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Making strides without taking steps
By Ann Coppola, News Reporter
Published: 10/22/2007

Dhamma The basketball court in the hot, stuffy gymnasium at Donaldson Correctional in Bessemer, Alabama is probably the last place you’d ever expect to stumble across a monastery. But when the sign outside the gym door says “Meditation in progress,” that’s exactly what you’ll find.

Vipassana (pronounced Vy-PASS-uh-nah) is a form of Buddhist meditation that a growing number of correctional facilities are teaching to inmates. The practice, which originated in India more than 2,500 years ago, means “insight” or “to see things as they really are.” A new documentary film The Dhamma Brothers is giving those unfamiliar with the centuries-old practice its own version of Vipassana into the success of this movement.

“I don’t even know what got me on the plane in the first place,” says Jenny Phillips, the woman behind the film. Eight years ago Phillips, a psychotherapist who volunteers in Massachusetts prisons, heard about inmates at an Alabama prison who were meditating on their own. So, she decided to fly down and see the sessions for herself.

“I went down to Donaldson Correctional and met the men who were practicing meditation in the prison,” she explains. “I saw that they wanted to go much deeper into their self and their past and find peace. I wondered what we could do.”

The idea to teach Vipassana came from the other side of the world.

“I’d never heard of Vipassana myself,” Phillips says, “but I saw something about a very large and violent prison in Delhi, India. The warden introduced a Vipassana course, and it completely changed the culture there. So in 2001, I back went down to Donaldson and met with the warden about bringing a Vipassana program into their prison.”

Phillips worked with the Donaldson administration and Dr. Ron Cavanaugh, director of treatment for the Alabama Department of Corrections to bring the first ever extended Vipassana retreat to a maximum security prison. This time, Phillips brought a camera.

“We put the inmates through a ten day meditation course,” adds Phillips. “The meditation teachers came in to live among the prisoners. The warden thought we were crazy, but he agreed to it.”

The film follows the 36 inmates who participated in that first session. They call themselves “the Dhamma Brothers” after the Dhamma, the name for Buddha’s teachings. The inmates obey a strict moral code of conduct: no speaking, TV, or reading - ten days of total silence. They follow a schedule of meditation during the day and sleep on mats on the floor of the facility gym.

“To be honest with you, when I first heard of the program I was skeptical of it myself,” Donaldson CO Sergeant Joel Gilbert says in the film. “I’m thinking well we’re going to waste some time here. Some inmates are going to use this program as a way to get away from the block and to do their own thing.”

The officers weren’t the only ones with reservations. One year after the Dhamma Brothers completed the ten day meditation “boot camp,” the facility chaplain asked that their daily sittings be stopped. The chaplain felt he was losing members of his congregation. Although Vipassana comes from the teachings of Buddha, one does not need to convert to Buddhism to practice it, and it is considered a non-sectarian practice.

“When Alabama shut the program down, we thought it was all over,” Phillips says. “That’s when the letters started coming.”

Over the next two years the Dhamma Brothers wrote letters to Phillips at her home in Massachusetts. “Letters from the Dhamma Brothers,” an accompanying book of the letters the inmates sent to Ms. Phillips and the Vipassana teachers is scheduled for publication early next year.

“Who would have thought that Alabama prisoners would be the first prison in the United States to hold a Vipassana course?” writes inmate John Johnson in one letter. “Vipassana in prisons is of great importance. Thank you for your efforts and generosity to bring these precious teachings into Donaldson.”

The Brothers didn’t have to wait too long to get their Dhamma back. In 2005, the administration changed at Donaldson, and Vipassana returned in full force. The program spread to the nearby Hamilton Aged and Infirmed Center. Today, the facilities run the ten day courses in May and October.

The success stories aren’t limited to Alabama. The Prison Dharma Network has donated books on contemplative practice to over 500 prisons around the world, and the National Emotional Literacy Project for Prisoners offers training to corrections professionals on emotional rehabilitation.

“Evidently, something is working somewhere,” Gilbert says in the film. “The [Dhamma Brothers inmates] are more relaxed, they’re easier to get along with, and they don’t cause as many problems.”

Like in the Delhi prison, Cavanaugh says the program has reduced the number of incidents and disciplinary actions. Even though the feeling in the prisons is changing, Cavanaugh wants scientific proof that the ancient meditation practice actually works.

“We’re collaborating with the University of Alabama Tuscaloosa on a match control study so it will make more legitimate what we’re finding,” Cavanaugh says. “We’re going to use the Vipassana group as the experimental group. We’ll take a matched control group not practicing the meditation and do pre- and post-testing by looking at their institutional adjustment.”

Cavanaugh is hoping hard evidence will win over the skeptics that are still out there.

“The stereotype often is that prisoners want to deny, lie about, or soften the blow of their crime, but I don’t find that in my work,” Phillips explains. “In the film, one of the inmates who stabbed someone to death says there’s a loved one missing because of me. But that inmate is still alive and still trying to be the best possible person he can be. He’s not watching cartoons, vegetating in the back recesses of prison, but bravely confronting what he’s done, and unlike most prisoners, he probably never will get out.”

“There is nothing more moving than to start out with group of men who don’t want to close their eyes, don’t want to sit and explore their deep inner emotions,” Phillips adds, “and by the end of course they’re deeply meditating.”

Scientific proof or not, meditation methods are practiced by millions of people around the world, and seems to be an effective tool in prisons. By sticking with the program, Alabama seems to have seen the light on Vipassana’s success. By filming it, Phillips hopes others will understand and accept it too.

Related Resources:

More on The Dhamma Brothers film

More on Vipassana

Learn how meditation helps manage stress


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