In July 2015, a juvenile detention center in the Canadian province of Manitoba hosted a one-day meditation workshop—the first of its kind offered under the auspices of the Vipassana Prison Trust.
The participants were 11 young men aged 15 to 18, and the location was the Manitoba Youth Center in Winnipeg. One of the teachers at the facility happened to be a Vipassana meditator, and over the previous year the teens had practiced Anapana meditation with her for 10 minutes a day.
When some of the young men expressed a wish for more, the center invited the Prison Trust to come in and present a one-day program. The Trust agreed, but first it had to design the program and develop materials.
By mid-2015, the Trust was ready. The day before the workshop, a team of three came to the detention center to prepare a classroom for the workshop. Staff and residents helped move furniture. They then set out cushions for the participants and a folding dais for the teacher. By the time they finished, the classroom looked like a real meditation hall, all ready for use.
The next day, the participants filed into the room for the start of their six-hour program. It included meditation periods, stories related to the practice, and a screening of the documentary film Doing Time, Doing Vipassana. Lunch was food everyone enjoyed: macaroni and cheese, served with coleslaw and followed by fresh watermelon.
The workshop was challenging for the participants, but all made an effort. By the end of the day, the hall felt quiet and peaceful.
Afterwards, the young men talked about how Anapana has helped them stay calm in what would normally be agitating circumstances—for example, a court appearance, a disagreement with staff or other residents, or a difficult phone conversation.
Since that first course, the Manitoba Youth Center has hosted three more one-day Anapana courses. The plan is to offer four courses a year on an ongoing basis, two for young men and two for young women. Residents welcome this development, and staff members are strongly supportive.
Recently, a staff member remarked on a change he has observed that might be connected with the courses. He works in two of the center’s units, or “houses,” for young women. Residents of one of the units participated in an Anapana workshop in April 2016; residents of a second unit did not take part. After the course, the staff member commented, “I could really see the difference in overall unit behavior.” He noted that the girls in the first unit now seemed more relaxed than those in the second unit. He recognized that other factors could be involved. Still, he reported, “Several weeks have passed and the girls that were in attendance have continued to maintain a calmer approach to the day-to-day difficulties that come with institutional life.”
In view of the success in Manitoba, the Vipassana Prison Trust now is ready to offer similar Anapana programs at juvenile correctional institutions elsewhere in the United States and Canada.
Established in 1997, the Trust has brought dozens of 10-day residential courses to hundreds of inmate participants at correctional facilities in North America. The Dhamma Brothers, an award-winning film, tells the story of courses organized by the Trust at a maximum-security prison in the US state of Alabama.
(Courtesy: International Vipassana Newsletter Vol. 43 (2016), No. 2 dated June 17, 2016)