top of page

Teaching Mindfulness in Prisons: Matthew Hahn's Journey

Updated: Mar 21

In this episode, Matthew Hahn speaks with cohost John MacAdams on his experiences with mindfulness in while incarcerated and his work post-incarceration as a facilitator for Mindful Prisons.

  • The value of creating safe spaces

  • What happens after volunteers leave the facility

  • Full circle, returning to Folsom Prison to teach the Dharma

SUBSCRIBE to our weekly podcast - available on Podbean OR:

Matthew Hahn is a member of the Boundless Freedom Project Sangha and a program facilitator for Mindful Prisons, a mindful community meeting behind the walls of San Quentin State Prison. A co-founder of the Recovery Dharma program, he teaches mostly to members of the system-impacted and recovery communities. Practicing meditation since facing a life-in-prison sentence himself in 2005, Matthew sat with his first sangha as a prisoner in Folsom State Prison. Since coming home in 2012, he has practiced principally within the Insight tradition, but has also studied in Burma within the Mahasi / U Pandita lineages. Matthew has been personally mentored by lay teachers within the Insight tradition and was empowered with lay ordination by Venerable Pannavati and the late Venerable Pannadipa.

Teaching Mindfulness in Prisons: Matthew Hahn's Journey Transcript

John MacAdams: 

Hi! Welcome to another session on the Prison Mindfulness Summit. My name is John MacAdams, and I'll be your co-host for this session. I'm honored to be here today with Matthew Hahn. Welcome, Matthew. 

Matthew Hahn: 

Good to be here. Thank you. 

John MacAdams: 

Yeah. Well, thank you so much for being part of our summit. I've been looking forward to this conversation. We just had a little bit of chat before we started rolling. I'm really excited to kind of get into the meat of this. I'm going to read through your bio to familiarize our audience with you and your work, and then we'll jump in. How's that sound? 

Matthew Hahn: 

Sounds great. 

John MacAdams: 

Okay. Matthew Hahn is a member of the Boundless Freedom Project Sangha and a program facilitator for Mindful Prisons, a mindful community meeting behind the walls of San Quentin State Prison. A co-founder of the Recovery Dharma Program, he teaches mostly to members of the system-impacted and recovery communities. 

Practicing meditation since facing a life-in-prison sentence himself in 2005, Matthew sat with his first Sangha as a prisoner in Folsom State Prison. Since coming home in 2012, he has practiced principally within the Insight Tradition but has also studied in Burma within Mahasi and U Pandita Lineages. 

Matthew has been personally mentored by lay teachers within the Insight Tradition and was empowered with Lay ordination by Venerable Pannavati and the late Venerable Pannadipa. Again, Matthew, thanks so much for joining us. I think it would make sense to start here. Will you please give us a little sketch of the circumstances that brought you into your long-term sentence there in the California State Prison system? 

Matthew Hahn: 

Yeah. I'll try to do the short version, so it doesn't sound like a true crime podcast. I was a teenager that had a number of drug problems. I partied like most kids do in high school and eventually started using methamphetamine. And this eventually led me to drop out of high school. I started stealing as a way of fueling my addiction. Stealing actually became an addiction unto itself. I found myself getting a prison term at the age of 18. 

I was paroled in 2001 at the age of 21. And I did pretty good for a couple of years. I was going to college and whatnot, but a very close friend of mine committed suicide, and I was unable to cope. This isn't blaming him for the suicide. It was just my first exposure to death. I relapsed on meth a number of months later and went back to doing what I knew how to do best, though clearly not well. I started stealing again. 

I received another prison term in early 2005. It just so happened that because all of my prior theft charges were so numerous, I was facing a third strike in California. And so, my 16 felony charges had me facing upwards of 400 years to life. And it was around that time that I figured something wasn't working. And so, I guess I did two things during that period of time. 

One was a recall to a college class I'd taken a number of years earlier in which I'd first heard kind of the basic principles of Buddhism. And when I took that college class, I thought the Dharma sounded, you know, true. It made sense to me. But I also decided at that time that I wasn't suffering enough to have to do anything about it. 

I decided there early on during my time in the county jail that I was now suffering enough to try to do something about it. I also started to work on a program of recovery. And obviously, I didn't get a life sentence. I was sentenced instead to 14 years and four months. I parole seven years after beginning my recovery process and my path and the Dharma, and that was in 2012. Here we are a decade later after having come home. That's the nutshell version. 

