Vipassana Meditation In American Prisons

Background and Introduction

Public opinions 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. On December 31, 2001, nearly two million prisoners were held in Federal or State prisons or in local jails. In all, nearly 6.6 million people in the United States were on probation, in jail or prison, or on parole — about one in every 32 adults. Although prison sentences have become increasingly severe, recidivism rates are alarmingly high — about 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 giving directly to the inmate the responsibility and means to change from within. As of 2003, only a few correctional facilities in the U. S. have opened their doors to Vipassana, but these have created a strong foundation for the future. Following is an overview of the history of courses in the United States to date. Each course is described a little differently, to highlight different perspectives and experiences.

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 NRF’s first course in November of 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 ten continuous days of 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 signage 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, staff, inmates, and the families 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 inmates 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” (volunteer course teachers and assistants) from all over North America including several NRF staff members who had themselves 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 generalized 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 limits of anecdotal accounts, NRF personnel began to collect objective data on the effects of these courses. In 2002, the NRF Programs Manager (Dave Murphy) completed a Vipassana Recidivism Study which included data collected from courses 1-8. 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 a 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 reincarcerated. 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 including reductions in drug use, anxiety, depression and hostility.

Additional information from this study will be released in the near future, but 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. In the summer of 2002, as part of his North American Meditation Now tour, Mr. S. N. Goenka principal teacher in this tradition of Vipassana, came to NRF and addressed the assembly gathered on the last day of the last men’s course to be held at NRF. Many former inmates who had taken their first Vipassana course at NRF returned to see Mr. Goenka and to thank him. Staff and inmates, even those who had never taken a course, appreciated the extraordinary nature of this event and found a shared sense of gratitude and optimism.

Lucia Meijer, former Warden of N.R.F., and a founding member of the North American Vipassana Prison Trust, played a key role in introducing the courses into North America prisons.  After Ms. Meijer attended one of the 10 day courses herself at the Northwest Vipassana Center, she and her staff overcame the many administrative, security, and facilities hurdles to arrange the first course for men in November 1997. 

Ms. Meijer is the author of an article entitled “Vipassana Meditation at the North Rehabilitation Facility” in the July/August 1999 issue of American Jails Magazine

One of these courses, conducted for women inmates at N.R.F., is also the subject of a recent documentary film entitled “Changing From Inside” which is directed primarily to the questions and concerns of administration and security staffs within correction facilities. 

San Francisco Jail Course, Jail #7, San Bruno, California

The first ten day course at the San Francisco County Jail was held from January 25 – February 5, 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, and Sheriff’s staff of one deputy and one sergeant, each having 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 = for the creation of a Dhamma center with three dormitories for inmates, teacher and course assistants’ 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 program. Sheriff’s staff stopped at nothing to make the course a success. The staff attitude was that these inmates were doing very hard work and 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 which was quite limited. Community Dhamma workers also provided much support in setting up the course site, bringing in things needed during the course, arranging for the end of course reception and for clean up. 

When silence was broken the 13 students who completed the course expressed their gratitude to everyone involved. They described the technique of meditation, how it helped with their problems and how it can help make better choices for their lives.

The jail accommodated the inmates so that they could maintain their daily meditation practice and allowed established meditators from the community to come meditate with the inmates once a week. . The first week, all 13 meditators came to sit and discuss their experiences. They all felt that they had found a tool to help them in their lives. Most had used their new skills to handle difficult situations in a positive way and to avoid problems. One or two had slipped in their practice but were happy to learn that they could start again.

This first course was a very strong beginning and the Sheriff’s 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 January 14 – 25, 2002 for 20 inmates at the W.E. Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer, Alabama, just southeast of Birmingham. There are approximately 1500 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 Alabama’s 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 several 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 and 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 prison inmate’s Shiite and Sunni Muslim traditions as well as two devoted Gospel and Baptist followers.

The ten-day course was held in the prison’s gymnasium, and several of the inmates who were enrolled for the course helped construct a makeshift Vipassana course site. Partitions made out of blue tarps strung on wires created divisions within the large gym space for a meditation hall, a dorm room, and a dining hall. The teacher and course assistants slept in an adjacent room that overlooked the gym that was locked down each night by the officer. They slept on mattresses on the concrete floor just like the inmates. There was an open toilet and sink for them that provided the basic requirements, but little privacy. Each night the correctional officer (CO) locked them in after the inmates had themselves retired. They were well aware that this was possibly the first time ever that “free world people” had entered a maximum security prison and been locked down with inmates for such a long period of time.

Three correctional officers, one of them a Vipassana meditator, took turns guarding the course site. The COs were amazed with what was going on before their eyes and their respect and admiration for the inmates grew as the days continued. They became important allies in protecting the silent and focused atmosphere. Vegetarian food was prepared a quarter mile away from the facility at a correctional staffing house. The food was shuttled to the facility, trolleyed through security gates and down long corridors each day to the gym. The correctional officers were intrigued by the vegetarian food being served to the inmates. Barriers were lowered, at least for a while, when the COs began to serve themselves food and sit down at the tables and eat with the inmates. When the weather turned cold, COs throughout the facility scrambled to find cardboard to block a drafty vent close to the students’ beds. These correctional officers, who may well have used force on some of these inmates, were now supporting them with such care. During a particularly quiet group sitting one afternoon, an announcement crackled over the radio from the on-duty correctional officer during a routine head count…”West Gym reporting… 20 inmates, all meditating”.

One can only guess at just how difficult it was for most of these students to face their past and present predicament. Yet, in spite of the enormous obstacles within and crude living conditions (one shower, two toilets and a sink were shared among the 20), there were few disciplinary problems and all 20 students completed the course demonstrating great determination and tenacity. At the end of the course, the inmates related their course experience with heartfelt respect and gratitude to an audience of about 20 other inmates and about 15 administrative and treatment staff present at a “graduation” ceremony. After the course, the administration provided the inmates with a designated room for daily practice and weekly “group sittings”.

The second ten-day Vipassana meditation course at the Donaldson facility was held from May 5 – 16, 2002. Eighteen men started and 17 completed the course, one of them a returning student from the first course. Three inmates trained up as managing servers for the course. At the conclusion of the course, in May of 2002, Goenkaji visited the correctional facility as part of his North American Meditation Now Tour and concluded a group sitting attended by Vipassana students from both the prison courses. Mr. Goenka spoke to the men expressing how happy he was that they had taken the ten-day course and telling them that they had now a big responsibility to help others in the prison to purify their minds and to be an example to them. After meeting with prison managers, Mr. Goenka then gave a longer talk about Vipassana meditation to both groups of inmate students, DOC officials and Donaldson’s administration as well as a group of 20 general population inmates interested in attending the next course.

The program was temporarily shut down from July 2002 until January 2006 when the Alabama DOC’s director of treatment persuaded a new commissioner, a new warden and one of the drug counselors at Donaldson to hold a 3-day course for 17 of the men who had previously participated. Since 2007, 10 Day courses and 3 Day course have been held regularly, approximately 4 times a year.