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Teaching Mindfulness in Israeli Prisons & Rehab Centers with Michal Warshavsky

Updated: Mar 27

In this podcast episode, Michal Warshavsky speaks with Prison Mindfulness Institute's Executive Director, Vita Pires, on her work bringing mindfulness practices to Israeli prisons and rehab centers through "The Quiet Within".

  • Working within a deeply divided society with Israeli/Palestinian prisoners

  • Developing paths for more prisoners to be actively involved in class presentations

  • The power of a bi-lingual meditation book to be an anchor for change


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Michal Warshavsky, a social activist living in Tel Aviv. I have worked with single mothers on public housing issues and with Beduins fighting for land rights. However, my work’s focus is on prisons. 16 years ago, I founded “The Quiet Within”, which offers meditation for current and former inmates. The project was motivated by my strong desire to change the world rather than just practice compassion on the meditation cushion. We offer inmates tools to create their quiet within by leading 29 weekly meditation groups for Jewish and Arab current and former inmates who live in difficult conditions. Very few successfully rehabilitate themselves. Volunteers perform all the organization’s activities. After six years of working, last year, we published a meditation book for prisoners in Hebrew and Arabic. The book is given as a gift to every group participant.



Podcast Transcript


Vita Pires: 

Hello, everyone! This is Vita Pires with the Prison Mindfulness Institute. I'm very happy today to be here with Michal, who is from Israel, and she has run programs Zero for a long time. Michal Warshavsky is a social activist living in Tel Aviv. She has worked with single mothers on public housing issues and with Bedouins fighting for land rights. 


Her work focuses on prisons. Sixteen years ago, she founded the Quiet Within, which offers meditation for current and former inmates. The project was motivated by her strong desire to affect change in the world rather than just practice compassion on the meditation cushion. They offer inmates tools to create their own Quiet Within by leading 29 weekly meditation groups for Jewish and Arab current and former inmates who live in difficult conditions. Very few successfully rehabilitate themselves.

 

Volunteers perform all the organization's activities. After six years of working. Last year, they published a meditation book for prisoners in Hebrew and in Arabic. That book is given as a gift to every group participant. Welcome, Michal. 


Michal Warshavsky: 

Thank you, It's good to be with you. 


Vita Pires: 

How did you begin doing this? How did the work in Israeli prisons develop? 


Michal Warshavsky: 

Okay. As you say in the beginning, I have practiced meditation for several years. And then I felt that I want to do something, not just to learn about compassion, just to do something in the world. As we know, prisoners are really in the lowest place in society. I know, as we know, that behind every crime, there is a lot of suffering and a lot of stress. And then they come to be there and have time in prison. 


I felt that I wanted to do something in prison. I didn't have any experience in guiding any group meditation. I have no experience working with prisoners, but I felt very, very strong in myself that I could  connect very well with the prisoners. I felt that they would listen to me. I wanted to do it very much. So, I start with one group in one of the Israeli prisons. It really went very well. 


After a year, I decided to make more groups in all the prisons in most of the prisons in Israel. I make contact with the volunteers. I also make contact with the prisons. It wasn't a decision of the authority of the prison in Israel. It means that in every group I opened, I had an individual connection with a prison. So, for now, I work with 16 prisons. Every prison is a connection. We developed, with all the volunteers together, the program. Here we are now. To correct the number you said, we are now 32 groups. 


Vita Pires: 

Oh, nice. 


Michal Warshavsky: 

So yeah, it's 20 in prisons and 12 in the community. And all together, we are 32. Yeah. We are coming every week, the volunteers, every week to a group, on Sunday, same hour. I can say that all the volunteers stay in our organization for years, seven years, ten years, and 14 years. This work, this activity, it's not work, it's voluntary, this is really important to their lives, and they just continue. 


I said to all the volunteers when they began this activity that we're going to practice with prisoners because, for example, when we speak about anger, it's not a subject that I can say to the prisoners. "Oh, once again, long ago, I know what anger is." I'm still practicing. We all practice. We're not teachers. This means we are really practicing with them. All these things, all these years, we're doing voluntarily. All the organization is voluntary. No work. No one is working. 


I can say two weeks ago, a volunteer called me and told me that one of the prisoners told her if he would know, in the past, what he knows now. So on the way to the village to murder, he would stop and not continue the way. Even now, when I'm saying it again, oh, my, I'm so excited to really give us the motivation, the power to continue to and continue what we're doing. Yeah. 


Vita Pires: 

So, Michal, you live in a deeply divided society. How do you cope? I assume that in the prisons, they don't segregate the religious divisions. Do they? Do they segregate? 


