Update on the Dhamma Brothers

Winter 2009 Spirit of Change included the article, “When Time is All You Have: Vipassana Behind Bars” by Gail Lord. As promised, here’s an update on how the Donaldson Correctional Facilities Vipassana program has evolved.

Vipassana meditation has found a home behind bars at Donaldson Correctional Facility, the highest security level prison in Alabama. Since first being introduced to 20 inmates with a ten-day course in 2002, Vipassana, like the majority of inmates, has been in and out of prison. But the men at Donaldson, The Dhamma Brothers, are passionate about meditation and now remarkably, and rather historically, so is their warden.

The Donaldson warden, at first skeptical, is now convinced of the positive influence of Vipassana on the prison atmosphere. Behavioral observations show prisoners, prison staff and the prison culture are all positively impacted by the program. After observing the positive changes in the men who participated in the program, the warden was so impressed he decided he wanted the opportunity for all the inmates at Donaldson to be able to do the ten-day intensive program.

The logistics of providing Vipassana intensives to 15,000 inmates is certainly a challenge. The program is completely set up and managed by the Vipassana community so it doesn't cost anything, but providing security and creating space in an overcrowded prison is difficult; fortunately, Donaldson has found a way. A huge special cellblock is being set aside in the prison including a meditation room and a meditation row. The prison will now hold four ten-day intensives once a year, interspersed with three-day programs for the inmates who have already done the ten-day course. In addition, during the long program, inmates who have already done the course will assist other inmates. The effort of facilitating meditation at Donaldson is rewarded when a routine head count of Alabama's most violent prison reports, "West Gym reporting…20 inmates, all meditating." It's simply amazing.

Also exciting, in terms of the institutional commitment, is the opportunity for Donaldson correctional officers to receive Vipassana training. Paid leave and transportation is offered to any corrections officers who would like to take the program, which includes 100 hours of meditation over a ten-day period. Eight officers have already signed up.

Will lower levels of prison violence and a safer prison atmosphere at Donaldson help change the way the United States deals with prisoners? Could meditation someday become standard prison practice? Filmmaker Jenny Phillips hopes so, and she documented the Vipassana course at Donaldson “with the dream that the Dhamma Brothers —that the prisoners — would be the central characters, and they will become the teachers for the rest of the world. That's my belief. If you have one very small story, and it's very powerfully told, it can change all of us," says Phillips. The award winning Dhamma Brothers chronicles simple solutions for the problems of mass incarceration in the U.S. prison system by focusing on the Vipassana program at Donaldson. Phillips takes viewers inside the violent, overcrowded, maximum-security prison to reveal inmates not as violent throwaways, but as human beings with universal human problems.

Over the past year, The Dhamma Brothers film has stimulated social action. A key focus has been on participation in criminal justice and corrections conferences, and the establishment of working partnerships with national corrections organizations. The film was shown at The National Commission on Correctional Health Care’s annual conference and they are working toward the establishment of a partnership with the National Institute of Corrections.

Says Phillips, "We have become aware of the extraordinary potential contained in this film to challenge narrow assumptions about the nature of prisons, long seen as solely places of punishment and warehousing. After viewing the film, there is the possibility to now see prisons as places for effective rehabilitation, ensuring safer prisons and safer streets."

The Dhamma Brothers is scheduled for a one-hour national broadcast on public television this April. Check www.pbs.org or your local listings in April for details.