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Prison Mindfulness and a Contemplative Journey through Death Row with Liz Richardson

Updated: Mar 26

In this episode, Liz Richardson speaks with cohost Fleet Maull on her new play, Unconfined.

  • Her play, based on a real-life story of an incarcerated prisoner’s contemplative journey while in prison and on death row

  • Drawing parallels between this prisoner’s experience and her voluntary, 3-year confinement at Gampo Abbey retreat

  • Contemplating beliefs of whether people who are incarcerated really can change


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Liz Richardson has had a lifelong career as an actress and writer. A graduate of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), she has performed in major theatre, film, television and radio productions in England, Canada and the US. She has played leading parts in London’s West End, the Bristol Old Vic, the Neptune Theatre in Halifax, the Shaw Festival in Ontario and Canadian Stage in Toronto. As well, she has been involved in script development for many new plays in Britain and Canada. Liz’s first solo show, Going On, which she wrote and performed, began with readings in California in 2012 and went on to successful runs in Mexico, Vancouver, Connecticut and Halifax, where it was presented in 2015 by KAZAN Co-Op as part of the show Stacey and Liz at the Waiting Room.


Prison Mindfulness and a Contemplative Journey through Death Row with Liz Richardson Transcript


Fleet Maull: 

Hi! Welcome to another session here at the Prison Mindfulness Summit. I'm thrilled to be here today with Liz Richardson, a longtime friend, colleague, and Dharma sister. Welcome, Liz. 


Liz Richardson: 

Thank you so much. 


Fleet Maull: 

We're really excited to have you be part of this summit and your amazing play, Unconfined, which we're going to talk about today. I'm going to share your background with our audience, and then we'll jump right into the conversation, all right? 


Liz Richardson: 

Great. 


Fleet Maull: 

Liz Richardson has had a lifelong career as an actress and writer. She is a graduate of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. She has performed in major theater, film, and TV productions in England, Canada, and the US, including London's West End, Toronto's Canadian Stage, and the Shaw festival. 


While in London, she became a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, which has guided her life over the last 30 years. She has studied and taught numerous meditation courses, and she completed the traditional Buddhist three-year meditation retreat at Camp YB monastery in Nova Scotia. For many years, her deepest aspiration has been to bring together the two paths of her life; theater and Buddhism. 


Her first foray into this new territory was writing and performing a solo play called Going On, which she performed on tour in Canada, Mexico, and the United States. Four years ago, an extraordinary experience entered her life, the true story of a prisoner on death row who became an accomplished artist and Buddhist meditator before being executed. This became the inspiration for her new solo play, Unconfined


So again, welcome, Liz. We'll jump into the conversation. Please tell us a little bit about your background. You have this combined background in theater and as a longtime Buddhist practitioner and serious practitioner doing a three-year retreat, the traditional three-year retreat. Tell us a little bit about how out of that, this project evolved. How did you find your way into doing this play? 


Liz Richardson: 

Well, as actors, we sometimes go seeking projects and hope to find the next great story or whatever. But actually, this kind of came to me and really fell in my lap. It was quite surprising and unexpected. My husband, who is a Buddhist teacher, as you know, was having some pen-pal conversations with this prisoner. After the prisoner was executed, two of his lawyers, who had worked pro bono for him for over ten years, put together packages for the people that have been very close to the prisoner. They sent out these binders. 


One day I was literally sitting on my couch here, and my husband said, "I think you should take a look at this." I opened it and really was blown away by the beautiful artwork, his amazing handwriting, and most importantly, his heart and the sentiment that came through the letters. And so, that was it. That was the sort of dot or beginning that made me go. I went from there. 


Fleet Maull: 

Maybe tell us a little bit about your journey of writing this play and how that's impacted your own life and your own contemplative practice and so forth. 


Liz Richardson: 

Well, really, what happened was I started to interview many people that knew the prisoner. I talked to them. I was completely amazed at how open and generous people were. They really wanted this story to be told. They didn't know me at all. And yet, they gave me his letters and said, "Please, please tell the story." And so, those were the kinds of doors that started opening for me to sort of start to take it seriously and carry on with it. It was very humbling and sort of, I guess, disturbing to the journey I've been on. 


