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A Volunteer’s Journey Inside Prisons with Jonah M. David

Updated: 2 days ago

In this episode, Jonah M. David speaks with cohost John MacAdams on his experiences volunteering and facilitating creative arts workshops in men's and women's prisons.


  • Creative Arts Programming: Giving a Voice to the Unseen

  • The challenges of long-term artistic collaborations with inmates

  • Personal growth from the wisdom found inside the walls


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Jonah M. David facilitates mediation and mindfulness workshops inside and outside of prisons. He creates films as well as produces media content for clients, with a focus in social justice, contemplative work, and creative arts. In his spare time, he likes to grow veggies, make pizza, and go for walks.


Podcast Transcript

 

John MacAdams: 

Hello! Welcome to another session on the Prison Mindfulness Summit. I'm John MacAdams, and I'll be your co-host for the session. I'm honored and thrilled to be here today with Jonah David. Welcome, Jonah. 


Jonah M. David: 

Thank you so much. It's great to chat with you, John. 


John MacAdams: 

Great. Well, thanks for being part of our summit. I've been looking forward to this. I knew we were going to be able to meet again. We've known each other for a few years. So, I'm excited. But before we get going, I wanted to read your bio. Let folks know a little bit about you and your work. And then, we can get started. How does that work for you? 


Jonah M. David: 

Sounds great. 


John MacAdams: 

Okay. Here we go. Jonah M. David facilitates meditation and mindfulness workshops inside and outside of prisons. He creates films and produces media content for clients focusing on social justice, contemplative work, and creative arts. In his spare time, he likes to grow veggies, make pizza, and go for walks. Again, Jonah, thank you so much for joining us. 


Jonah M. David: 

Thank you. 


John MacAdams: 

Okay. So, let's start here. Let's start with your first experience going into prison. What was it that brought you to your programming? 


Jonah M. David: 

I started out facilitating Creative Arts workshops about 12 years ago. It was with a program that met as a group on the outside and then would lead a different workshop in the men's and the women's facilities, minimum, medium, and maximum. 

The workshops were sometimes writing or sometimes theatre-based, music, and sometimes meditation. It was an incredible experience to see the sheer talent and expertise of some of the folks there. Like people who had written multiple books on the inside or many songs. I became interested in recording some of the music some of the guys wrote in my workshops. 


We did a songwriting workshop. I took some time off college and would bring in instruments. Due to restrictions at the prison, I wasn't able to record them directly. So, I had local musicians, some professional musicians, and some friends perform their tracks, bring it in, get feedback, you know, more guitar, backup vocals, and a little softer. In this iterative process, we kind of collaboratively put together this album of their work. One guy was released during the time and was able to perform on his own track, which was really, really amazing.


After doing this kind of work for a number of years, I was working with the Engaged Mindfulness Institute, which is a wing of the Prison Mindfulness Institute, as they were developing their teacher training. Since I had been helping produce the online part of their course, I decided to train myself with you in the first cohort. 

That was a really awesome program and also an amazing community. And through that, I began to develop then a mindfulness curriculum that incorporated the creative arts. Some of the activities I had been doing were always kind of mindfulness-based in a sense but integrating more directly more meditation kind of time within the workshop and making the connection even clearer. 


So, seeing the kind of the way that the creative arts had impacted self-worth, the sense of meaning and purpose, sense of community, the ability to kind of laugh and have a lighthearted environment in an otherwise really challenging space that seemed to pair perfectly with meditation, with mindfulness in a thousand-year-long tradition of kind of Dharma arts. 


John MacAdams: 

That brings up about a million questions for me. We'll refrain from all of that. I'd love to know how you actually produce that recording, having done music production myself. Just the album itself, the beginning of the songwriting workshop. What was the timespan to when you finally said this is the final mix? We have enough people saying we're happy, and then, whatever you did, press it or release it one way. 