John MacAdams: 

Okay. Thank you, Matthew. There's something else in that three-strikes law in California. I know it can be really, really devastating. I'm glad it ended up being as short as it was. The duration was not longer. So you have been in county jails, you've been in state prisons. I think for our audience, if I'm thinking about the audience, who are people that are currently bringing programming into incarcerated environments, they're volunteering, or they're being contracted to come in and do programming. 

I would say the vast majority of them have not done time inside. And they're venturing into an environment that's alien. They have big hearts, and they want to do well. They want to have as much positive impact as they can. So, for people who are doing that work and aspiring to do that work, I just think this is such a rich opportunity to hear from somebody like yourself who has been on the receiving end. I'm going to ask you if you could talk about some of the interactions that you had. 

Maybe you had some interactions that were one-offs. Maybe you had interactions that were longer. Maybe you have been in programming that went over a period of time. If you'd be willing to just talk about some of the interactions you've had with folks coming in from the outside who are not previously incarcerated. 

Matthew Hahn: 

Yeah. I participated in a lot of programs. I participated in a lot of programs that were available to me during the time that it was available. And that was mostly when I was at Folsom State Prison. And then again, when I was at Jamestown, which is Sierra Conservation Center, and that mostly consisted of 12-step. So those were what we think of as H and I (hospitals and institutions) volunteers. 

I also participated in a Buddhist Sangha and participated in a couple of like one-off groups, like book study groups that would run for like six weeks or eight weeks with different volunteers. I participated in other religious programs that were meditation based. So they weren't necessarily Buddhists, but because they meditated, I went. 

I would say that, for the most part, I wasn't able to establish long-term relationships with most of the volunteers. A couple, I did, but there were boundaries. I'm sure volunteers know there are rules regarding over-familiarity and having contact with participants, prisoners, and incarcerated people outside of the programming. So like, no calls, no letters, no visiting, and whatnot. 

And so, I always sensed in my interactions that boundary. That boundary was there, but I also sensed a great deal of love and care. We all, in the yard, knew that these people didn't have to be there. We knew that they were coming there—If it was 12-Step at a service, at 12-Step work. We knew if they were coming there for a Buddhist Sangha to hold space for us, to teach us where we could, where we needed to learn how to meditate and learn about the Dharma. 

And so, I'd say the relationships I had with volunteers were loving, but with a little bit of distance. If I'm thinking of specific encounters, if I'm thinking of specific qualities of the volunteers that stand out the most to me in terms of the ones I remember fondly, I think of them as being kind and gentle, non-judgmental, never pressing me or us about crimes that we'd committed or how long we were in there for, patient with us. 

We come from so many different educational backgrounds. Some folks need more explaining or less explaining and are always patient and kind in that manner. I did have a close relationship with one particular man. I'm still in contact with him to this day. I consider that man a mentor to me. I hope that maybe one day I can mentor other people in the same way he has. 

John MacAdams:

Thank you, I bet that feels like a real sort of good kind in a general sense. You've had years of encounters. Can you tell us about, like, the first time you met somebody? What might have been a little something that you just remembered? 

Matthew Hahn: 

Well, when I think of meeting that man, in particular, I think of him shaking my hand. I think of him looking me in the eyes. And then, in subsequent encounters, not just with him but with the folks inside, I think of them calling me and everyone around me by our first name. 

We're accustomed to being called by our number. Sorry, I get a little emotional thinking about it. We're accustomed to being called by either our last name, our number or just "inmate" if they don't know either one. And so, to have somebody meet us as people with an interest and what we were expressing and what our needs were was powerful. I think that maybe the relationship I established with that man was made the moment he shook my hand that day because I knew I could trust him. I know he cared. 

John MacAdams: 

Yeah, that's beautiful. In some ways, you know, outside, this seems like such a simple gesture and often cannot hold much consequence at all. Some of what I heard was a way of just sharing a simple human moment. And it sounds like you felt like you were seen as a human being. 

Matthew Hahn: 

Yes. Sometimes I think the role of the volunteer when they come in is to provide a safe place for people who may not know safety otherwise. It's to provide a place out of the 24 hours of the day, maybe an hour and 15 minutes or an hour and a half, we're allowed to just be human, just be men amongst other men. Not so much to teach all the time. 