Humbling in the sense that the more I discovered things about this person, this prisoner's journey, the more I realized what a remarkable person he was, but also how incredibly disciplined he was with his own meditation path. We are sort of so privileged. Here I am, a long-standing meditator, and I felt, but here's someone under the most incredible circumstances to manage to really transform his life. 


So on that level, it was kind of humbling for this particular privileged person. And also, of course, it was disturbing because of all I learned about the prison world. Those two things were the kind of, I guess, the feelings I came away from. 


Fleet Maull: 

I wonder if you connected at all, having done a three-year retreat at Gampo Abbey and spent some time in a sort of voluntary confinement of sorts and doing intense practice. Obviously, it's nothing like being in 


prison and certainly nothing like being on death row. But I'm still wondering if you could just kind of relate to that sense of isolation and practice in that kind of isolation. 


Liz Richardson: 

Absolutely. I mean, there are so many parallels. We were in a nine-foot by nine-foot room. We were on a very, very tight schedule. And it was incredibly lonely, incredibly lonely. And also very challenging on many levels. We weren't young Tibetan monks when we did it. In our group, women who were all over 50. It was challenging. But I think the difference, obviously, in a prison world, I mean, I can only imagine, on death row, whatever, is that there was a container of kindness and love and sort of support and care, which, as I'm sure you know, and so many people on the summit will know that that's not what it probably mainly is in the prison world. 


Fleet Maull: 

So, you're performing this play in Canada and the US. We're very happy to bring it to our audience at this summit. We can't bring the entire play, but we're going to walk through just a moment, a short trailer, and we're going to continue talking about that. But what might be some of your hopes or aspirations of how this play might impact the world of Prison Dharma and Prison Mindfulness, Prison Ministry? 


Liz Richardson: 

It's a theater piece. It's not a book. It's not a lecture. It's a play. I think it really works on a really visceral heart level so that it can reach people. I have felt and witnessed, and experienced that reaction to the play. I mean, I have stories I could say about that. This is short. I think it has that potential power. So if it could be somehow worked into, or, you know, people could see and feel the story. It gives them a better, sort of perspective of that world. I guess that's the best way to say it. 


I think it also challenges people's preconceptions about that world, in some way, through the characters. They all enter into this situation, meeting and connecting with the prisoner in different ways. They each have their own journey. They each are changed by that journey, but they all come in, in some way. So there is a progression there. There is a path for them in the play. Each of them. And it's different for each of them. 


Fleet Maull: 

And for the audience's understanding, I think it's important. I know you've made clear this is not a documentary about a particular prisoner, but rather this is theater. It's an art, and it's inspired by the true story of a prisoner who did become a Buddhist practitioner in prison and ended up being executed after spending years on death row practicing. 


Liz Richardson: 

That's absolutely correct. And that's very important. Thank you for mentioning that because it isn't a documentary, and that's why I'm saying it works on a different level in some way. 


Fleet Maull: 

But we're going to go ahead and watch just a short three-minute trailer. 


Fleet Maull: 

Wow. Very, very, very powerful. I'm very hopeful that everyone in our summit who would like to experience this play will have the opportunity to witness one of your performances as you tour around with the play. I think at some point, you probably plan on having the entire play videotaped, and it may be available in that way as well. 


Through your journey of exploring the life of this human being who was incarcerated who committed a murder, this was all in retrospect because your husband had been corresponding with this project as kind of a Buddhist pen-pal and mentor. But you learned all about it, mostly in retrospect. Having gone on this journey, how do you feel today about whether people who've done really heinous things, you know, committed brutal murders and so forth, can actually transform? 


A lot of people are pretty jaded about that and may think, well, somebody's meditating, and prisoner or they get religion in prison but have they really changed, and would they be if they came out? How do you feel about the redeemability of human beings, especially those who have committed serious crimes? 


Liz Richardson: 

Well, obviously, the big question is, was he really authentic? Just as you say, because of the potential for cynicism, and, you know, jaded thinking, all I can say is that in this particular case, everyone who met him and encountered him felt he had transformed his life and was a genuine person, an authentic person, a real person. 