Jonah M. David: 

Yeah. We had a few months to do the workshop together. I would record kind of scratch takes, just kind of MIDI recordings that we're trying to approximate what we had come up with, or they had come up with in the class, in the workshops, and we did a bunch of back and forth just in that kind of few months period. And then it took probably another six or eight months after that to rerecord with live instrumentation. 


You know, because of the nature of the project and the restrictions that were placed at the time, there was a certain degree of decision-making that I had to do that I would have loved to get more feedback from the folks themselves, but I had to do my best and best bit to help them realize their vision. Then, we got the album mastered, printed CDs, had a kind of release on the outside, and then also did a listening party gathering on the inside. And so yeah, it was about a yearlong endeavor. 


John MacAdams: 

When you had the listening party, what were the reactions there in the listening gathering you did inside? 


Jonah M. David: 

It was really special. I think just to feel heard and seen by having made a thing and communicating one part of one's experience, and one story was just really meaningful. A couple of the guys had been transferred to a different facility at that point. And so, we weren't able to share it with everyone, which was a little bit heartbreaking. There was also, you know, some amount of, "Oh, I wish this was a little different in this particular way." And that was something I just needed to accept. The nature of the project was that it couldn't be as refined as how they wanted it to be. 


John MacAdams: 

Obviously, music is so universal and can be so emotional, moving, and uplifting, I couldn't share it with everyone, which was a little and involved in so many different ways, so that's just a wonderful, very innovative-sounding project. I'm glad that you had the time to do that. 


Then, you got your training and your certification to the Engaged Mindfulness Institute to become a mindfulness teacher training, and you started to integrate more of that programming. Can you tell us about the program that you've developed? And how did that synthesize when you went back in with this added emphasis on doing mindfulness or formal seated mindfulness practice? 


Jonah M. David: 

The workshop that I developed was really just drawing on the foundations of mindfulness and the basic practices of being with following the breath, body scan, loving-kindness, practice, and a little bit of mindful movement. And so taking the basic practices and integrating them in other writing activities, or perhaps listening to music, listening to poetry, being read, doing a free write, or doing a kind of pass the poem where you each write a line, and then pass it to the next person, all the while doing it, you know, paying attention to the sensation of the pen in hand, being aware of where the attention rests, where it lies, and in the content of the kind of poetry we may be listening to, or reading is contemplative aligned as well. 


Whether you're doing a practice, engaging in some writing activity, or listening to someone else sharing, there's always this intention of being aware of what we're doing while we're doing it. Even though the work itself is not really the point, it's more about the process. Still, there's some really powerful, insightful, and wise stuff that can come out of it. 

John MacAdams: 

I think I'm hearing that people are still engaging in mindfulness practice, and maybe that's setting the context for the particular session. Then, engage in some creative activity or listening activity. How do you decide what material you're going to bring in from the outside? If you're going to be reading poetry, how do you work on it? 


Jonah M. David: 

Yeah, so it requires some approval to bring in content. And so, I made some selections in advance. But at the same time, being ready to kind of throw it out at any point. The curriculum is a guideline, but it's not necessarily where things go. 


If people are just having a rough day if someone is not there because they were thrown into segregation. If only one person shows up, and perhaps they just want to spend a little time talking about what's going on for them or their story. So, kind of being willing and able to adjust accordingly. But at the same time, having a kind of base of readings. 


And then sometimes people will ask, "Oh, can we hear more from this person? Or do you have anything on the science about this particular impact of mindfulness?" And so then, you know, adapting the curriculum as it's going and bringing in different material accordingly. 


John MacAdams: 

Yeah, thanks, Jonah. I think that's so important. There's a point that you touched on in terms of people who are creating the curriculum and people who will be going in. This can be quite startling, really, for people when they first start to go in with big, open, compassionate hearts and ideas on what they hopefully may be able to accomplish and have an impact around. Then, there are the administrative aspects, the security and safety aspects, and all of the so many aspects of that world behind the walls. It gets very real very quickly. 


