In fall 2011, Westmorland Institution in eastern Canada hosted the country’s first Vipassana meditation course to be held in a correctional facility.
Westmorland is a minimum-security institution located in a rural area. Its inmates have varying histories, but once they reach this facility the focus is on enabling them to return safely to society as productive citizens. They perform various types of work and live in townhouses, each shared by a small group of men. They even cook for themselves in their own kitchens, purchasing groceries from the institution. This living arrangement gives inmates practical experience in getting along with others, planning, setting a budget and looking after their daily needs—all skills that are essential in ordinary life.
The groundwork for bringing Vipassana to Westmorland was laid when two members of the staff attended a 10-day course and participated in a workshop of the Vipassana Prison Trust. When they returned to their jobs, they enthusiastically told other staff members about their experience and the possibility of giving inmates the same opportunity.
The next step came in fall 2010, when three assistant teachers visited the institution and talked with the warden, staff and one or two inmates. It was a remarkable day, said one of the teachers: “Normally, when we come to a correctional institution for the first time, we are viewed with some suspicion and our job is to try to convince the administration to consider the possibility that a course might be a good idea. At Westmorland it seemed to be the opposite. The staff seemed just to be hoping that we would agree to consider the possibility of conducting a course there.”
From what the teachers saw, there was every reason to say yes. Planning soon began, a process that would itself take months.
For the course site, the administration made available a self-contained facility within the institution. It contained a meeting room, a kitchen and dining area, private rooms for all participants, toilets and showers, and a laundry room. By prison standards, it was luxurious.
The information and application process started, and in the end a total of 16 men were accepted for the course. That number filled the site to capacity. One of the participants had been in prison for years and was slated for parole, but he postponed his release date by two months to sit the course.
Served by a small group of dedicated old students, the course participants worked hard. Many experienced considerable physical pain, but most showed up early for the sittings. Of the 16 who started the course, all completed it.
As always, the closing ceremony was moving. Each inmate spoke of his struggles during the course and his happiness at the end. Westmorland’s inmate committee (representing all residents of the prison) gave each participant a souvenir plaque with his name and a photo of the shoes outside the Dhamma hall. The committee also donated $1,000 to the North American Vipassana Prison Trust.
After the course, evening group sittings began at Westmorland for inmates. There are tentative plans for another 10-day course and several of the participants in this course have expressed interest in joining it.
(Courtesy: International Vipassana Newsletter, March 2012 issue)