As we know, mindfulness and meditation can be disarming. Especially if you know you live in a penitentiary and you're asked to come in and say close your eyes, or if willing, be invited to close one's eyes. It's interesting. You may not know this, you know, the political roles in the higher level prisons. We're not allowed to take our shoes off outside of our cells. That's not the Department of Corrections tightness. We'll just call it politics, right? 

We're supposed to be ready to go when we step outside our cell, just to give you a sense of the lack of safety we generally have when we leave our cell. But when we would go to, in this case, Greystone Chapel in Folsom and would go to the Buddhist Sangha, go to the centering prayer group, which is another group that I attended, where meditation happened. We took our shoes off when we got into the chapel, and it was the only place in the entire penitentiary outside my cell, and the shower, of course, that I took my shoes off. 

It may sound something simple or mundane to folks outside but taking the shoes off in prison is a pretty remarkable event. And so sometimes I think that the role of volunteers is, yes, to help us feel human but to help us feel safe enough that we might be able to take our shoes off in prison. And we did that there. 

John MacAdams: 

Well, yeah. That's really interesting. As I had mentioned to you before we started, I spent some time volunteering at Men's Central Jail, LA County Sheriff's Jail System. It's the largest jail system in the country, a large jail with 5600 beds. And so, I've worked with groups of men who at times really settle, get really quiet, like large groups 20-25 get really quiet. I find it very powerful. But you know, what I don't know is what happens after I leave or what happens after they leave the room and they're transported back to their housing. 

Matthew Hahn: 

Well, unfortunately, we have to put our shoes back on. That's the sad part of living in some of these places. It's like volunteers may see camaraderie when they come in. They may see different races and different walks of life sitting in a circle or whatever the setup may be in that room, but sitting in Sangha, sitting in community. And the men in that room genuinely want that camaraderie. I think most people in that room would want the entire prison to be that way. 

But the second we left, unfortunately, we left those rooms, and we ended up having to put our shoes back on. I think of a story myself of a Black man that I was friends with in the program. There was a hallway where we would go to a meeting in a classroom Inside Education. And then it was a hallway that would go past all the classrooms. And then, at the end of that hallway was a door that would lead back to the yard. 

We would walk side by side, chatting at the end of our group until we got to that door. And then we separated when we stepped out in the yard. This isn't to say that we didn't recognize or nod or wink or say hello or good morning to one another, but things changed once we left. This is kind of what I'm pointing at in terms of the spaces we recall creating for volunteering. For groups like this, our reprieves from prison. They are a refuge in the truest sense. Places where it's not just being met as humans by the volunteers, but perhaps volunteers treating people human enough such that everybody can also treat each other that way. 

I wonder if you like hearing stories like this. It was one of the more beautiful things at the end of one of the contemplative fellowships, the centering prayer meditation group I used to go to. That community was so close. Those men were so loving that there would be a group member, not a volunteer, who led the discussion that night. And then, a group member would lead or guide meditation. And then when the whole group was done after some kind of discussion afterward, and whatnot, people would go to the back of the chapel, and they'd give each other back rubs. They'd crack each other's back. 

This is a weird moment because the other thing we are starved of in prison is touch. We don't touch each other very often. It's something if you don't have visits you don't get much of at all. And so, to see that for like 15 minutes or so where we could ritualistically go to the back of the room and crack each other's backs and give each other neck rubs and whatnot was also beautiful. But again, that's the byproduct of creating that safe space. And that comes down to the volunteers. That comes down to them creating that safe space. 

John MacAdams: 

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, so this is really getting me thinking. So, to create that safe space, we've talked about non-judgment coming in and being open to people's humanity. What other qualities do you see? I mean, how is someone able to actually come in and do that? Let's say somebody's struggling in a kind of alien environment. There may be some fear or anxiousness, or a lack of confidence. As a practitioner, I'm kind of asking you as a practitioner, what would we want to cultivate internally to be able to create those spaces? 

Matthew Hahn: 

Yeah, the first thing that comes to mind is, of course, Metta and Kuruna, loving kindness and compassion. But I have a feeling that folks aren't going to be going into a penitentiary to offer services like this if they don't already have a pretty good supply of that, right? 