We've got to be malleable and flexible and stay open. And like you say, maybe that great session we have just been waiting all week to do will not happen. But something else is going to happen. We have to keep that creativity on our own open and ready to flow. Could you tell us how you either recruited people or made up the mix of the people who came in? What was their motivation? Why did they come? 


Jonah M. David: 

Both the creative programs, initially and the more mindfulness-based ones, now provide time off for one sentence if they complete the workshop. If you do a bunch of programs like this, that can really add up. And so, there's a real external incentive to sign up for something like this. And so, you definitely have people who are not really that interested. 


At the same time, it's been my experience and the experience of many other facilitators I've spoken with that somewhere along the way, most of those folks have some kind of shift, and the material starts to seem a little bit more relevant than they anticipated. And so, never really write off anyone for whatever their kind of motivation is for coming in, being present, and bearing witness to whatever people bring to the table. 


John MacAdams: 

Well, I wanted you to talk a little bit about the folks for whom a good time maybe isn't going to make a difference. Lifers who have long, long sentences. They've got many years or decades ahead. How are they engaged? Are they coming into workshops? And if they do, how are they engaging with you and the material in their neural network?


Jonah M. David: 

Folks who are there for many decades or for life often are very motivated to learn something from the practices, and over time can get quite deep. Some of those folks can be the most engaged participants by the end of the session. 


John MacAdams: 

Well, thank you, Jonah. You've dedicated a lot of time and energy to being inside. What have you learned? How do you do that? How do you actually navigate? Go into a secure environment, go to Sallyport, and leave your phone outside navigating that. If you've ever been patted down or checked or anything. Tell us what you have gone through and kind of navigating that whole world of security and the administration. And then, you know, navigating working with people who you're hoping to gain some level of trust and engagement. 


Jonah M. David: 

Yeah, there's a certain mindset of leaving your technology behind and walking through various gates and doors. When I was younger, I had big curly hair, got a lot of looks from some of the officers, and tried not to pick any fights and tread very, very lightly. I also bring a kind of mindfulness-based presence to the whole process from the moment that we walk into the door. 


And then, in terms of gaining trust and respect, I think the main thing is just having as much humility as possible so that I have as much to learn and grow and change from the experience as anyone in the workshop, really just meeting people where they are, being vulnerable, expressing my own challenges, and at the same time, acknowledging the limitations in my ability to fully connect with some of the things that they have experienced. 


The quality of the challenge is universal, but some of the particulars are clearly distinct. And acknowledging my own privilege, wanting it to be clear that I know that there are incredible structural inequities in society that make it more likely for certain individuals to find themselves in this scenario and to validate the to kind of validate the frustration and anger around that. At the same time, in mindfulness practice, we are working with our own reactivity and taking ownership of some of our own mental patterns. And so, it's both wanting to recognize the structural and the immense work that's needed in policy reform and social justice, that it's not just, "Oh if we all just meditated, everything would be great." 

At the same time, within that context, it emphasizes the power that we have in working with our own minds. Being real about that dance, owning my privilege, but also not harping on that too much. I think you can start to develop some relationships that feel genuine and meaningful. 


John MacAdams: 

I picked out humility. I heard authenticity. These are the kinds of qualities where connection and engagement can happen. From my experience from the time that I have been inside, it takes a while to learn that. It takes a while to learn that. I think it's very helpful for us to be, you know, maybe a little easy on ourselves. We have to challenge ourselves. I mean, even just to get in there. So, thank you. Thank you. Those are qualities you said that you're working with there. So how has this been for you for the rest of your life and in your own mindfulness practice in the creative work that you do as a filmmaker? All of this time and dedication you're putting into work, how is this affecting the rest of your life? 


Jonah M. David: 

It's not uncommon that someone will drop some immensely beautiful wisdom during the workshop. I feel like we can bring in some practices, some tools, some skills, some framework, and some quotes but also just honor the wisdom that is in the room. I feel like the practice is deeper for me as a result of being there. 


