that the system of retribution does not always serve the purpose it’s instituted for. However, it was found that there was huge development in this area. This is the reason; Vipassana has brought to the United States correctional system. It was thought about as a way out of the debate of how about to manage transformation from the outside using giving directly to the inmates the accountability and ways to change from within him.5

There is always a value for material that could be evaluated at a scale of money, even if it is not utilized but it is still a greater truth that without proper usage any material would loose its current value is remained unutilized. This is exactly what went wrong with the brothers and specifically with the woman before them in the story. Thus, in a way, it can be mentioned that this story is a patch of Buddhist philosophy incorporated under the perspective and parameters of the market economy induced world of the 1990’s.

Buddhism considers the world as a place of sorrows and pain and the objective of human life as defined by the religion is to end this sorrow. It calls for joining the Order or quest for ‘Nirvana’, i.e., enlightenment at any stage in life depending on individual spiritual preparedness. The ‘Four Noble Truths’ point towards preparing for Nirvana. Buddha also defined an Eightfold path of Dharma, which was a middle way between materialism and idealism. Nirvana is accessible to men and women alike.

Additionally, Nirvana is accessible to men and women alike. Moksha is also attainable for both men and women though the responsibilities that are part of earlier stages in life are different and must be fulfilled virtuously to reach the path of Moksha. Though Hinduism sees the human form as supreme against all other living creations, the cycle of birth and death and Moksha is open to all forms of being and animals. Buddhism also supports the idea of Nirvana being attainable by any living being, which follows a life of virtue. This no gender biased preaching and thus in today’s world it is even more modern than the usual gender inequality as prisoners are general gender biased in nature. Thus, it was essential to put the theory into test.

Till 2003, only a very few correctional facilities or jails in the U. S. have opened their idea to Vipassana. But these have helped created a strong base for the future. Vipassana meditation is offered in three prisons in United States, King County North Rehabilitation Facility, Seattle, Washington, San Francisco Jail Course, Jail #7, San Bruno, California and W.E. Donaldson Correctional Facility, Bessemer, Alabama.6

This technique Vipassana is taught at ten-day residential or workplace like in this case prisons course during which participants are required to follow a definite Code of Discipline, and learn the basics of the Vipassana, and practice adequately to experience its favorable results. This helps to calm the mind, in turn helps atmosphere to perform the task of self-observation.

NRF or the King County North Rehabilitation Facility was the first to adopt the course. On the eve of commencement of the course, there were many concerns in November of 1997. There was lot of negativism among the jailed inmates was well as prison staff. It was perceived that introduction of new cultural environment would be difficult for the inmates to understand and their limited reading skills will be another barrier. After the end of the first course, 11 men who completed the course, there was optimism and were being cheered at by all for the hope for the change they presented.7

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At least 20 courses were organized by the NRF from 1997 November to 2002 August. There was always a gap of maximum four months and minimum of three months between each course. It was found that these courses reduced the amount of doubts and disbeliefs along with religious and cultural recognitions and reduced the level of disorder and disabilities in the context of learning and literacy. The result of the study was extremely encouraging. The post Vipasssana/post-NRF release was around 1.5 whereas the pre-Vipassana booking level showed a high amount of 2.9 bookings. It was also seen in the King County Jail, or KCJ, that around 54% of the Vipassana course returned after the end of the two year course whereas, previously the release from NRF General Population was around 76%. It also showed that inmates who have gone through Vipasssana showed reductions in drug use, anxiety, depression and hostility.8

Similarly, in California, San Francisco Jail (San Francisco County Jail), at San Bruno a ten-day course was arranged in 2001. It had 41 students. These students, after the completion of the course, expressed their appreciation to everyone involved and described the method of meditation, how it helped them with their problems. The jail also made arrangements for the inmates to help them practice meditation. The Sheriff’s staff was overwhelmed with the aptitude of inmates to gain knowledge and benefit from Vipassana. Since Dhamma community had no hidden agenda other than helping inmates learn Vipassana meditation, the prison staff was very pleased.9

The same ten-day Vipassanav was held at U.S. state prison and a U.S. maximum-security facility W.E. Donaldson Correctional Facility. The prison was situated in Alabama, at Bessemer. This was held on 2002 over eleven days from 14 – 25 of January. The ten-day Vipassanav was organized for 20 inmates. This prison is one of the most infamous facilities with a history of brutal violence and had a capacity of more than thousand inmates. Once the program started, the correctional officers were amazed with the effects of Vipassana and their respect and admiration for the inmates grew. Correctional officers helped in creating the silent and focused atmosphere. Food served was vegetarian. The correctional officers at W.E. Donaldson Correctional Facility were deceptive by the vegetarian food being served to the inmates. The correctional officers were particularly surprised and started a lending hand in all the activities of the Vipassana students, which was not the case before.

References

Belief, “Prisoner”; 2009. Web.

Lambropoulou, Effi. “The sociology of prison and the self-referential approach to prison organization and to correctional reforms.” Systems Research and Behavioral Science 16, 3 (2006): 239-252.

Grudzinskas, Albert J. “Integrating the criminal justice system into mental health service delivery: the worcester diversion experience.” Behavioral Sciences & the Law 23, 2 (2005): 277-293.

Dhamma, “Vipassana”; 2009. Web.

Prison Dhamma, “US Summary”; 2009. Web.

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Palmer, Emma J. “Depression, hopelessness and suicide ideation among vulnerable prisoners”. Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health 15, 3 (2005): 164-170.

Tucker, Jed. “An Argument for Offering Higher Education in Prisons.” Anthropology News 50, 1 (2009): 27-29.

Anderson, Nicole D. “Mindfulness-based stress reduction and attentional control”. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy 14, 6 (2007): 449-463.

Throll D. A. “Transcendental meditation and progressive relaxation: Their physiological effects.” Journal of Clinical Psychology 38, 3 (2003): 522-530.

Tanner, Melissa A. “The Effects of the transcendental meditation program on mindfulness.” Journal of Clinical Psychology 10, 14 (2004): 189-192.

Footnotes

  1. Belief, “Prisoner”; Web.
  2. Lambropoulou, Effi. “The sociology of prison and the self-referential approach to prison organization and to correctional reforms.” Systems Research and Behavioral Science 16, 3 (2006): 239-252.
  3. Grudzinskas, Albert J. “Integrating the criminal justice system into mental health service delivery: the worcester diversion experience.” Behavioral Sciences & the Law 23, 2 (2005): 277-293.
  4. Dhamma, “Vipassana”; Web.
  5. Prison Dhamma, “US Summary”; Web.
  6. Palmer, Emma J. “Depression, hopelessness and suicide ideation among vulnerable prisoners”. Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health 15, 3 (2005): 164-170.
  7. Tucker, Jed. “An Argument for Offering Higher Education in Prisons.” Anthropology News 50, 1 (2009): 27-29.
  8. Anderson, Nicole D. “Mindfulness-based stress reduction and attentional control”. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy 14, 6 (2007): 449-463.
  9. Throll D. A. “Transcendental meditation and progressive relaxation: Their physiological effects.” Journal of Clinical Psychology 38, 3 (2003): 522-530.
  10. Tanner, Melissa A. “The Effects of the transcendental meditation program on mindfulness.” Journal of Clinical Psychology 10, 14 (2004): 189-192.

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