By Dianne Frazee-Walker

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. Bed rolls 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 a 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.

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