To do the work of Dharma in prisons is to perceive how the prisons themselves function. Correct perception leads to a desire to make a dynamic effort to change the basic paradigm of the Prison Industrial Complex and ultimately, yet more subtly, the basic paradigm of that which imprisons all sentient beings.
In 1992, I began a small Zen practice group in Sing Sing Prison, New York State, which quickly led to the formation of the Engaged Zen Foundation (EZF). We spent eight years working in Sing Sing, conducting all-day sits, two-, three-, and four-day retreats, with hundreds of prisoners and many volunteers to help. I battled endlessly with the facility administration and the New York State Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) to establish and maintain these programs. Eventually, the constant movement of prisoners from the facility caused a drop in attendance, and a change in the facility administration repressed our efforts to continue the programs. In 2000, I took a sabbatical and greatly changed the Mission Statement of EZF. It is no longer concerned exclusively with fostering contemplative practice in prisons. Over the years, countless cases of prisoner appeals for assistance, often with life-threatening issues, brought other things into clear focus. Here is some of my story.
I had already known some of the horrors of prison life firsthand. In 1968, I was a young man, only 18 years old, visiting a friend right after the Poor People's Campaign. The house was raided for pot; I was falsely arrested, charged, and thrown into the Washington, D.C. jail. There I was beaten and raped. Fortunately, after that one attack I sustained an injury by deliberately sticking my foot into a moving electric gate. I was taken to the hospital where I informed an orderly what had happened to me. Several hours later I was given a rectal examination by a doctor. A corrections captain later showed up and grilled me saying: “You’re a homosexual, right? You asked for this. You wanted this n***er with his telephone pole up your ass, that is what you have been going for, isn’t it?”
It was a living horror; I was so terrified that I plead guilty to the phony charges, received probation and was finally released. I was fortunate. A year later, a friend of mine, a Quaker, was arrested at a peace demonstration against the bombing of Cambodia, was held in that same jail, and was raped continuously for three days. He wound up throwing himself of a cell block tier, was taken to the hospital, underwent surgery to repair his rectum and had the fortitude to call a press conference while confined to a hospital bed on his stomach. In any case, due to my experience, my concept of what prison life was like was clearer than that of many of the well-meaning volunteers I have since encountered.
Entering into a prison to work as a volunteer is often a difficult task. It involves a lot of paperwork, background checks, orientation films, and programs given by security personnel and prison administrators. At every step, you are shown precisely how to relate to the prison bureaucracy. Orientation is the initiation of the volunteer into the social order of the prison in the function of Adjunct to the Administration at largess. They make very clear that the precise role played by the volunteer is to maximize administrative control and power. You are told that prisoners are always manipulative, always complaining without cause, and must be ignored by the volunteer except for the specific function fulfilled by the volunteer. Basically, it all boils down to, "Don't trust the inmates, they are all liars. Administrators and guards can do no wrong."
It's easy to run a meditation group in a prison when one is oblivious to the day-to-day horrors actually taking place. Prisoners are desperate for any outside contact whatsoever, and they'll do whatever they can to foster such contacts, including hiding the conditions they tolerate, for fear of alienating an outside volunteer. It is only after the volunteer reveals themselves as empathetic and trustworthy that they begin to hear about oppressive conditions. Civilian volunteers learn through experience the dualistic, deliberately divisive paradigm that drives the prison: they are either "cops" or "fellow prisoners."
Over the years, I began to learn of prisoners who were mistreated, beaten, held in isolation, set up, denied medical care, and even killed by medical neglect. These things were happening in hundreds of prisons all across the country. The stories were all too familiar. In some cases, prisoners were able to gain some relief; in most cases, they were not, and in some, they forfeited their lives. More and more I find myself being presented with prison-related issues dealing with human rights, medical neglect, brutality, and institutional indifference. What I hear about are problems that affect all prisoners, their families and friends, and even guards and prison administrators. Few people on the outside are cognizant of the degree of unnecessary suffering and brutality perpetuated in American prisons. The implications are staggering when we begin to grasp what is really taking place in the name of Justice. It seemed to me that coercion, repression, and brutality do not produce healing in individuals. Placing damaged people in our prisons only results in further damage. This makes no sense from the perspective of a healthy society.
Yet for a decade, I held tightly to my preconceived notion that serious in-depth Zen practice in prison was not only possible but also important-even necessary. Eight years in Sing Sing and the thousands of correspondences with prisoners gradually showed me that it is almost impossible, with the way the prisons are presently structured. It came as a hard lesson when I finally recognized the situation. In the Dharma Song Zendo at Sing Sing, we were working directly with less than 1% of the population, yet I was hearing from up to 10% of the population about their treatment, stress, psychopathology, and safety. Buddhism is concerned with the emancipation of all beings. What are these prison Zen "programs" doing? What about those prisoners asking for help, but unable to attend the programs? If we know that a man or woman is being subject to medical neglect, has been severely beaten, or is being used as sexual chattel in a prison, are we not obligated to address this suffering first and foremost? People who are being mistreated cannot do good zazen.
