by Jenny Phillips for the Huffington Post, May 2, 2012 In the fall of 1999, I packed my tape recorder and traveled from my home outside Boston to visit Donaldson Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison outside Birmingham, Alabama. I was hoping to interview prisoners about their lives in prison and their experiences with meditation. I had heard that many of the prisoners at Donaldson were learning how to meditate and then teaching one another by reading a book written for prisoners titled Houses of Healing. Because I was also using this book in my volunteer work with prisoners in Massachusetts, I became interested in comparing my work with that of the prisoners at Donaldson.
Donaldson is known as the “House of Pain,” the end of the line in Alabama’s prison system. It is deep in the countryside, surrounded on three sides by the Black Warrior River. The prison is chronically understaffed because no one wants to work there. There is a heavy atmosphere of misery, hopelessness and violence.
On that first visit, the prison psychologist, Dr. Ron Cavanaugh, lent me his office and put the word out that I wanted to talk with the men who were learning to meditate. I don’t know what I expected would emerge from those interviews with the meditating inmates at Donaldson. I now realize that listening to their stories changed my life in ways that I could not have anticipated.
After that first visit to Donaldson, I could not shake off the memories of what I had seen and heard. I wanted to learn more, to find out if there were solutions or alternatives to the aggressive culture of prison manhood. I wondered if it were possible for men in prison to live with a sense of inner peace and the freedom to experience and express a full range of emotions. In my conversations with the inmates at Donaldson, they seemed to be seeking opportunities and skills to establish lives that were more productive and peaceful, even if there was no possibility of their release from prison.
Prison treatment programs typically offer guidelines for changing prisoners’ behavior and thinking, but stop well short of providing them the safety, support and skills to reflect upon their emotions, their addictions, childhood histories, and crimes. Away from the distractions and physical trappings of the outside world, prisoners are in a setting that is potentially conducive to deep reflection and the development of self-awareness, self-understanding and compassion. After many years of working with prisoners, I have found that they often have a yearning to face the realities of their lives and crimes, and to construct a more meaningful existence.
Soon after my visit to Donaldson, I heard about Vipassana, an ancient and intense meditation program that is taught in centers around the world and contains the elements that I felt were most needed in an effective prison program: the opportunity and techniques for significant introspection in a safe and supported environment. With collaboration among Ron Cavanaugh, the Alabama Department of Corrections and a Vipassana center in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, a Vipassana program, based on the 2600-year-old teachings of the Buddha, was brought to Donaldson.