And so, this is something I hadn't thought about till now. But I feel there's some sort of magic that has happened in this show in terms of my play, as it were, that I don't know. It feels like all these suspicious events have happened to bring it together through me in some way because I certainly, as I said at the beginning, didn't go after it. And they keep happening, like being here. I do feel there is some magic around this story, and also around this person, and around this possibility of this kind of transformation. 


Fleet Maull: 

No, absolutely. What's your sense of being a longtime Buddhist practitioner, meditator, and teacher, and also having done intensive practice in retreat, the traditional three-year retreat? What sense do you have from learning about this man's journey, about whether prisoners can do that kind of deep practice? And, you know, the genuineness of that journey, the contemplative journey available to prisoners? 


Liz Richardson: 

Well, I think it's very challenging. It must be very. I can't imagine it not being challenging. I mean, I remember reading in your book the story about you trying to practice in the broom closet to find some silence, peace, and focus. I'm sure it's a very difficult situation. 


I think in this case, a combination of factors came together that allowed that possibility to happen for him, you know, his own karma, his discipline, his outreach, and these people that somehow were open to his, you know, the potential they saw in him. They stayed with it. They hung in there. So there was a level of perseverance. So I think it is possible, but obviously, extremely challenging. 


And also, I think there's another side to this, which is that it doesn't just have to be meditation or mindfulness. I mean, that kind of discipline and focus and ability to face oneself if you like, all those things can be done to other disciplines. Art, etc. 


Fleet Maull: 

Speaking of which. I mean, you are both a Buddhist practitioner, a meditator, and a performing artist. So, I wonder what you think. This prisoner that your play was based on/inspired by was doing art as well as his meditation practice. So, what do you think about that combination? How can some kind of artistic endeavor practice an outlet that might be very valuable for someone in a situation of incarceration to support their own journey of healing and transformation? 


Liz Richardson: 

Well, obviously, it was the beginning of his journey. It was his artistic mentor in England. That's the British woman I played that is based on a real person. I interviewed her extensively, and she was the beginning of his artistic opening if you like. 


She sent him books. This is all sort of touched on in the play. She hung in there for over ten years and really worked deeply with him on his artistic path. And then there's, you know, other sides of that story as well, that aspect of the play. Then, his spiritual journey was more when he became a Buddhist and started to reach out to all these different organizations and started to really practice deeply. 


That journey was very, very much supported and encouraged by the other character I played, who is the academic, as you saw in the trailer, Barbara, the American academic professor of comparative religion. My understanding in this particular situation was that the artistic path led him to the spiritual path, but they were very, very intertwined throughout his whole life. In terms of myself, well, obviously, I'm trying to do that, you know, but I have much more fortunate circumstances and someone like he had, yeah. 


Fleet Maull: 

Yeah, at the Prison Dharma Network, we've been corresponding with prisoners for the last 33 years or more and have been receiving reams of art from prisoners. There are certain styles of classic prison art and so forth, but we've received a lot of it. There's one very well-known envelope art because prisoners will do art on an envelope and then mail it, you know, mail to someone. And so, we have all this envelope art. 


We're hopeful that we're going to have Sita Lozoff and Bo Lozoff, both from the Human Kindness Foundation and Prison Ashram Project, for the last 40 years or more. They've collected so much of this art and also corresponded with so many prisoners over more than four years, probably, and many, many prisoners who are serving life or who had committed very serious crimes. I think they have been able to witness profound journeys of transformation. 


I think your play is a testament to a real, genuine possibility. We're also representing, you know, [unclear 22:30] and the Grip Programs work here on this summit. And fortunately, in California, I mean, the Grip Program involves mostly lifers at San Quentin and some other facilities in California. Now, it's an in-depth year-long program. Many of the prisoners who go through our program have committed murders. They're serving life in prison. With changes in California law, and you know, just the need for budgetary issues, California has been releasing some of these lifers. And so, some of they're actually coming out and demonstrating that they are transformed individuals and coming back to their communities as leaders with a lot to offer. 