Michal Warshavsky: 

I will tell you. Before, in prison, two-thirds of the old prisoners in Israel were criminal prisoners, right? 1/3 are political prisoners. They are in separate prisons, and we can't do anything with them. It's completely separate. So we're working just with the criminal prisoners. It's about 44% Muslims/Arabs. Some, of course, are Christian, but most of them are Muslims. 


In Israel, as you said, it's really a continuous struggle between Arabs and Jewish people. We're not doing anything together. This means people work together in hospitals and pharmacies. But most of 

our lives it's not together. Even in towns where they live together, it's a different neighborhood. But in prison, they're all together. In our group, all together. It continues the situation. 


For example, there are no rules in prison and the forms. The rehabilitation programs are all in Hebrew. Almost half are Arabs, but all are in Hebrew. Also, I can say that the volunteers sometimes tell me, "Wow! Did you know the Arabs in the group like meditation very much?" So this comes from prejudice why they say they're so surprised that Arabs are. And, really, the volunteers are wonderful people with big hearts. The situation is that they know more about boo Buddhism than Muslim Islam, Christianity, or even Judaism they know less. 


One thing that I forgot to mention in the first question is that our program in prison is completely not religious. It means all the volunteers come from Buddhist practices. But what we're doing in prison, it's completely secular. Two reasons for that. One reason is that we have many religions in the groups, Muslims, Christian or Jewish, and we want their hearts to be open, and the mind will be open, and not loaded. 


So, it's very important that we keep it like this with no religion in speaking. And also, the authority of the prison is, of course, very strict. Anything that connects to other religions can't be in prison. And so, we're doing secular Dharma. We really teach Dharma, but in a secular way. 


Vita Pires: 

Great! And so, do you have translations for the Arab? Do you have people that speak both languages as volunteers? 


Michal Warshavsky: 

Translation of what? 


Vita Pires: 

Like if someone is speaking Arabic. 


Michal Warshavsky: 

It's not easy. It's not easy. We have a list of words that it's common to speak in the meditation group. So, we have it in Arabic, so it helps. Many times, they help each other in the group. But unfortunately, I don't speak Arabic. And also, the volunteers don't speak Arabic. We will speak later about the book, so I'll explain why it's so important that the book is in Arabic. 


Vita Pires: 

Yeah. Great. Do you work only with inmates, or do you work in rehabilitation centers? You said something about how very few are rehabilitated when they get out. So, can you speak about that? 


Michal Warshavsky: 

Yes, of course. It's a rehabilitation connected to the state. It's not just in the community. Okay? So, the prisoners who get free before good behavior can go to a rehabilitation program. We have 12 groups all around Israel for released prisoners. We discovered in all these areas that it's much harder for them to practice. 


It's not easy to be in prison, of course, but outside prison, to build, to connect all the pieces of their life together again, and to work and not to be fired from work, and to build a relationship with the family, the children. It's very, very, very hard for them. It's very important that we have meditation groups for them. Some of them are already practicing in prison, but most of them were discovered just after they left prison. 


Another program that is in process, it's the community code, as you have, of course, in the United States. So, Israel now has eight community codes, and it will be doubled in two years. And now, we are in the process of a connection with them to make the meditation group part of the rehabilitation program of the community courts. We hope very much that it will work and they will accept it. It's a long process now. 


Vita Pires: 

That's great. In your in-prison classes, how do you reach out? Is it like word of mouth? Do other people in your class tell other prisoners to come to the class? How long do people stay in these classes? Years? 


Michal Warshavsky: 

That's a good question. There are two kinds of groups. One kind is an open group. It means whoever wants to come comes. Even in open groups, prisoners stay for a long time. I had the group for eight years. Not one group, but in eight years, I was guided in prison. 


Prisoners were there for two or three years. This is one kind of prisoner, and the other is a close group that is in prison. They are in a rehabilitation program for violence in a family or sexual violence. It's a closed group. It means that they are not forced. They have to be in a group. 


Vita Pires: 

Okay, yeah. 


Michal Warshavsky: 

These are very good groups. Very good groups because after one time, two times, they sleep, they laugh, they make jokes and errors. Something happened in this state. You can stay for one year or two years. It depends. 


Vita Pires: 

Great. So, you have an association of volunteers, and you've formed an organization sort of. Are there projects that you've had that have failed or been discontinued, and you hope that they'll revitalize? Or maybe they just aren't viable? 


Michal Warshavsky: 

Yeah. When volunteers enter the prison, many times, the guards ask them, "Where are you going?" They said, "We're guiding a meditation group." Most of the time, they say, "Oh, we won't do it. We won't do it." My dream 16 years ago, when I started this project, was that all the prisoners and all the prison guards would do meditation. Not together, but they will do. 