This is a word that gets thrown around in prison a lot. You've probably heard respect, right? So, the word that's coming to mind is respect, cultivation of respect. But I'm thinking of it in terms of a mixture of a beginner's mind and humility. The fact that a volunteer may come in with ideas of saving people, right, or teaching people and then realize very quickly that, particularly those in a new environment, the volunteer is the student here. 

Volunteers have much to learn from the people around them. There are men in prison who have learned to thrive amidst incomprehensible suffering. I think every Buddhist practitioner has much to learn from those sorts of experiences. And so, that's where humility comes in. They like this idea. And this was demonstrated by volunteers, and that's why I'm bringing it up. 

This idea is that there is a ton of wisdom in that room and that you aren't the sole holder of that wisdom there. We're not just like we don't have a satchel of wisdom that we, as a volunteer, bring in. Right? There's a ton of it around. I think of that man I was talking about, the mentor of mine. I think about him creating that space where, again, he didn't come in to teach. He came in to hold the space and allow other people to present topics for the night. And then, other people would lead the meditation. 

I remember when I first started going to those groups. That simple fact allowed me to not just see him as a mentor. I started to see the other men around me as potential mentors, as spiritual giants as some of them were. And so, I suppose what made the best spaces, the safest spaces, the most humane spaces were the ones where we were respected and valued for the wisdom and knowledge and history that we had and that we brought to the space ourselves. 

I guess it's the responsibility of the volunteer to build community. It's not a classroom. It's not a lecture hall. It's not even like an AA meeting, where you just have a speaker sharing the experience, strength, and hope, and then people might share about it. It was an understanding that we're all humans here and that humility and that beginner's mind, I think, are what make the best volunteers there. 

John MacAdams: 

Yeah, thank you. That's great. That's wonderful. Now I'm going to ask you to expand a little bit more because we heard throughout some of our interviews at the summit from some chaplains the depths of humility that are drawn out by people who spend time inside. Humility is just like bedrock. And you talk a little bit about cultural humility. Because, you know, it's just going to be human nature that, as you say, people are, you know, they have big hearts, they have their ideas, they have their ideals, they have their own moral compass, they're going to want to evoke a change of some kind, a transformation. And there may be agendas, you know, however that works. But we always come with our own limited set of views, right? 

So humility, I think, as the foundation really lands, really makes a lot of sense. And as people come in and encounter folks from so many different cultures, can you talk a little bit about cultural humility or beginner's mind and cultural humility? Whatever that sparks for you, Matthew? 

Matthew Hahn: 

Well, chances are, at the very least, at the moment when the volunteering has happened, the volunteer is probably in a more privileged position than the people inside, right? I mean, of course, the first thing we have to do is check our privilege, right? Like, what? What experiences do I have that perhaps they won't be able to relate to? And then, we should probably think about that before sharing in certain ways. 

The chances are also that just the nature of folks going in probably means that, for the most part, the life history is probably more privileged than the people inside. And so that's something that I think needs to be understood. There are ways, I think, to help with this, of course, and this is the responsibility of us going inside to educate ourselves on mass incarceration, on systemic racism, on childhood traumas, and the things that lead people to end up in prison, drug addiction and whatnot. This doesn't mean we have to become experts, but it would behoove us to become a little bit more sensitive to those issues. And thinking about the complex causes and conditions that bring people to the penitentiary in the first place. 

I'm not sure if that's quite what you're pointing at. But to me, again, it points back to that beginner's mind. This idea that, as you said, folks going in it's an alien world. Some people like hearing me tell prison stories because it's like I've been to Mars or something. It's an alien world. I suppose we have to then understand that since it's an alien world, we're the alien when we go in. The folks inside are the ones that know something about it. 

And so yeah, despite the fact that I've been to prison and despite the fact that I spent nine years of my life there, I still grew up as a relatively privileged, heterosexual White man. I can't change that cultural upbringing. And so, there are certain things that I can only make attempts to understand and have compassion for, but I can't deeply understand myself, particularly when it comes to race and certain socio-economic backgrounds. And so therefore, I have to be humble. I have to bring awareness that anything that comes out of my mouth, any judgment, or any advice I give may be coming from a place of that privilege, even with the background I have. 

And so, I suppose the idea that cultural humility comes into play as a volunteer as well. But with that said, I think that points towards the need for more people who've been the places I've been to become volunteers, that despite the fact that I have my own biases and privileges, I think I am well equipped, or better equipped to understand a little bit more of what's going on out there, what's going on in prison. And so, perhaps that's why you feel called to do this work. 

