Assessing Spirituality Behind Bars

A documentary about a meditation program among convicted murderers sparks discussion about the benefits religion and spirituality offer inmates and officials.
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A documentary about a meditation program among convicted murderers sparks discussion about the benefits religion and spirituality offer inmates and officials.

The warden was skeptical, the prison chaplain downright hostile and at least one inmate volunteer said the experience was tougher than spending eight years on death row. Yet according to The Dhamma Brothers, a documentary currently being released around the country, the intense, 10-day Vipassana meditation program undertaken by nearly two dozen prisoners at Alabama's Donaldson Correctional Facility — a maximum-security prison — was a rousing success.

"Meditation is a form of treatment that works well in prisons," said Jenny Phillips, the film's co-director and producer. "It's not a relaxation technique; it's not a religion; it's a way to develop skills in managing emotions, and this is what prisoners crave. In a prison like Donaldson, people are so miserable and unhappy — they are looking for redemption and meaning. These guys were looking for nothing short of salvation, and they found it within themselves." (Vipassana itself, which means "insight" in Sanskrit, while derived from Buddhist meditation, has found its greatest success in the U.S. in a nonsectarian form.)

If nothing else, the Vipassana retreat, which involved nine days of total silence and round-the-clock meditation, also shows how religiously and spiritually oriented programs can be a boon for correctional facilities, producing motivated inmates who are less of a discipline problem.

Programs like these "improve the inmate's mental health and might decrease the stress they feel," said Barbara Zaitzow, a professor in the department of political science and criminal justice at Appalachian State University.

Inmates who go through these programs "sleep better," Zaitzow added. "There's low stress and anxiety. They have fewer doctor and hospital visits. There's decreased use of drugs and reduced use of violence. I would also suspect their self-esteem is better, and their learning abilities are better."

Alan Marlatt, director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington, would most likely agree with this assessment. He did a follow-up study on a Vipassana program at a minimum-security prison in the Seattle area, which compared prisoners who took the course to those who didn't.

"Three months after release," he said, "there was a clear difference in the meditation group — less drinking, less drinking-related problems, less drug use. There was less depression and more optimism about life. The meditation gives you more acceptance of unwanted urges, and (the prisoners) felt this was the best way they had ever handled stress."

The same results can probably be obtained with any sincerely held religious or spiritual belief, but experts caution that spirituality in a prison setting can also be problematic. Some inmates join groups just to get "good time" and a nice note in their file, which will hopefully reduce their sentence. (Zaitzow and co-author Jim Thomas of Northern Illinois University implicitly acknowledged that point in a 2006 paper for The Prison Journal. Its tile: "Conning or Conversion: The Role of Religion in Prison Coping.")

Administrations, meanwhile, worry that demands made by a particular religious group — for special diets, particular times for services, etc. — might hurt the running of the institution.

"I have seen (religious) groups that act in a gang-like manner, and that is a major concern in prisons," Zaitzow said. "And that has fallen under the realm of some of the Black Muslim groups. There are power struggles that take place in religious communities, and their activities could appear to be gang-like. These issues crop up in corrections. Prisons are dangerous arenas, and there has to be some scrutiny about what's going on."

Zaitzow added, however, that if for no other reason than potential litigation, prison administrators usually attempt to accommodate religious demands, "in a controlled fashion."

"Most well-educated administrators would admit faith-based programming is a benefit to them on any number of levels," she said. "If people aren't beating each other up, it makes the job of a correctional officer a lot easier."

That certainly seems to be the case with the prisoners who took the Vipassana course at Donaldson, most of whom were serving life terms for murder. The film follows up on the inmates four years after the original retreat — Donaldson terminated the program shortly after the instructors left but reversed that stance four years later — and finds that not only have most of them continued to meditate on a regular basis, but they have formed a sort of brotherhood that remains unbroken. That, and the on-camera testimony of corrections officers who say they have seen a definite turn for the better in these men, provides a ringing affirmation of the program's goals.

"Meditation allows you to adapt to whatever environment you're in," Marlatt said. "So if you're in a prison, it gives you a sense of inner freedom. You learn how to get outside the jail cell of your own mind and get a bigger picture."

Which is, ultimately, what nearly every faith-based or spiritual endeavor aims to do. "Any program that works to help people rehabilitate themselves, that doesn't cost a lot of money and doesn't pose a threat to the security of the institution, should absolutely be welcomed," Zaitzow said. "Even the most hard-core person trying to pull a fast one on the system, if they attend a program long enough, they might be co-opted by that program. If it gives them something to stay out of trouble for whatever time, and a sense of community, then it's a good thing."

The Dhamma Brothers is currently playing in Los Angeles and Seattle. It opens May 16 in Boston and May 17 in Portland, Ore.

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