I think your play communicates a very important and genuine message in that way. I'm curious about what you think. May of us hope that the death penalty will one day be ended in this country. I think we're the only modern industrialized nation that has the death penalty. And so, if someone says we're committed to life, how might that change the situation? Can you imagine just what you've learned about this individual, and from exploring this in your own imagination and as a practitioner, can you imagine them being able to continue in some sense of good life as a Dharma practitioner in prison, even though they're serving life? 


Liz Richardson: 

That's a really interesting question. I have a little section here. I'll just read a couple of lines where the character of the American academic, there's a clemency trial, final comments in the trial. She's fighting to get him, the prisoner, off death row. She has a conversation with him where he says he's not sure he wants to live. She can't figure out why he doesn't want to live. 


She says, "He says he's not sure he wants to live. I don't get it." She says, "But then he explains clemency on death row doesn't mean freedom. It's just life imprisonment without parole. Sure." He says, "I'll be out of here but back in the hell realms with the gangs, beatings, rapes, drugs, and worst of all, 24-hour TV." It's really interesting. 


And yet, when I spoke to a woman on whom I based the British character, and I asked her that question, I said, "What would have happened, do you feel?" And she was adamant that even under the worst circumstances, because of, you know, who he was, and how he had developed as a human being, he would have been a good person, even under those terrible circumstances. 


So, that was really interesting to me. The other thing that happened was that a person who came to see my early readings in California told me about a prisoner he'd been working with, a different prisoner he's been working with for many, many years, and was starting to develop and become a really 


strong meditator practitioner. The opposite situation happened. He was thrown back into the main part of the prison. He became part of the gang situation. It really turned very ugly. And this fellow, when he saw my reading, came to me in tears. 


He said, "I don't know what to do." He was desperate because he really had nurtured this person. He had fallen back into this world that I had just described. So, anyway, I guess that's really just me saying, This is what I've been experiencing when I've been talking to people. So, I really feel so humbled by you and all the work people are doing in the present world. I'm here, and I'm just trying to do my own thing. These are amazing, touching stories I've heard. 


Fleet Maull: 

I hope your play can reach many people because art has a particular power to it, as we all know. We don't want to be naïve. We know a lot of people, whether in the midst of a prison journey or when they get out of prison, do fall back into gang life or criminal activity for a host of reasons. In many cases, there are very understandable reasons. 


In many cases, underlying traumas have not been healed or really dealt with. One gets out of prison, and you're just surviving. I mean, people are released from jails and prisons with no money into the same gang-infested neighborhood they came from. They would have to be superhuman to almost not fall back into that, right? The cards are really stacked against people in so many ways. 


In some ways, it is miraculous and a testament to the power of the Dharma and meditation when people do manage to continue their path within the prison and, if they do get out, continue their path when they get out. There may be many fortunate circumstances involved, but nonetheless, I think we have to just continually hold out that hope and continue supporting people with that possibility. 


I think your play points to it. And, of course, we have many, many real cases of human beings who've gone to incarceration and come out and led amazing lives and made amazing contributions to the world. I think there's never any reason to give up hope. I think your play is very evocative in that. It reminds us to recognize humanity. Even for someone, you know, let's say, the prisoner that this play was inspired by, you know, I have no idea, but let's say they were maybe 80% genuine and 20% there was still something else going on. 


Or maybe it was all kind of upfront, and it wasn't happening, or maybe they would have gotten out, you know, who knows, but that doesn't take anything away from humanity. If you look deeper into it, here's a human being struggling. When you really look into the lives of most people who end up in prison, they were practically programmed to end up in prison by the circumstances of their childhoods normally, right? 


I mean, we're talking about human beings and human journeys, whatever happens, and I think that's a really important thing that an artistic expression like yours can remind us of the humanity of our fellow citizens who are incarcerated, whatever their circumstances are, and whatever their journey is. 


Liz Richardson: 

Beautifully put. Thank you. Yeah, no, that's exactly right. One of the things I was going to mention was that at my last performance here in Halifax, when I did the play, there was a woman I knew whose son was dealing with. He wasn't a prisoner, but he'd been dealing with a lot of drug situations, and he committed suicide a few years ago. 


