Monday, August 12, 2013

Freedom Before Release

The First Daylong Silent Retreat in a California Maximum Security Prison

by Diane Wilde

"Since this first retreat in 2009 at California State Prison, Sacramento, we have held daylong retreats
at six prisons, usually once or twice a year." Photo courtesy of Seattle PI: http://www.seattlepi.com
California State Prison at Sacramento (CSP-SAC) is a maximum security prison. It is also known as “New Folsom” and is adjacent to the more infamous prison, “Old Folsom,” where Johnny Cash gave his famous concert in the prison cafeteria. The men in our sangha at the time were mainly lifers (meaning they were probably not ever leaving prison) and had come to Buddhist services initially out of curiosity, or boredom, or perhaps needing a spiritual lift. Our sangha of twenty-seven men was mostly African American with quite a few Muslim practitioners, along with a smattering of Christians, and a number of spiritual seekers.

We had been meeting with the men at this prison for about three years when I determined that they needed to experience a day of silence in a retreat setting. As far as I know, a day of silence had not been undertaken in a California prison before. When I approached the subject with our sangha-inmates, all twenty-seven men enthusiastically said they wished to take part. They admitted that they had the same apprehension that those in the free world experience when challenged with their first day of silence. However, they were eager for the challenge. That was the easy part. Now I had to convince prison authorities that a daylong silent retreat would be beneficial not just for the inmates, but ultimately for the well-being of prison security staff.

California State Prison at Sacramento
California state prison system does not recognize Buddhism as a religion—only five faiths have paid prison chaplaincy staff and Buddhism is not one of them. I first had to convince our Catholic chaplaincy sponsor the importance of a day of silence for those inmates who are sincere in their practice. After much persuasion, he agreed that if I could convince the warden this was a necessary component of the Buddhist program we provided, he would support our efforts.

I will not waste time in this blog to rehash the months and months of discussion, persuasion, and gentle references to prisoners’ rights to religious services that preceded the event actually taking place. We had been warned that most likely our request would be denied—after all we were dealing with “the worst of the worst.” Not having heard a word for months, we assumed that it was wasted effort. A few days prior to the date we had suggested for the retreat, the prison administration suddenly gave its approval. We were elated when clearance came through, but perplexed on how we would pull this off within the time frame, with very tight restrictions as well as final legal paperwork that the prison deemed necessary for such an unusual request.

We had not brought up the silent retreat to the men in the C-Yard sangha except in generalities. There is too much pain in prison and we didn’t want to entice the men with a practice that might not happen. Now we had one week to put together a release list (men who are released from their cells for an entire day), bring in a teacher who would offer the men a different perspective on Dharma, and prepare a list of the food items we wished to bring in for a healthy, vegetarian lunch. We had to have an ironclad schedule for the day, including when we would sit, when we would do yoga, the lunch schedule, and knowledge of approved vendors from whom we could purchase food, and finally . . . exactly what time bathroom breaks would take place. (The men have to be escorted out of the chapel where the retreat would take place, taken to an inmate bathroom, and escorted back. Inmates are not allowed to use the chapel bathroom.)

Miracles did take place. A member of our prison volunteer group at Old Folsom (the prison adjacent to New Folsom where our daylong was to take place), told us that Mary Mocine, a Zen priest offering Buddhist services at Solano State Prison, was available to come for the day. In a week’s time, she was cleared as were all the other volunteers and guests who wished to attend. (They were cleared the night before the retreat.) I asked a local yoga instructor to lead movement—an important component of prison Dharma as most of these men had trouble staying in the body for even a short period of time. We were allowed to bring in borrowed mats for yoga, and our lunchtime menu was cleared. We created a release list and prayed that the day would actually take place. In prison, it is an accepted fact that a skirmish, weather disturbances, or frankly just the attitude of security can sabotage the best-laid plans.

Ultimately the retreat happened. The title of the retreat was “The Body as a Tool for Awakening.” I had been preparing the men for a potential retreat by reviewing the Sattipathana Sutta (Four Foundations of Mindfulness). We determined that investigating the first foundation would be the most beneficial way to provide the men their first retreat experience. Men in prison live their stories: guilt, shame, depression and ultimately mental illness are often the realities of being incarcerated. Mindful movement is the first step in “inhabiting” the body and for a brief period, leaving the stories behind. That stability of mind is then brought to their sitting, walking, and eating practice. This is what I envisioned for the retreat day.

Everything we planned on doing for the day and a list of any items brought in had to be written down in an approved prison format. I lived with the ongoing fear that something was forgotten or not reported—always the nagging notion that something was left undone.

Twenty-seven men attended along with ten volunteers It was an historic day! Mary Mocine arrived in full Zen regalia! She and I had talked beforehand about what she should wear, and I told her that comments had been made by our inmate-sangha, “When will you bring in a REAL Buddhist.” (They had seen pictures of bald-headed nuns with saffron, gray, or black robes.) Mary gamely replied, “They’ll get the whole show!” Turns out that our Catholic chaplain was also quite impressed with Mary’s flowing robes and shaved head. Of course the inmates loved it.

Prison sangha daylong
On retreat day, my function as the coordinator was to stay in the background and keep events moving, making sure there were escorts to take men to the bathroom on breaks, opening the staff bathroom for volunteers, setting out food for lunch, conversing with the volunteers on their particular tasks, and reassuring the inmate sangha members that they could do it! My personal practice for the day was being present to the tension and fear of error that wracked my body. I recall that a week after this milestone event, my neck and shoulders were still in pain.

This experience took me to the height of happiness as well as a few plunges into the prison hell realm. The large, gray depressing chapel was transformed into a true sanctuary. The lights were dimmed in the room. The incense aroma was exquisite. Our yellow and orange altar, decorated with fat yellow mums and a flickering white candle, a shiny bronze female Buddha of compassion and her partner, a male Buddha of wisdom, turned this dark, gray prison room into a true place of refuge. Seeing the men sitting quietly for forty-minute stretches, or focusing on a movement that brought such freedom to their bodies, filled me with joy and gratitude. I worked with mudita as well, wishing I could join in, but enjoying the peaceful calm of the chapel and experiencing the freedom these men felt for this short period of time. Many, for the first time in their lives were in a safe place surrounded by support and love from volunteers who cared about their well-being. The closed eyes and calm facial expressions made each individual glow as if they were all Buddhas on the verge of liberation.

This gentle reflection did not last long. The duality and harshness of the prison environment slammed me back into my body. Here is what happened.

In the evenings when we normally hold services, we are given a key to the chapel door to allow the men leave when the guards arrive to escort them back to their cells. Apparently during the day, another procedure is followed. The chapel door is electronically monitored and controlled by the guards in the guard tower. I did not know the daytime procedure and unlocked the chapel door to let some men out for the scheduled bathroom break. From high above, I heard someone bellowing, “Lady, don’t ever open that door again.” A few minutes later, a huge, rotund guard strode into the quiet chapel, and proceeded to acquaint me with the full power of his authority. Rearing up to his impressive height, he roared that he would end our program if I ever had the audacity to open the chapel door again. I calmly explained that we hold services at night, when apparently it is okay to unlock the door. He glared at me (how dare I use logic!), spun around, and slammed the iron chapel door with disgust. The tension in my body spiked from my feet to the top of my head. The repetitive thought kept coming up, “I am the one who has put this whole program in danger.” I was unable to relax for the remainder of the day. But I was given the opportunity to see in a very small way what the men in a maximum security prison endure on a daily basis. The prison structure relies heavily on an “us and them” duality and it is reinforced through almost all interaction.

In spite of the fear of retribution, I had to take another chance. At a scheduled bathroom break, a man was patiently waiting for the door to be opened. He had a colostomy bag that was filled. Four guards stood outside our door, not eight feet away. We knocked and tried to get their attention. One guard was holding our schedule in his hand and occasionally looked at it. They ignored the frantic knocking behind them. In desperation, we unlocked the staff bathroom door and told the man to empty his colostomy bag as quickly as possible. If we had been caught, our retreat may have ended right then and there.

Even with these challenges, our retreat went better than I had dared hope. The men inspired me with their practice and later, with their overwhelming gratitude. During one of the sits, our Catholic chaplain sponsor came in and whispered to me, “If I didn’t see this with my own eyes, I wouldn’t believe it.”