John MacAdams: 

Have you seen that volunteers ask, like, bring this cultural humility, curiosity, and interest, and are willing to say, "I don't know how you grew up but will you tell me?" Opening lines of communication in that way. 

Matthew Hahn: 

I'm trying to think of the context. Now, I know there are programs where conversations like this could happen, but I know that, for the most part, in the programs I participated in, there wouldn't be much opportunity for a facilitator to say, "Tell me about your life story. Tell me about the background." But I can envision those sorts of scenarios. 

And yes, I think this humility begins with questions. And, you know, when myself and the facilitators with Mindful Prisons were kind of putting together the introductory day at San Quentin, we kind of came to the conclusion that we wanted to lead it like a discussion and that we understood that there was probably a significant amount of wisdom already in the room. 

So, why not let the participants tell us what mindfulness is about? Right? This idea of, like, let's ask them questions. And then, if we need to steer it, we can. I think this idea of asking questions rather than talking is an important element of carrying programming into prisons. 

John MacAdams: 

Right. Would you be willing to give us some of your reflections on missteps? You know, some pitfalls. Have you seen situations where programs or volunteer people didn't work? Didn't go so good. That wasn't a good day, or that wasn't the right thing to say. What can we look out for? How can we be better? What can we avoid? 

Matthew Hahn: 

Well, there were some programs that started and fizzled out. Somebody wanted to start their own book study group. I imagine they're well-intentioned life on the outside. Like, "Let's start a book study group in prison. Let's get permission. Let's do it. I found space. Let's go to prison and do it." And then they realize that they're the only volunteer for that one group that meets weekly. There's burnout, or there are vacations, or there's an illness. And what ends up happening is they fizzle out, or they become sporadic. 

I think volunteers need to be sensitive to the fact that people in prison have been let down a lot in their lives. People who go to prison are often let down further and/or abandoned by family members. And if you're in a yard where there's a lot of lifers, they probably went through a pretty significant abandonment early on in their prison terms. I think we have to have sensitivity towards this sort of disappointment and letdown, so I guess the reverse of that is like only committing to what you can do, only committing to what you have the emotional and actual temporal time for. 

I guess this means that the most well-functioning groups I was a part of had lots of volunteers that they rotated in and out. It wasn't one person bringing in a group every week. Those never tended to last. It was where there were five or six or seven, or eight people sharing the responsibility. Many of them might be there every week, but they didn't have to be because there were plenty of other people helping out. So, I suppose one pitfall is losing the confidence of the participants because you have bitten off more than you can chew. 

I remember one of your questions in the sheet was kind of like also just like the idea of taking commitments. I think part of not biting off more than you can chew might also be not taking commitments at all if they involve going behind the walls in the first place. Perhaps it's easier to write letters. Perhaps it's easier to send books and whatnot. Perhaps it's easier to support people who do those sorts of things because it is better to have fewer programs that are consistent and run by people who are there regularly than it is to have sporadic and spotty programs. 

I think one thing that I've seen before, and I suppose this kind of falls in the realm of educating oneself about not just mass incarceration but the political and racial structure of the institution you may be going to depending on whether it's high security or low-security prison, there's going to be racial politics. I know in a perfect world, that's not the case, but as I kind of described earlier, it is at higher security level prisons. And so finding out what those politics are generally so as to not make mistakes and put people in uncomfortable or awkward positions in the group. 

I remember this was actually a drug program during my first prison term. The programming staff got permission to bring in food, right, for like a catered event or whatever. And they made the mistake of having the prisoner or the incarcerated people serve the food themself, which meant that different races of people were serving the food to other races on their plates. And so there was an awkward moment when half the people in the program couldn't eat the food because it had been served by someone that they weren't supposed to receive food from. 

And so, again, in the perfect world, this isn't something we have to worry about. But these are the types of things we have to think about is that this is the environment that they're in. And if we're trying to create that safe space we're talking about, we can't have mishaps like that because those sorts of uncomfortable sorts of circumstances might be very difficult to come back from, or it will take some time. And back to the idea of understanding one's privilege. There have been awkward moments when people were offering advice. 