Motivation: Here lies a paradox. Only a fully enlightened Buddha experiences pure motivation; even very high bodhisattvas experience motivation tainted by desire to liberate sentient beings. In any case, there are many levels of motivations and reasons for doing prison Dharma work. At first glance, we may appear to have very good intentions. Yet there are other disconscious motivations in place at the outset, such as the validation of one's own practice through "teaching" it to others, the exercise of entitlement in reaching out to prisoners as "lower beings" who need to be brought to a "higher level" (the flowering of arrogance that Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche used to refer to as ego-hood), and the opportunity to play Teacher in a closed environment to a captive audience. Subtle racism and classism may be operating, and these are extremely difficult to see within ourselves. For those who work as Dharma teachers in prisons, accepting and fostering Beginner's Mind is usually a Herculean task.
Working in prison-practicing prison Dharma-is not a one-way proposition. The prison systems in America are themselves the koans of prison Dharma. The true nature of the functioning of prisons is not easily fathomed. Even the notion of the possibility of asking this as a question is not at first apparent. Yet prison koans continually present themselves: What is "punishment?" Why do we "punish?" What is the result of "punishment?" Is it effective? How did the notion of "punishment" develop through history? Is there an alternative to punitive incarceration? What is the nature of "coercion?" What does "oppression" mean? What is "control?" What is "torture?"
The blithe thought that we Dharma practitioners, as outsiders and free, law-abiding citizens, are "offering" Dharma to imprisoned people who are somehow lacking is a pattern of arrogance-hard to recognize. The fact that we might have something to learn from imprisoned people-difficult to accept. We wear blinders.
Prison Dharma is not just about prisoners, it is about those who would embrace it, understand punitive incarceration, and recognize the prison environment as the bottom-line intersection for all of the failures of our society and all of our personal failures. The social microcosm of the prison is a reflection of the larger society that creates and perpetuates the prison environment. What we see in prisons is the imposition of the will of the state on its subjects, unbridled by the constraints of the rights we take for granted in the so-called free world.
Going into the prisons offers us an opportunity to critically examine our familiar free-world social structures in ways that we may never have before considered. It presents situations that call for us to look at psychology from a unique perspective not called for elsewhere. If we work with prisoners long enough, we begin to fathom the depth of the pain they endure; we see and acknowledge the suffering they manifest in response to their pain. We are not so different-in time, we see their situation as intimately intertwined with our own predicament. The scales fall from our eyes . . . Perception sharpens.
In profound, dynamic practice-on the razor's edge-we summon up a spirit of great doubt and ask day and night: What is true nature? If we hold this attitude and intensely bore into the doubt without letting up, eventually we will break through our illusory ideas and delusive thoughts, and the reality of our true nature will reveal itself in a fraction of an instant . . . . Likewise, if we ask with the same energy, the same intense concentration, a question such as "What is "depression?" in time the answer will reveal itself, and heaven and earth will be shaken to their foundations. What could this mean?
Look with the "Zen Eye." Look at "punishment." Or, for a simpler example, look at "depression." Depression is a state of mind defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as a pathological condition . . . seeing things as hopeless, feeling helpless to deal with them, and suffering under the weight of unpleasant perceptions. But what is it really? Depressed relative to what? In its attempt at comprehension of mind, doesn't Western psychology's intense dependence on statistics indicate that it is tied to the delusional perception of the general public? Western psychology can diagnose scads of psychopathological conditions, but cannot bring itself to identify even one single healthy state of mind!
For an "everyday world" perception example, one not apparently connected to the "profound matter of realization", consider closely this condition called depression. Consider one person who perceives a situation as hopeless, and a second person who sees things from an optimistic perspective full of opportunities. This appears straightforward: the one who sees the situation as hopeless is "depressed," and the one with the positive attitude is "healthy." However, what if the situation really is hopeless, and the so-called healthy perspective is the view that is actually delusional, wishful thinking, denial, even? The ecologist who sees the inevitable looming environmental catastrophe that the planet faces-is he depressed, or is it the view of the ecologist's perceptions as being "doom and gloom" that is actually in error? When the planet sickens and the truth becomes inescapable, won't the depressed viewpoint then be considered reality? What if things really are as bad as they seem? What if they are not? What if they are far worse?
The penetration of these everyday world perceptions might not even be noticed as Dharma activity. Do we relegate Dharma activity to just religious matters taking place in a temple, a monastery, a training center, or our personal sitting practice? Have we become disconsciously "exclusive" about practice? Is prison Dharma limited to providing Dharma instruction to prisoners? If prison Dharma is limited to creating sitting groups in prisons, all the while believing that our function is to provide something better to people than what they have-is this not power-over, downright arrogance? Doesn't "all beings" mean all beings, not just practicing Buddhist beings? What is our scope as Buddhists?
We come across these issues repeatedly with Buddhist prison outreach efforts. We currently skate dangerously close to the edge of proselytizing in prison Dharma. We do not see the finest Buddhist teachers themselves working in the prisons. They may come to take part in a program once in a while, but they rely on their students to run the programs. In the prison environment, the need is for exceptional teachers-those who are thoroughly open and able to recognize their role as student of those imprisoned, and able to learn from them as much as they may be offering as Dharma teacher.
