By Rowan Conrad
Prison is a foreign country with a unique culture. This article attempts to address frequently-asked questions about practice with prison Sanghas. I share from my limited experience-three years practicing with inmates in two different institutions. Every prison has unique elements and my experiences may not match yours. Security levels, state regulations, and views of minority religion differ. Thay has reminded us that the only right view is no view.
The front gate of a prison is like an international border. Past that portal, assume you don’t know how anything works. Engage beginner’s mind. Please start by asking and listening. “You aren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto!”-even if you are in Kansas. Respect the culture, the rules, and the people. You are a guest. Inmates and staff are your teachers. If we teach anything in prison Sanghas, we teach by the example of our own mindfulness, not by proselytizing. The variety and options “inside” are severely limited, so everything expands to fill this space. Little is big, medium is huge, and big is super-jumbo. All actions have meaning and impact, but within prisons, the meaning and impact will be magnified.
Respect that this is the inmates’ Sangha. Give guidance, suggestions, and support, but do not take over the details of the structure, leadership, or program of the Sangha-no matter how extensive and deep your personal experience may be. Inmates have very little control in their lives. Let any naming come fully from them. It is more important that the Sangha is theirs than that it have our ideal structure, process, or teaching. Our purpose is to support them in their own practice, not to impose ours.
Be yourself. Inmates have a lot of time to study people. They can spot phonies at 50 paces. Talk with people; don’t talk “Dharma” at them. Don’t talk down or judge.
Don’t ask about specific offenses. It is rude and invasive. But be prepared to hear about the offenses without judgment if the information is volunteered. My experience is that people do volunteer this information at some point sometimes as a kind of “final exam” to see how I respond.
If you work with opposite sex prisoners, you may be the only non-staff person of the opposite sex they see outside the visiting room. Life in prison can be very lonely. Expect a rich fantasy life to develop around you. Take care to dress down and act with great propriety. Do not allow yourself ever to be alone or out of sight with inmates of the opposite sex. Monastic rules for conduct with members of the opposite sex are good guidelines. Helping build a prison Sangha takes time and commitment. If your Sangha is interested in working with prisoners, realistically consider how much time and energy you’re willing to spend and estimate how long you’ll be able to sustain your commitment. Choose an activity that suits your ability. You can support prisoners by writing letters, sponsoring a meditation group, or visiting. If you can only visit once, don’t try to start a new group. Like any budding Sangha, a prison Sangha deserves our persistent, dedicated practice.
When you’re ready to start, contact the community affairs office or the chaplain about how to proceed. Most prisons require volunteer training. Most volunteers write to prisoners from a post office box. Even if you trust your correspondent, others may get information from letters by simply looking over a shoulder.
Prisoners leave prison. The transition is exceedingly difficult and often made with little orientation. Most people coming out of prison have few resources and great need. If your Sangha has supported a prison Sangha, consider that upon release, these people may be joining your Sangha. How are you ready and willing to help with the transition? What are your judgments about people who have committed crimes? Violent crimes? Sex crimes? If the people are condemned in the Sangha for past behavior, they will leave. Every resource they lose increases the chance of recidivism. But to completely ignore risks posed by specific individuals is foolish. Be realistic. If you are going into prisons, be ready as a Sangha to deal with “prison Buddhists” who become “community Buddhists.” People in prison are like people out of prison. Some are trustworthy and straightforward; some are devious and manipulative. Don’t vilify prisoners, but don’t be blind either. A good Buddhist motto is “Expect nothing, be ready for anything.”
Rowan Conrad, True Dharma Strength, practices with the Open Way Sangha in Missoula, Montana.