I'm thinking of this in a particular 12-Step meeting I went to once where a volunteer was actually offering advice to folks in the room. And it was very clear she was coming from a place of more wealth than most of the people in the room could imagine. In that circumstance, it was an awkward silence, but it also meant that she lost a significant amount of respect from people going forward when she would bring meetings. And so, those are the types of things that came up. I never saw the serious ones. I've heard about serious problems where overfamiliarity actually led to people getting into trouble. 

I think what folks need to understand and this happened to a man that I write about who is currently in prison. Not the wisest decision—he got very close with a volunteer. And that volunteer, send some legal paperwork out or something on his behalf. That volunteer doesn't get in trouble for doing that, but once the prison staff found out, he had to pack up all his stuff. They put him on a prison bus, and they shipped him out to a different prison that didn't have any of the same programs that he had. 

And so when we do things that violate these overfamiliarity rules, even if they're well-intentioned, even if they come from a place of compassion, we're not going to prison or jail or the thing, but they will ruin the person's life over it. And so I wasn't present for that mishap. I just know what happened because it's a man that I wrote to. And so, those are things to take into account as well. 

John MacAdams: 

Thank you. I have a couple of instances where people I know who are very experienced working and volunteering behind the walls have crossed some lines that could get them in trouble, could get the people they believe they're trying to help in trouble, and their family members in trouble. So yeah, thank you. 

In a way, I think that helps build confidence to know what your boundaries are and be clear about them. I think trust builds from that, right? We know the bounds of our relationships, and we'll have a relationship within those boundaries. 

We hadn't really talked about this before, but you talked about the politics within the population that's incarcerated. In the jail that I work in, there is a lot of politics. I have heard about sort of the general idea of politics. In some ways, as a volunteer, it's kind of like I feel like I don't want to know too much. I'm working really hard to try to figure out what's going on with the administration, what's going on with the ability to move or not move people. 

I don't want to step over the line in terms of that whole administrative structure and security structure because there are a lot of do's and don'ts around that, but every now and then, people will kind of give me a little insight into some of the internal politics my eyes just kind of bugged open. There is just this whole world going on here that I'm not seeing. I'm not there when people go to bed at night and get up in the morning. Maybe I'll be there for four or eight hours. It feels like I'm seeing something. How accurate is that? I mean, it must be. People live there, right? There's like a whole world growing. 

Matthew Hahn: 

Absolutely. Absolutely. And again, that points back to why the safe spaces that volunteers create are so important. But there absolutely is a whole world going on, and there are certain things that I suppose for fear that it could make it back out to that world from the safe space that you just know there are certain lines you don't want to cross. I suppose there's a fine line. 

Volunteers aren't going to be asked to do very many things. I can't imagine too many things other than that food incident I mentioned that happened in prison the first time. There are not too many things that would get the guys in trouble, right? But, you know, asking or expecting certain levels of vulnerability or sharing within a group about particular things could get guys in trouble back in the yard. I'm just thinking about stuff that you wouldn't want to necessarily do publicly in a program. 

I'm thinking about the ways that people would share. I remember I shared once. Just, for example, I shared once at a 12-Step meeting, and someone had to come to check on me afterward. I shared once because I was so frustrated that my cellmate was shooting up Benadryl, and I was in recovery. I was accustomed to my exposure to 12-Step in the past. It's like what's sent him to the stage here. But then someone had to come up to me like, yes, but we're in prison, so you can't say that out loud in a meeting here. And that's just an example of there are certain degrees of honesty that we can't expect and shouldn't push people for in these rooms. 

But yeah, there's a very scary world happening outside of our program. Most people are very, very respectful. I don't want to scare people away from volunteering. Those rooms are our safe spaces. They absolutely are in the sense that people don't bring politics in there. It kind of reminds me of the politics around the visiting area, like politics aren't allowed to happen in the visiting area. It's like an unwritten but fully understood rule regarding the visiting area where family comes in. Politics must stay outside of the visiting area. Politics will stay outside of the room as long as we don't ask them to violate some of the major rules. We don't need to go over what those major rules are now. This isn't quite the space, but the gang activity and the racial segregation and all the things that you could think of as happening maybe in the Jim Crow South are the types of things that happen in California prisons. 

I should be clear. We're talking about California prisons here, which, ironically, is the most racialized prison system in the United States. I have read conversations regularly with people from prisons throughout the South, and they are not as racially segregated as they are in California. Don't ask me why that's the case, but it's the case. It's the reality we have to contend with. 

