Public opinion and policies about incarceration in the United States are varied and contentious. Advocates of rehabilitation are perceived as naive and indulgent while proponents of more punitive measures are accused of being cynical and vindictive. Even those facilities that do view rehabilitation as a viable alternative or adjunct to punishment are often hesitant to try programming that falls outside of the kinds of interventions typically used in the West. However, there is almost universal agreement that the system, as it is, does not serve us well. At this time, nearly 2,000,000 prisoners are held in Federal or State prisons or in local jails. In all, nearly 6,600,000 people in the United States are on probation, in jail or prison, or on paroleabout one in every 32 adults. Although prison sentences have become increasingly severe, recidivism rates are alarmingly highabout 67.5% within three years of release according to a study of almost 300,000 prisoners released in 1994. (U.S. Department of Justice)
Vipassana has brought to the American correctional system a way out of the debate about how to administer change from the outside, by directly giving to the inmate, the responsibility and means to change from within. As of this issue of Vipassana Newsletter (May 2003), only a few correctional facilities in the US have opened their doors to Vipassana, but these have created a strong foundation for the future. Following is an overview of the history of Vipassana courses in correctional facilities in the United States.
King County North Rehabilitation Facility, Seattle, Washington
The King County North Rehabilitation Facility (NRF) was the first correctional facility in North America to hold Vipassana courses in this tradition and the only facility to hold ongoing courses. Already committed to rehabilitation as a form of enlightened self-interest, NRF was a receptive site. Nonetheless, there were many concerns on the eve of NRFs first course in November 1997. Recidivism rates are typically very high in jail populations, and cynicism among inmates and staff alike can be pervasive. Many in the institution lacked confidence that the inmates would be able to sustain silence, long hours in a sitting posture and the rigorous course schedule. Moreover, the course would bring them into a different cultural milieu that some might find difficult and alienating. For those inmates with limited reading skills, even the routine course signs presented a barrier.
One can only imagine what it was like for this first group of inmates as they gathered up their bedding and walked down the long hallway into the course area. At the end of the course, prison staff, other inmates, and family and friends of the 11 men who had completed the course gathered in the gymnasium to greet them. As the men filed in, the assembled inmates and staff stood and cheered. One felt that they cheered not just for the men who had completed the course, but for the possibility for change and hope that they represented.
From November 1997 to August 2002, a total of 20 courses were held at NRF at intervals of every three to four months. Courses were served by Dhamma workers from all over North America, including several NRF staff members who had taken courses. In all, 130 men and 61 women completed at least one course at NRF.
Over time, pre-course orientation classes were introduced to familiarize interested inmates with course requirements and protocols. This greatly reduced barriers associated with illiteracy and learning disabilities, cultural and religious identification, and general feelings of distrust and doubt. Vipassana courses and daily meditation at NRF became a part of the institutional routine and an ongoing exercise in teamwork across all staff disciplines. The receptions on Day 11 were often attended by staff on their day off, including the head of security who always just happened to be in the neighborhood.
Knowing the limitations of anecdotal accounts, NRF personnel began to collect objective data on the effects of these courses. In 2002, the NRF Programs Manager completed a Vipassana Recidivism Study which included data collected from courses one through eight. Final outcome results from this study revealed that approximately half (56%) of the inmates completing a Vipassana course at NRF returned to the King County Jail (KCJ) after two years, compared with 75% in an NRF General Population Study of 437 inmates. In other words, 3 out of 4 NRF inmates were re-incarcerated within two years, while only 2 out of 4 Vipassana inmates were re-incarcerated. Moreover, the average number of bookings declined from 2.9 pre-Vipassana to 1.5 post-Vipasssana/post-NRF release.
Using the encouraging indicators from the early stages of this study, and their experience studying meditation, alcohol problems and criminal conduct, a team of researchers at the University of Washington received funding in October 1998 from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism to conduct a two-year study of the effects of the NRF Vipassana courses on relapse, recidivism, psychosocial functioning and spirituality. The preliminary results of this study indicate that all study participants improved from their baseline measures but that Vipassana course completers had a significantly better outcome than the comparison group. For example: reductions in drug use, anxiety, depression, and hostility. Additional information from this study will be released in the near future.
No further courses will be held at NRF. On November 1, 2002, the King County North Rehabilitation Facility closed its doors after 21 years as an alternate detention site.
San Francisco Jail #7, San Bruno, California
The first ten-day course at the San Francisco County Jail was held in January and February 2001. This was the second corrections facility and the first medium-security jail in the U.S. to undertake a Vipassana course.