This is real serious business, this exposing of ourselves. It is painful, it demands that we recognize the validity of the perceptions of people who might have committed the most heinous and brutal crimes, or who might not have-but are being punished anyway, without reason.
It is incumbent on us as practitioners of Dharma, rather than well-meaning students, to see things clearly. Attaining clarity is the cornerstone of Dharma practice. It requires continual questioning, constant doubt, and relentless observation. Experiencing and seeing things clearly is an ongoing process, not a once-established goal. Awakening, kensho, as it is called in the Rinzai Zen tradition, is not some sort of static platform, it is the initiation of a process to be continued-there is more to experience.
Insight gives us the tool to recognize the awakening process; it shows the pattern that brought about the experience of kensho. We know only too well how delusions have fooled us in the past, and now we apply the experience in our mundane lives. We begin to look critically at all phenomena, structures, and systems with the Dharma Eye, the critical eye, the eye of transcendent wisdom. Form becomes easier to recognize, patterns no longer hold us helpless, we are open to deeper and more profound questioning.
With involvement in prison Dharma comes exposure in degrees to the prison environment. The Dharma Eye view of prison is that of an intense manifestation of a coercive and oppressive social structure. From this big picture perspective, we begin to see that the patterns within the prison environment mirror those that we perceive in what we consider to be the free world. Voila. The coercive and oppressive environment of the prison turns out to be a concentrated, focused image of society at large.
Coercion occurs at all levels in the prison, as well as in the so-called free world. Perhaps in the prison environment it is more obvious. Prison administrators tend to coerce volunteers into becoming part of the system, at least from the administrator's perspective. In meetings with me, prison officials have actually expressed their desire to incorporate zazen practice to keep prisoners calm and make it easier to maintain control. Well, of course meditation practice can produce prisoners who are calm, disciplined, resistant to anger, tolerant of mistreatment, compliant, and easier to control. To a prison administrator, this is a Good Thing; it fits the agenda. In fact, we Dharma teachers may even find ourselves packaging our programs as part of this agenda, just to get them approved! Are we coercive? Are these administrators "evil?" Who are the misguided?
The day after I witnessed the 1996 execution of Jusan Frankie Parker, the warden of the Arkansas Death House Facility sincerely thanked me " . . . for helping to keep Jusan calm and making our job that much easier." I was so taken aback at his intimation; I protested that my presence was for Jusan's benefit, and in no way to ease the pain of those taking his life. Yet in reality, from his perspective, I did indeed make their "job" of murder easier. In a roundabout way, he was asking for acknowledgement, or perhaps forgiveness, for "just doing his job." The problem is that this man's job is to keep hundreds of people in a cage for many years, and then to occasionally take one of them out and kill them. Not only legal, but also supported and encouraged is this ritualized choreographed horror spectacle known as an Execution.
Sitting with a group in a prison for a few hours a month does not constitute in-depth training, especially in the chaotic, brutal prison environment. Yes, a couple of hours of quiet zazen is a relief, a respite, an escape from cellblock chaos for the prisoner. These hours are usually all that the volunteers ever see of prison life. They do not have to go back or to deal with the brutality of prison life. Their lives are privileged beyond comprehension, when compared with the lives of those inside. The volunteers are entitled-with their status, they can walk out of the prison at any time. They do not have the daily worries about being taunted, psychologically or physically abused, raped, beaten, gassed, or stabbed. Prisons are hostile environments and volunteers are often either unaware or in denial of this fact. If the volunteer cannot grasp this reality, the ability to be of genuine service to the awakened stated of mind is lost. Service and energy is then wasted on maintaining human beings in oppressive and coercive environments. Corruption reigns. We become the Oppressor. We become the Jailer. A prison full of "enlightened" prisoners is still a prison.
Have we been coerced through social oppression to peddle prison Dharma as a practice of benevolence and compliance? Or can we entertain the possibility of a prison Dharma imparting empowerment to prisoners and actively addressing the coercive and oppressive prison environment? Even more to the point: Can we even access the empowerment of practice in our own lives? Ha! Might Zen training serve as a basis for prisoners organizing to bring about systemic change from within? Dare we even consider that all the Zen training we may have provided in a maximum-security prison has led to more highly skilled thieves, robbers, and murders? Could all this patience that the prisoner has developed through zazen be applied to running a prison contraband ring or a sexual slavery operation? If we are at all concerned with any notion of "results" through prison Dharma, we are in the midst of water, crying out in thirst.
These are just some of the problems we encounter with meditation practice in the prison environment. We may have lofty ideas about making prisons into ashrams or zendos in which people can effectively make use of their time while incarcerated, but these are pipe dreams with little basis. Again our rosy optimistic preconceptions override reality.
But if prison Dharma is not about "habilitation", if it's not about producing specific changes in prisoners, then what is prison Dharma really about? Lilla Watson, an Aboriginal woman activist once said: