W.E. Donaldson Correctional Facility, Bessemer, Alabama has a harsh atmosphere and reputation for housing some of the most dangerous criminals in the country. Death row inmates, some with life sentences without the possibility of parole and others with a chance to be released and lead a new life are part of the W.E. Donaldson Correctional Facility (WEDCF) community, but, if one is to live a gratifying life, whether it is behind bars or outside prison walls, a serious attitude change needs to occur.

January 14 – 25, 2002 is the first day of a 10-day project at a U.S. state prison and the first time a U.S. maximum-security facility has the possibility of transforming every participant in the process. Twenty inmates with a variety of offenses ranging from robbery to drug-trafficking shuffle down the hallway to the gymnasium that is going to be a makeshift for a meditation retreat. Bedrolls in hand the inmates enter the gymnasium with apprehension about spending the next 10-days sitting on the floor and being silent. How could this possibly make a difference?

Prisoners don’t realize the luxury of being in a unique position that provides them an opportunity to escape reality for ten-days. Many people of the outside world would be ecstatic to trade their routine work week, traffic, and paying bills for a time-out vacation in a sea of stillness.

Vipassana meditation is a tool prisoners and anyone interested in reaching mindful diligence that surpasses a hostile consciousness can use to cope with everyday life. The word Vipassana means “to see clearly.”

The meditation program taught by S.N. Goenka has been internationally adopted by prisons and has been successfully offered over the last 25 years within prisons located in India, Israel, Mongolia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Thailand, U.K., and Myanmar. Vipassana was introduced to the U.S. penal system in 1997, but has only been accepted by three facilities; King County North Rehabilitation Facility, Seattle, Washington, San Francisco Jail Course, Jail #7, San Bruno, California, and W.E. Donaldson Correctional Facility, Bessemer, Alabama. The first Vipassana course in a North American correctional facility was conducted at the North Rehabilitation Facility (NRF) in Seattle, Washington in 1997.

The Dhamma community that facilitates the retreat has no agenda other than to help inmates learn Vipassana meditation. They volunteer their time and actually do time with the inmates over the 10-day course. The teacher and course assistants sleep in an adjacent room that is locked down each night by an officer. They sleep on mattresses on the concrete floor just like the inmates.

Even though the practice of Vipassana meditation offers spiritual awakening, the program is not affiliated with a particular religious denomination. Anyone can participate and reap the rewards of Vipassana meditation and anyone is welcome. Among the students at W.E. Donaldson Correctional Facility were two Imams (prayer leaders) of the Shiite and Sunni Muslim traditions as well as two devoted Gospel and Baptist followers.

10-day Vipassana meditation courses are offered to outside citizens globally and are scattered in random locations throughout the U.S. There is no charge for the retreat, and lodging and meals are included. The program is administered by volunteers and donations from students who wish to pass on the benefits they experienced from Vipassana meditation techniques.

The practice can enhance the opportunity for a more balanced lifestyle, including increased self-awareness, self-efficacy, and hopefulness. Individuals who have not experienced Vipassana are not able to understand the euphoria the meditation can deliver. Vipassana is described by participants as an ordinary experience plus mindfulness plus equanimity yielding insight and purification.

Spiritual beliefs and practices have long been thought to be important in understanding the development, maintenance, and treatment of alcohol abuse, dependence, and problem use. The reason Vipassana meditation is a helpful practice for replacing substance abuse and destructive behaviors is it teaches one to be mindful and be wholly aware of the full range of emotions that arise to one’s consciousness and to deliver attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis.

Vipassana meditation has shown success in improving many disorders; among them: alcohol and substance abuse, personality disorders, and literacy and learning disabilities. Post-Traumatic Stress (PTSD) symptoms can be reduced and can be applied to help the devastating repercussions of solitary confinement. Cultural and religious identification and generalized feelings of distrust and doubt seem to diminish as well. 

An experiment was conducted to test the value of using Vipassana meditation as a coping mechanism in prison. Vipassana course completers had a significantly better outcome than the comparison group including reductions in drug use, anxiety, depression, and hostility.

Domains of interest include Daily Spiritual Experiences, Meaning, Values, Beliefs, Forgiveness, and Religious/Spiritual Coping as measured by the Multidimensional Scale of Spirituality/Religious Behavior in Health Care Research (SF), and Optimism as measured by the Life Orientation Test.

Prison inmates have a tendency to either isolate or form gangs to survive the punitive atmosphere of prison life. Another astonishing side-effect of Vipassana meditation is a vital unity among the participants in the theme of transcending human suffering by a transformation of consciousness. Even the prison staff noticed a change in attitude from the inmates who participated in the meditation program. They claim the inmates demonstrated calmness and increased cooperation.  

Although the effectiveness of the Vipassana meditation is still undergoing tests to determine recidivism data for inmates that complete the meditation class, preliminary data indicates a significant decrease in recidivism for the Vipassana inmates.

During the meditation workshop at W.E. Donaldson Correctional Facility, the staff was so accommodating to the program that during a headcount the on-duty officer announced, “West Gym reporting… 20 inmates, all meditating”. 

At the completion of the 10-day meditation program, the inmates were given a graduation ceremony. Thirteen students who completed the course expressed their gratitude to everyone involved. They described the technique of meditation, how it helped with their problems, and how it can help them make better choices for their lives. Most had used their new skills to handle difficult situations in a positive way and to avoid problems. One or two had slipped in their practice but were happy to learn that they could start again.

Graduates are able to continue their meditation practice in a designated room reserved for daily practice and weekly group sessions.  

Vipassana meditation has nothing but positive aspects to report, and best of all, the program does not cost tax-payers a dime. So why are there only three U.S. correctional facilities accepting this program? Is Vipassana meditation too “touchy-feely” for prison staff to embrace? Why is prison staff excluded from participating? Staff participation would probably double the effects of an improved prison atmosphere because the officers would reap the benefits of meditation along with the prisoners.

Since Vipassana means “to see clearly,” hopefully in the near future prison officials can “see clearly” how implementing meditation programs into the prison system has the possibility of transforming the entire atmosphere of prison life and life beyond bars.  

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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