John MacAdams: 

Well, that's very much reflected in LA county jails as well. Very much so. So there was a group that I was facilitating. At one point, I had a sort of co-facilitator with me. We put men into dyads, something that I've done in many different types of settings outside, settings that are, you know, retreat settings or programs that people committed to. These are guys who volunteered for an hour or two hours. Some of them had come weeks or months in a row. And some were maybe new for the first time. 

We actually did put people on dyads, and I'm still not comfortable with that. It all seemed to go fine. It all seems to go great. And our prompts for the discussion within the dyad seemed quite harmless and were quite self-reflective, you know, just in terms of the workings of your mind. What are your thoughts on putting people you don't know into dyads? 

Matthew Hahn: 

It depends on the types of questions you're asking. 

John MacAdams: 

We asked people to recount a story where something turned out differently than they thought it was going to turn out. With the caveat that, you know, if there was a conflict involved, it would be a minor conflict and nothing from childhood, but just you had an expectation, generally an expectation, that something was not going to work out. And then, one way or another, it kind of did work out. 

Matthew Hahn: 

I think if you model questions like that in a way that the person can be as vulnerable as they so choose, rather than feeling pigeon-holed into a certain type of vulnerability that could put them in a dangerous or, at the very least, just uncomfortable position, you know. Most people in prison have had adverse childhood experiences. They have traumas and things like that. 

And so, when we design programming with questions like you're talking about, I think we have to make sure that we design them open-ended enough that they can pick what part of the vulnerability spectrum best fits the safety of the environment, or at least the perceived safety of the environment they're in. That question sounds like it would have been all right. Like, not meeting expectations and whatnot. It reminds me of the interviews I did for getting into the electricians union very open-ended. Yeah. 

John MacAdams: 

We're going to start to wrap it up, Matthew. For me, this has been really rich. I think you've provided us with an eye to the inside that we very rarely are going to get. But now you've done some work to be able to get into California State Prison to start teaching, guiding, facilitating, and working with programming. Can you talk to us a little bit about that? 

Matthew Hahn: 

Yeah. It's kind of a strange, awesome, full-circle sort of thing that happened. I was relatively close with one of the facilitators who led the Buddhist Sangha at Folsom State Prison but then lost touch with her as I moved on to different prisons. And earlier this year, as I was recovering from heart surgery, I had a lot of time to think. I decided that after the nine years I'd done waiting, thinking that I would eventually be ready to start going into jails or prisons, it was time to stop pretending and just go and start doing it again. 

And so someone found me on Twitter that knows I'm both involved in criminal justice and Buddhism, asking for help for her son, who is in a California State Prison. He wanted to find meditation resources and people to get in touch with if you wanted to practice the Dharma. And so, I did some finger walking, and I found something online called the Boundless Freedom Project. As I was looking into it and researching it to make sure it was legit before I passed on that information to this mother, I stumbled upon its history, and I read the history. And lo and behold, it had a prior name. And the founder of that organization was the woman who had been bringing in that Folsom Prison Buddhist Sangha. So not only did I recommend them, but I started attending their weekly Zoom Sangha, which is for people who have been part of the Sangha in prison and then come home. It's also for volunteers and anybody else who really wants to attend. 

I started going to this Boundless Freedom Project Sangha and realized that I come home in some way. Imagine my joy when I finally saw Diane. It's the woman who founded the program. She was the facilitator. When I saw her in the Zoom room with me, it was like, "Diane. I'm here, the guy that was in your group in prison 16 years ago, 15 years ago." Anyhow, yes, I joined the Boundless Freedom Project. Now, we have a grant with the, believe it or not, from the California Department of Corrections to run a three-year mindfulness program. It's called Mindful Prisons. It looks like it's going to be three cycles. Basically, a weekend workshop once a month for nine months. And then, over and over again. 

I applied to get into San Quentin, but they denied me because of my criminal record. I tried again. Sometimes I think they just try to test us. They want to make sure we formerly incarcerated people actually want to do what we're asking them to do. Because I applied again a week or two later, and then they let me in. So we just got ready to start doing this. I did a tour of San Quentin, which is interesting because I once lived there. 

And so, I went there last month for the first time since leaving that prison myself when I was 20 years old. We were supposed to start this last Saturday, but as I told you, we got halfway to the place, and there was a lockdown. That's the other thing that we have to take into account. There will be locked downs. And we will be disappointed until we can go places, and we can't get too fearful of it when they tell us it's because they found a weapon in the door, which is what happened on Saturday. 