The reality was not so easy. We discovered that they don't have time. They have long shifts. They can't come before the shift. They can't come after. They can't go during the shift. I spoke with a volunteer from the United States many years ago, and he told me the same problem. So, we tried. We tried. We tried to do it, but it didn't work. And then, the idea was to go to make a meditation group in the school of prison guards. And we did it. 


Vita Pires: 

Right. The training schools. Yeah. 


Michal Warshavsky: 

Training School. And we did it. We were part of the training program. 


Vita Pires: 

That's good. 


Michal Warshavsky: 

It was for one year. Unfortunately, it stopped with a very tragic story. There was a big accident in Israel in which 44 prison guards caught fire on a bus. This was our last group. It was ten years ago. And from then, we didn't come back there. I hope we'll come back. Yeah. It's very important. 


Vita Pires: 

Yeah. Very important to get help. We've been doing that for about ten years now, and it really does make a difference. 


Michal Warshavsky: 

In prisons? 


Vita Pires: 

Yeah. Yeah. A few. Not a lot, but a few states are allowing programs for staff. The authorities have to actually have buy-in for it and allow it to be done during work time. So, they're getting paid for it. So, are you thinking of ways that you could get the prisoners more involved in the program, like learning how to facilitate? I know we've talked about that through email. Do you have hopes for that to occur? 


Michal Warshavsky: 

I have. Yeah. We are building now. We started to build a program in which prisoners will teach other prisoners meditation. I know that it is very significant for us to be coming to prison. I can't say it's not significant. We're looking at them with good eyes and open hearts. We believe in change. We accept them as they are. 


So, it's very important, but we have never been in prison. We don't know the life that caused them to come to prison and the life they will have after. So, the voice of the prisoner, you know, like the AA, that the guides are someone who was addicted. This is our idea. And also, we believe that it will develop generosity between them to help and to be helped. What else do we need? 


In Israel, there is a program called Prisoner For Prisoner, where prisoners teach other prisoners something they don't know. It can be mathematics or English, or anything. This is something that the prison authorities told us that could be a very good idea to do. We started to work on it. 


Vita Pires: 

Wow! During COVID, there were a lot of limitations on going into prisons here in the US. And what actually developed from that was during this period, most states in the US now give prisoners tablets, where they can watch courses and listen to all kinds of courses on all kinds of subjects, etc. So, does Israel have any plans like that? If not, maybe you want to tell them about that project. 


Michal Warshavsky: 

I'll put that on the list. Oh, well, no. No, no, no. 


Vita Pires: 

It's very helpful to have something that they can take back to their cells. And then, you know, like, the path of freedom now is on that course that I developed on tablets. It's been there for like seven years. They finally gave me the stats, and it said that 35,000 prisoners had enrolled in it. They get to watch all those videos that everybody watches. And so, they have that as a reference. Especially if it's done in tandem with doing a course with volunteers coming in and teaching it, then they can go back and review the material. So I think it's a really helpful move that's happened. 


Michal Warshavsky: 

It's amazing. I just can dream about it here, really. 


Vita Pires: 

Well, that's what we thought before. I was like, "Oh my gosh." Because people would ask us and be like, "No." They don't allow anything, but now they are allowing that here. So, you never know. 


Michal Warshavsky: 

And they buy the tablet for the prisoners? 


Vita Pires: 

They got these cheap tablets. They only give them to prisoners that maintain their good standing or something. They aren't getting a bunch of infractions. And then, if they get infractions, they get the tablet away because they can also communicate with their families through it. 


Michal Warshavsky: 

Wow. 


Vita Pires: 

Like a FaceTime thing. Yeah, it's a big change. 


Michal Warshavsky: 

Big, big change. Wow. 


Vita Pires: 

But it's spreading to all the states. I think that they find it useful. It keeps them occupied. 


Michal Warshavsky: 

Cool. 


Vita Pires: 

People get so addicted to their tablets. 


Michal Warshavsky: 

It's so important. 


Vita Pires: 

Currently, what is your biggest project or most project that you view as your most important project? 


Michal Warshavsky: 

We're proud, very proud about the book, The Meditation Book For Prisoners. Yes, we're coming to prison. We don't have a tablet. We come once a week. Once a week so the prisoners in the group can practice once a week. Of course, they can practice between the meetings, but we know in our lives that it's not so easy to have the discipline to practice every day. 


The book is a kind of anchor to use that they have. This was the idea. And then we work on it for six years. Some of the volunteers wrote the book. It was translated into Arabic. Our dream was to give it as a present to every prisoner in our group. It was a very unusual request from the prison authority because no organization, no one, could send or bring something to the prisoners. No way. Nothing. So, it really was unusual to ask for this permission. It took two years. 