I feel called to practice more and to learn from the immense suffering in the world and in the lives of these individuals in many cases, and I can begin to integrate my own body and my own mind challenge and trauma. When I leave the workshops, I'm sometimes left with a kind of profound sadness about the nature of their circumstances and the challenge of being able to leave. At other times or sometimes in the same moment can feel just such joy at the connections that have been built, the seeds that have grown and blossomed in the space. 


Being in a facilitator role is just a way to be more of a student of the practice and life. Doing that in an environment where people have experienced a really large spectrum of human experiences helps me feel more connected to humanity generally, to our ancestors, and to those yet to come. 

John MacAdams: 

Thank you. Thank you. So, obviously, the pandemic hit, COVID hit. The vast majority of the program got shut down across the country, and I think, around the world. 


John MacAdams: 

A lot of people have pivoted. I know the Prison Mindfulness Institute has been able to do this by hook or by crook. They've done the work that needs to be done to be able to do this kind of Zoom call into different prisons. And so, can you tell me what that's like? I know that you're working on at least one of those projects. What's it like for you to work virtually in this way? 


Jonah M. David: 

Working over Zoom has been a great opportunity to continue the work, but it is very challenging. One camera for the whole room. It's hard to hear, and sometimes to be heard, to see people's faces. And some of the most powerful moments are the first few minutes and last minutes of a workshop. 


In person, you get to shake people's hands or do a fist bump and hear a little bit about what's going on. We can still do a check-in at the beginning to kind of ground in the space, but it doesn't have that same conversational casual quality to kind of start and end to really develop those relationships in that way. There is also some possibility. I mean, you can work across state lines more easily, and you can screen share, so I'm excited to see where it can go and would be excited to get back in person when possible. 


John MacAdams: 

I think Jonah, we're going to come close to our end. Would you be willing to guide us in practice? A short practice can be three minutes or five minutes, depending on how you would work. So, when you return, you're with a group in your workshop. Would you be willing to get us into practice? 


Jonah M. David: 

Yeah, absolutely. We can begin just by taking a comfortable seat. Hands can rest on the lap or on the table. It can help to be a little bit uplifted if possible. Sometimes I'll wiggle the torso back and forth just to find the center. We can begin with just an exhale. Feeling the contact of the feet on the ground, the hands where they rest, the sensation of the seat. 

We can become aware of various thoughts and sensations we may be having, thoughts about the past or the future, or even thoughts we have about the practice as being nice, as being silly, or weird, whatever the thoughts may be. I just notice them arise and dissipate without any need to do anything about them. 


There may be sounds from outside the room. Noticing them and then returning attention to this moment and noticing the breath as our kind of anchor for being present in the moment. And choosing either the nostrils or the belly, wherever we feel the breath most strongly today. At that point, just noticing and feeling, even being the in-breath and the out-breath moment to moment, knowing we're breathing in and knowing we're breathing out. 

When we get a little lost in thought, just gently returning to the breath is totally normal. Just what mine does. Feeling the direct sensations of the breath, of the inhale, and the exhale. And as you're ready, open the eyes or lift the gaze, introducing a little movement into their fingers and toes. Thank you. 


John MacAdams: 

Great. Thank you, Jonah. You set me up for the rest of the day. Nicely. Well, Jonah David, thank you so much for being part of this Mindfulness Summit. And so, how can people connect with you if people are interested in learning more about your curriculum, learning more about your film work, and all that you do? How can they connect? 


Jonah M. David: 

Yeah. You can visit my needing-to-be-updated website at www.JonahMDavid.com


John MacAdams: 

Thanks so much for being here. Take good care of yourself. Be well. Hope we see each other in person again soon. 


Jonah M. David: 

Thank you, John. I really appreciate your time and all the work that you're doing. 


John MacAdams: 

Take care. Bye! 


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