A week later we met with the men at our regular Tuesday evening service, and asked them to fill out evaluation forms on their first retreat experience. A unanimous question arose, “When will we have another retreat?” Along with that sentiment, a sampling of the comments we received were:
It was a real elevating experience that carried over like blossoming flowers throughout the week.
It was positive that I felt more “open” spiritually and able to see others around me a different light. After I left the retreat I felt a kind of slap in the face when I noticed the Jim Crow separateness that is part of prison life. 
I left the retreat uplifted and joyous and this feeling stayed with me even today as I write this. 
Truly, it’s hard to put in words, but I can say when I left the retreat there was this feeling of peace and relaxation. 
I really felt loved and cared for in the sense that my life has worth. 
A few days following, I was finding myself noticing how I place my intention and what occurs when I allow my attention to be drawn away from my intention. 
I have had a constant reminder due to the (red cord) string tied around my wrist, and I feel a sense of accomplishment. 
I left the retreat uplifted and joyous and this feeling stayed with me even today as I write this. 
For the next few days after the retreat, I kept replaying the practices over in my mind. Especially mindful eating. It really made me think about my eating practice, not just what I eat, but how I eat. 
This retreat was THE MOST positive experience. 
I had time to write my family and tell them about it and my son wants to come next time.
My own reflections after this event were insightful. It is very easy to succumb to a feeling of being someone special in the prison setting. A few months prior, I was at a retreat where Sally Clough Armstrong mentioned this need in a Dharma talk on the fourth foundation of mindfulness, and it has been a reflection I have found very valuable in everyday life, but especially in prison practice. Am I “going inside” to be special? Or is it genuine compassion? Am I diligent about continually investigating my purpose for engaging in this practice?

As Sally explained in her Dharma talk, we all experience this need. What suffering it causes! The “need to be special” can be easily observed by volunteers in the prison setting due to the very nature of prison work and the duality inherent in the prison culture. As a Buddhist chaplain, I am free. I have access to knowledge and retreats. “I am a good person” because I come into a prison of my own accord. But if I take the time to expand upon this reflection, the realization arises that this need to be special cannot take place without the participation of inmates who are defined by society and themselves, as not special. One concept cannot exist without the other. That reflection rapidly deflates a perceived separation from incarcerated people, and is replaced by the need to be present, and gratitude for the freedom of JUST presence, absent of self-righteousness.

A more difficult practice in the prison setting is maintaining a sense of equanimity for prison administration and guards. Volunteers are in agreement that practicing with the prison bureaucracy is the most difficult aspect of prison Dharma. The administration and guards’ need to be special extends further than mere concept. It involves the ability to control through paperwork, aloofness, force, and physical power. It is said this is all done for safety. The irony is that the California prison system does not create safety for the public, but actually breeds criminal and unethical behavior. (I am noting the aversive attitude that comes up as I am writing these words.)

The practice that I use in dealing with this completely illogical system is patience. My practice is to experience patience for myself and for all those who make up the prison system. Patience has brought insight. We are all in prison in one form or another. This wonderful practice that the Buddha provided is our key to leaving prison behind. To quote the mantra of a group of inmates who have studied mindfulness for a long time; “Freedom before being released.”

The film below, entitled Changing from Inside, is forty-two minutes long. It was written and produced primarily for an audience of prison administrators, jail officials, and judges and tells the story of the introduction of Vipassana meditation courses into the North Rehabilitation Facility (NRF) of the King County Jail in Seattle, Washington, USA. To read more about this documentary visit this link. To view this video via its host Buddhistdoor International click here.

Diane Wilde: Founding Member, Volunteer Chaplain & Mentor

Diane has studied meditation in various traditions since 1990. In 2001 she was a founding member of Sacramento Insight Meditation and since 2003 has been a volunteer chaplain. She founded the nonprofit Buddhist Pathways Prison Project and coordinates twenty-five volunteers who offer Buddhist services at six Northern California prisons. In 2007 she completed a two-year Community Mentorship Program at Sacramento Insight Meditation. She is a 2008 graduate of the Sati Center’s Buddhist Chaplaincy program and a 2012 graduate of Spirit Rock’s Community Dharma Leadership training program. In prisons as well as at her local “free” sangha, Diane teaches beginning meditation, offers Dharma talks, provides individual mentoring, and leads retreats.


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