She came to see the play. And then she left right after another friend came back and said she was terribly, terribly upset, and floods of tears and very upset. I just saw her recently, and she said, "Did you get my poem?" And I said no. I somehow missed it. And she said, "I sent you a poem because your play really touched me so deeply and affected me. I just couldn't stay after it. I had to kind of leave." So, that was interesting. I mean, I had no idea. And somehow, it brought up something about her connection with her son. 


Fleet Maull: 

No doubt that your play is going to touch people very deeply in many, many different ways. How can people find out? I'd like to ask how people can find out more about your work in general. But first of all, how can people find out? Where can they watch this trailer again, if they would like, and how can they get in touch with you and maybe invite you to offer the place somewhere? 


Liz Richardson: 

The best thing is to reach me through my email directly for now. 


Fleet Maull: 

We'll put that in the information with your bio so people can have access to that.

 

Liz Richardson: 

And yes, I'm completely open, at this point, to taking the show wherever it can go. But you know, it's so simple. There's just me on a bench and good lighting and fantastic music from our wonderful young musical composer, Josh Cortez. And also, I want to mention my director and dramaturge, who is an incredible person and has been my champion throughout the whole thing. 


Fleet Maull: 

How long is the play when you do it? 


Liz Richardson: 

It's just about 55-50 minutes. It's short. I have a website. 


Fleet Maull: 

Yeah, we'll put that in the bio as well. 


Liz Richardson: 

The trailer is right on the website. People can come to see that. There is an Off-Broadway theater in New York that is a curated situation, excellent, excellent place, and they are looking for a slot for the show. So that's very exciting. I'm really excited about that. 


That will eventually be on my website, those dates, hopefully, when they arise. That will be next year. They do stop in advance. And then the other thing is I'm doing the play on the west coast in the Bay Area this coming autumn. So let's see, it'll be November. I don't have the details of that yet. But again, that will be on the website. That's another possibility. 


I really just want to keep expanding it and taking it wherever it would be helpful. I mean, it could be anywhere. It could be prisons. It could be salons. It can be theaters. It can be libraries and universities. There's a realm of possibilities for this kind of show because it's so simple. 


Fleet Maull: 

Wonderful. I'm glad you are bringing it to the Bay Area. I know we have a lot of Bay Area residents in our summit audience here. There's a lot of prison dharma activity in the Bay Area. There always has been. There are many prisons around the bay area, including the infamous San Quentin, but there are also many Buddhist groups, so many meditation groups. There's a lot of wonderful Prison Dharma, Prison Mindfulness activity that goes on there. 


We want to make sure that we will have your website right here with the bio where people are watching us now so they can find out about that and find out when and where your performance will be in November in the Bay Area. So, that's exciting. 


Liz Richardson: 

That's great. Yeah. Yeah. I'm very open to possibilities because it's really just happened in some way. So I'm just starting to, you know, put the feelers out. So yes. 


Fleet Maull: 

Well, thank you very much for following your inspiration and having opened up that portfolio of this person's letters and so forth that your husband shared with you. And that started this artistic journey. Thank you for your inspiration and your courage and heart. I'm sure it took to stick with it all this time. And thank you for being part of our summit. I'm just wondering if there is anything final that you would like to share with our summit audience before we close here. 


Liz Richardson: 

Oh, my goodness. Well, I just wanted to say how honored I feel to be part of this. As I said earlier, I know there are so many people, many of whom I've met and talked to, who are working in this field, on the ground as it were, directly, like you and so many others, and have experienced that world as you have. I just want to thank you so much for having me and for giving me a chance to open people's hearts, I guess, with the story and the potential of human beings and the potential of the fundamental human dignity and goodness that we all have under the right support and circumstances. 


Fleet Maull: 

Absolutely. Well, thank you so much, Liz Richardson, actress, playwright, and author and actor for Unconfined. I hope everyone gets a chance to see you perform that sometime soon. So, please be well. 


Liz Richardson: 

Thank you so much, Fleet. 


Fleet Maull: 

Thank you. 



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