We got permission. And then, after we got the permission, we finished writing the book, and then we gave them back to read it as a center to check it. The paper, of course, every word, every word, Hebrew and Arabic. And after we get the permission, we send it to make the books to print the books. And really, the book, as the prisoners say, they feel, I think it's a very special book. The prisoners said that they felt somebody sitting in front of them and speaking with them during the reading of the book. It understands what they feel now. 


So, it influences them. They have a big influence on the book, and they say they can now practice. They say the book is a hope for them. It's hope. The Arab prisoners that don't have anything in Arabic from prison say, "It's in our language." It's very significant for them. I can tell you that, for me, you know, I was busy with writing and producing all this project, etc. 


I didn't think about the meaning of giving a present to a prisoner. And just after we get them the books, we realize that before they opened the book, just at the moment they got it, they were so excited about it. They were so thankful for it. Just then I realized that they didn't get any presents. Maybe in many years, 20 years, ten years, they didn't get a present. It's not just a present. It's a book. It's an adhama book. It's not just instructions for meditation. It says the lucky real dharma book. And with examples from prison, from their lives, that they know what to do, you know. 


For example, they are sitting in the court, and everybody speaks in their head, but nobody listens to them. Someone wants to go to his son's wedding, and suddenly the prison authority doesn't let him. What is he doing? He's searching for hours in close hands during the driving to the court. How do we deal with it? Etcetera, etcetera. Maybe next year, the book will be translated into Italian. Yes. And, yeah, we hope that all the prisoners there in the groups will get it. 


Vita Pires: 

I think that's important what you're saying about the power of the gift and the power of books. I mean, we've had this Books Behind Bars program for 25 years. I just can't believe the letters we get. People sometimes on the outside forget how powerful it is to just get a gift for no reason from somebody and also how important books are to changing lives. I mean, it kind of gets lost in this world of YouTube and everything else, but real books are very powerful. We have just stacks, and stacks of letters of people's writing thank you. Beautiful. Beautiful gratitude letters, which is just one book that they feel like changed their life. So, it is very powerful. What do you see for the future of your group? 


Michal Warshavsky: 

We'll continue. It's enough that we continue. But we have ideas all the time. We have one project, and we had to begin before COVID, but I think it has changed. As I said before, we are coming forward once a week to meet the prisoners. As I said before, we know it's very difficult to discipline and practice. If you want a change, you need to practice every day. So, we decided that we would go to prison every day. But for intensive time. It means not for years. We will take a period of four months. We'll come to the whole wing. Not just one group, all wings. One wing in one prison, one wing that all the prisoners will practice every day for four months. 


Vita Pires: 

Wow. 


Michal Warshavsky: 

Every day, five days. I mean, we can come in four or five days. We believe that this will help with a personal change, of course. And also, that's why we decided to do it in the whole wing so that the relationship between prisoners in the wing will change. They will listen more to each other, they will help each other more, and there will be less violence and problems. 


This is also the change that we expect to see. And so, we hope in some months to come that we will build it with a lot of volunteers. In this case, the prison authority of the prison will do it. It has to work together with us like this. Not like we come to a group and go back home. It's something that we need to work on together. 


Vita Pires: 

And they're willing to do that? 


Michal Warshavsky: 

Yes. 


Vita Pires: 

Oh, wow. 


Michal Warshavsky: 

Yes. As you know, I'm sure in the United States. So there is a lot of hierarchy. This will have to decide, and then this, and then this. So, it's now in the middle. So, we hope. And we hope this is our plan for doing research. 


Vita Pires: 

Yeah, research would be great. 


Michal Warshavsky: 

It's very important to do research because it's a unique program. 


Vita Pires: 

So if you do that, please send us the research so that we can tell people here because research opens doors. I think that's a project that a lot of people here would love to do, but it's just very complicated, like you say, with all the layers of bureaucracy to go through. But I think the research sort of opens the doors like, oh, we could develop this whole pie into that and see what happens. And they have done that in a few prisons here in the US. But the more that do it, the more they'll see the results. So yeah, that's a great idea. Wow. 


Michal Warshavsky: 

Yeah. I think we also told them that it's like a pilot because if good things happen, it will influence many, many, many, many prisons, maybe in the world. Yeah. I hope so. 


Vita Pires: 

I mean, I'd be curious to see if that impacts more what happens when they get on the outside because you know then you have that real intensive hit, you know, of ceding the practice deeper and deeper into your being. So probably, it might have really helped with that factor. Hopefully! 


Oh, it was really great to talk to you. I'm so glad to have met you after all these years of email communications, and you read them and stuff like that. So it was fabulous to talk to you. Thank you so much, Michal. 


Michal Warshavsky: 

Thank you. Thank you very much, Vita. And everything I learned from you and all the things you were doing really inspired me and all of the volunteers. Thank you all. 


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