The course started with 14 students, four full-time Dhamma workers, plus Sheriffs staff of one deputy and one sergeant, who had each sat one ten-day course. The course was held in a small building next to the main jail, normally used as a computer-learning lab for prisoners and staff offices. Staff moved out of their offices to create a Dhamma center with three dormitories, servers and teachers quarters, and separate dining and walking areas. A Deputy Sheriff was assigned to a locked control room 24 hours a day to open and close doors and provide general security. Both sworn and civilian staff worked closely together in the planning and implementation of the course. The Sheriffs staff stopped at nothing to make the course a success. They realized that these inmates were doing very hard work and felt the more support they got the better they could work.
The Dhamma community provided critical support by providing daily hot lunches to augment the jail food that was quite limited. They also provided much support in setting up the course site, bringing in things needed during the course, arranging for Metta Day, the Day 11 reception, and the clean up.
When silence was broken, the 13 students who completed the course expressed their gratitude to Goenkaji, to the Buddha and to Dhamma. During Day 10 and at the Day 11 reception they described the technique and how they found it helped with their problems and with their ability to make good choices in their lives. Short interviews with students and the Day 11 reception were videotaped for future use within the facility.
The jail arranged for weekly post-course sittings and allowed established meditators from the community to come and meditate with the inmates once a week. As well, the inmates were accommodated so that they could maintain their daily meditation practice.
The first week, all 13 meditators came to sit and discuss their experiences. They all felt that now they have a tool to help them in their lives. Most had used their new wisdom to handle difficult situations in a positive way and to avoid problems. One or two had slipped but were happy to learn that they could start again.
This first course was a very strong beginning and the Sheriffs staff was clearly impressed with the ability of inmates to learn and benefit from Vipassana. The staff seemed particularly impressed with the fact that the Dhamma community had no agenda other than to help inmates learn Vipassana Meditation. Although by all accounts the course was a great success, no further courses have been planned at this time. The facility has faced some extraordinary challenges since that first course, but there is confidence that they will have additional courses in the future.
W.E. Donaldson Correctional Facility, Bessemer, Alabama
The first ten-day Vipassana course to be held in a U.S. state prison and a U.S. maximum-security facility was held in January 2002 for 20 inmates at the W.E. Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer, Alabama, just southeast of Birmingham.
There are approximately 1,500 inmates at Donaldson, which also houses a death row. The W.E. Donaldson state prison is the highest security-level prison in Alabama and has a history of being Alabamas most violent and brutal prison. Once known as the West Jefferson State Prison, it is now named after a correctional officer who was stabbed to death a number of years back. Approximately half of the 20 inmates taking the course were under a life sentence, some with the possibility of parole, others without hope of parole. Most of them had been incarcerated for violent crimes while a number were in there for non-violent crimes such as robbery and drug trafficking. Among the students were two Imams (prayer leaders) of the Shiite and Sunni Muslim traditions as well as two devoted Gospel and Baptist followers. For an inspiring account of this course, see the May 2002 issue of Vipassana Newsletter.
The second ten-day course at the Donaldson facility was held in May 2002. Eighteen men started and 17 completed the course, one of them a returning student from the first course. At the conclusion of the course, Goenkaji visited the correctional facility as part of his North American Meditation Now Tour and concluded a group sitting attended by students from both the prison courses. Goenkaji spoke to the men expressing how happy he was that they had taken the ten-day course, telling them that they now had a big responsibility to be examples of Dhamma to others in the prison and to help them purify their minds. After meeting with prison managers, Goenkaji gave a longer talk about Vipassana Meditation to both groups of inmate students, Department of Corrections officials and Donaldsons' administration as well as a group of 20 inmates interested in attending the next course. At the end of the question and answer session, one inmate asked about the singing that he and his wife do at the end of the morning chanting. After a brief explanation, Goenkaji concluded his talk and immediately began chanting sabbaka mangala, sabbaka mangala… (May all be happy) as he walked out of the gym.
In December 2017, the Vipassana Prison Trust offered a 10-day course for old students only at the William E. Donaldson Correctional. This was the first regular 10-day course open to old students only. The participants maintained silence – always a challenge in prison – and followed the discipline carefully. An added challenge was a cold wave that brought two days of snow to Alabama. Some participants left early, but 10 very committed meditators completed the course. At the end, one 15-course student said that the experience this time was the most powerful since his first course. Plans are taking shape for another course limited to old students in December 2018. Meditator inmates are discussing what they can do to maintain the program.
(Excerpted from an article published in the International Vipassana Newsletter in the month of May 2013 and February 11, 2018)