A Dhamma worker's report on the path-breaking 10-day Vipassana course in the maximum security William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility, Alabama, USA. (from Vipassana Newsletter Feb 16, 2003.)
Donaldson is the end of the line in the Alabama State Department of Corrections, a system in the news last summer as underfunded, understaffed and overcrowded. That a ten-day Vipassana course was held at this facility, in the buckle of the Bible belt, is astonishing in itself. Donaldson is a very dangerous place, a dumping ground for the most troublesome prisoners.
We were also aware that this was perhaps the first time ever that "free civilians" had entered a maximum-security prison and been locked down with the inmates for such a long period of time. It was a commendable and courageous decision on the part of the warden that allowed this to happen.
Our sleeping quarters were in a guard tower directly above the gym where the course was held. We slept on mattresses on the concrete floor. There was an open toilet and sink, which provided the basic requirements but little privacy. Each night the correctional officer (the CO or guard) locked us down, separating us from the inmate-students.
On day one, during the routine afternoon head count, which occurred in the middle of the 2:30 to 3:30 group sitting, an announcement crackled over the COs' radios: "West gym reporting. Head count 20 and all meditating." One can imagine the speculation and interest this created in the rough prison environment. We learned that bets had been made about how many would complete these ten arduous days. Very few, if any, would have predicted "twenty in, twenty out, twenty strong."
As the course settled down and gained momentum, the strong and positive vibrations being created became powerfully tangible. Our students bravely faced their personal demons. For ten to twelve hours each day, Vipassana took these earnest meditators deep into their subconscious minds where all inherent misery lies.
The efforts of these men were truly amazing as they battled the storms that inevitably arise during this deep process. Some correction officials have called Vipassana courses a mental boot camp; others have likened them to a mental detoxification. It is no small feat to complete the full ten days. Yet, in spite of enormous difficulties, caused partly by the inadequate conditions-one shower, two toilets, and a sink-the students hung in with determination and tenacity. It was obvious that suffering is a silent and constant companion in these men's lives and clearly their awareness of it was a strong motivating factor.
At last, when it came time for the graduation ceremony (done only in prison and jail courses), there was apprehension about what these student-inmates might say. By now they were extremely joyous and excited at their own achievement. These are men who are much more familiar with the gloom of failure than the dizzy elation of success. Our concern was that, in their excitement, they would be inappropriately "over the top." But once again these guys came through. Each one of them rose to his feet and articulately told his story with heartfelt respect and thankfulness.
Just as ehi-passiko (come and see) works in the "free world," it also works in the prison environment. As the (now old) students moved back into the prison population, word of this transforming experience soon spread. As a result, 24 inmates have now signed up for the next course. The prison administration made it clear that they had made no announcements nor coaxed anyone into applying. COs and the warden have also indicated their desire to participate in a course.
The Donaldson administration has continued to support these men's efforts by setting aside two times each day when the students can go to a designated room for group sittings. Every Sunday, when the prison is quiet, they meditate continuously for three hours, starting at 5:30 a.m.
(Principal Vipassana Teacher Sayagyi U Goenka visited the Donaldson Prison facility on 16th May 2002, on the last day of the second course there, during his epic Meditation Now-Inner Peace through Inner Wisdom tour of North America and Europe.)
* Freedom from within Prisons
* Vipassana Meditation Courses for Correctional Facilities
* Liberation from the Prison Within
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