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Finding enlightenment while locked up: Prison inmates learn to meditate

Published: Oct. 23, 2015 at 12:13 AM CDT|Updated: Nov. 5, 2015 at 9:19 PM CST
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Prison gym becomes meditation studio (Source: ADOC)
Prison gym becomes meditation studio (Source: ADOC)

BESSEMER, AL (WBRC) - The William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer is a maximum security prison where men convicted of the worst crimes end up, many of them on death row or facing life in prison.

But Donaldson is also the only maximum security prison in the nation to allow an intense meditation retreat for inmates, where volunteers transform one of the prison gyms into a meditation studio so a group of convicted felons can eat, sleep and meditate in silence together for 10 days.

About 30 inmates began their Vipassana meditation experience at Donaldson Prison last weekend. The program, pronounced "vi-POSH-nah," originated in India and consists of guided meditations focused on breathing. It is run by a group of volunteers called the Vipassana Prison Trust.

In order to facilitate a session at Donaldson, several volunteers fly in from different parts of the country to host three 10-day sitting courses a year for inmates.

David Tytell, Psy.D., now Chief Clinical Psychologist for the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC), coordinated the program when he worked at Donaldson from 2012 to 2014.

"You can walk down the halls and pick out the inmates who have sat through the course," Dr. Tytell said. "There is something different about them; they're calmer, they're more relaxed, they're not as anxious, they're not as predatory," he explained.

Improved behavior means some inmates who complete the program are transferred to lower custody prisons or are paroled, according to Dr. Tytell. He said this type of program can also reduce recidivism for the inmates who will one day get out.

A 10-day meditation retreat is no day at the beach. This is an intense challenge of inner contemplation where inmates agree to a vow of silence, 10 hours a day of guided meditations and special vegetarian-only meals.

One of the rules is no lies, and the best way to stop the lies is no talking, explained Dr. Tytell.

"That forces them to really focus on themselves," he said. "When they're sitting there for 10 days, they can't blame anyone else for any of their issues. They have to realize what they've done, who they are and they have to come to terms with that and then grow from there."

Dr. Tytell said there are usually around 100 inmates interested in participating in a Vipassana session. The inmates fill out an application, then the field is narrowed down by the prison psychologist, warden and finally the Vipassana instructor. Participants cannot have recent disciplinary infractions or mental health problems. According to Tytell, the program provides an incentive for good behavior and inmates who follow the rules are rewarded with this new opportunity. But Donaldson houses some 1500 inmates, so limited space for rehabilitative programs means only a small percentage of the population can be served.

For the inmates who choose to try and are accepted into the program, the meditation retreat can be transformative. Not all are able complete the program; typically seven to nine of the 30 participating men will drop out during the course. Ten days of inner contemplation can lead to some intense personal moments, known as "storms" during the session.

"When someone is in deep meditation and a lot of their demons from the past come up, they have to fight with it then and there," Dr. Tytell explained. "It's not unusual to have grown men cry when they fully come to the realization of what they've done to themselves, their families and to society."

While there is no communication between students, they are allowed to ask questions of the teachers and they can take breaks, sipping on tea and lemon water or quietly napping on a mat.

Dan Rosenberg from New York is volunteering as the course facilitator for the fourth time at Donaldson Prison. He explained the sense of accomplishment inmates gain in completing the course, sometimes one of the first positive things they've ever achieved.

"We're sharing a technique for people to purify their minds, to come out of patterns of reaction so they can lead a happier life," Rosenberg said.

The program has been at Donaldson for about a decade. The late Dr. Ron Cavanaugh, former treatment director for the ADOC, is credited with bringing it to Donaldson as a way for inmates to understand a deeper sense of themselves.

Donaldson is unique because it has two gyms, which allows for the required space to host a Vipassana session.

The cost to ADOC is minimal, said Dr. Tytell, because the Vipassana Prison Trust, through donations, pays for almost everything involved.

The program was discontinued at Donaldson for a few years over concerns that it was recruiting inmates to Buddhism, but volunteers and Dr. Tytell said any religion can participate and the meditation does not represent a particular faith.

Still, the significance of an Eastern-based mindfulness program finding a home in the Bible Belt deep south is not lost on those who participate.

"A lot of the inmates believe it's a little bit wacky, so does some of the staff, until they actually see it in action," Dr. Tytell explained.

Several years ago, Dr. Tytell went through a 10-day Vipassana course in Georgia, which he described as "enlightening and amazing."

He said the center in Georgia included an outdoor walking path that allowed students to clear their minds and experience nature during the intense periods.

Inmates at Donaldson can't do that because their entire experience is limited to the prison gym, adding another layer of challenge and difficulty for the meditation program adapted for prison.

"You can't really force this program on an inmate, it needs to come from within," Dr. Tytell said.

Rosenberg said his experience with the inmates at Donaldson confirmed his belief that whether we're in the free world or locked up in prison, all human beings are dealing with the same problems inside our minds.

"They have the exact same mental impurities that we all have," Rosenberg said. "It just manifests in different ways."

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