So yes, I guess I've fallen into teaching in prisons and with the same organization that brought me to Dharma and meditation in the first place. And so it's kind of a beautiful full-circle thing. 

John MacAdams: 

Yeah. Wow. That's wonderful. That's wonderful. I wish you all the best with that. 

Matthew Hahn: 

Thank you. 

John MacAdams: 

So you toured through San Quentin. They took you on the volunteer tour through San Quentin. 

Matthew Hahn: 

I didn't get the special fancy one, where they take us into all the cell blocks and tell you what guy lived in that one. I didn't get that special one. I think a couple of the cell blocks were actually locked down for COVID anyhow when I was there. No, just a tour through the places we're allowed to be and how to get where we need to go. 

I thought it was going to be an unnerving experience, but it wasn't. I had an experience where I went into the local county jail a couple of years ago, and I was a little fearful and felt some stuff come up as to be expected, you know, going back into a carceral setting again for the first time at that time since paroling. But what I found, and I don't know if this is an indication of some degree of institutionalization, say that tongue in cheek. But after 15 or 20 minutes there, I felt at home. Like I felt comfortable. I felt like I knew this place. I know these people. These are my people. And again, I think that's something that feels unique. 

Half of our project and half of the people bringing Mindful Prisons to San Quentin are formerly incarcerated. In fact, I have the members who are facilitating spending the least amount of time in prison. I spent nine years in prison. The other three facilitators are all former lifers who were released in the last number of years. And so they spent a significant amount of time in prison. I know that we're well equipped to carry mindfulness in a way most groups probably aren't, and I'm pretty excited about it. 

John MacAdams: 

Yeah. It sounds like you'll very much be able to. I mean, you tell me, but in terms of, as you have alluded to many times in this conversation, the trauma is obviously there historically, and the trauma that is generated from being in those environments. Sounds like yourself, and these folks may be very well equipped to work with both their own and those who are there in the groups. 

Matthew Hahn: 

Absolutely, absolutely. There will be a learning curve, I'm sure though because I'm on a different side of the relationship now. I need to bring in my own version of a beginner's mind despite the fact that I understand the environment. I need to learn how to navigate what it means to not get over-familiar, right? To learn how to have the other type of boundary. And so, I imagine there's going to be a learning curve for me, but you know, like, I just want to focus on basically creating the same spaces that were created for me. 

I want to focus on finding ways of allowing the men in those rooms to tap their inherent wisdom. Again, they've lived through a significant amount of suffering, and there will always be something in that room that I have to learn. And so, my hope is to create those safe spaces and build communities such that they can teach and support each other in the same way that the community is always a member of and Folsom State Prison did just again just as a way of holding space and guiding where I see fit. 

John MacAdams: 

Matthew, would you be willing to guide us in a brief practice of the way you may provide for these? 

Matthew Hahn: 

What's brief? 

John MacAdams: 

Three minutes, five minutes, pretty brief. 

Matthew Hahn: 

Sure. So, take a seated posture and find a position that is sustainable and comfortable but not too comfortable, alert but not too alert. Bring attention to the places where the body touches the earth. Perhaps the feet on the floor, the way the back rests against a cushion or a chair. Bring attention to the way that the clothing rests on the shoulders and legs and the sensation of air on the skin. Bring awareness to the general sensation of the seated posture, the body as a whole just sitting, just breathing. 

Thoughts may arise, fantasies may happen, and worries about the future. This is normal. Non-judgmentally, let those thoughts go. Kindly return the attention to the body and the seated posture. What is it like to sit here now? What is it like to have this body? And if your eyes have been closed, whenever you are ready, feel free to open them. Thank you. 

John MacAdams: 

Thank you, Matthew. Thank you so much. Thank you for being part of the Prison Mindfulness Summit. How can people find out more about your work and your writing or be able to be in touch? 

Matthew Hahn: 

Yeah, I started writing a little bit or posting some of my talks at But I think the most important thing is looking at the work of the Boundless Freedom Project. 

John MacAdams: 

Cool! We'll be sure to post those links on the page so people will be able to hop across them. Thank you so much. Please be well, Matthew. Thank you for all your great work. 

Matthew Hahn: Thank you. 

John MacAdams: We wish you well. 

55 views0 comments


bottom of page