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The following is an article by one of our teachers orignially published in the Zen Peacemaker's Newsletter for February, 2010


Prison Practice
by Pat Coffey

I vividly remember my first night of teaching. I drove alone into the prison parking lot with trepidation and excitement. The drizzling damp November evening gave the lights of the facility an especially eerie glow and the shimmering concertina wire and block house architecture conjured images of death camps. Experiencing some fear and nervousness as the guards searched me for the first time, I wound my way through the labyrinth of buildings and six locked gates eventually settling into my assigned room to await my first class of 25 women. Thus began my most rewarding experience of my fourteen years of teaching meditation. The Blue Ridge Prison Project began seven years ago, when the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women invited our local sangha, the Insight Meditation Community of Charlottesville, to teach meditation to the inmates of Virginia’s maximum security prison. Several psychotherapists who worked in the mental health wing of the prison initiated the invitation after attending an Introductory Meditation class offered by our sangha and concluding that these teachings would be perfect for the inmates. The prison houses 1200 women. Many serve long or life terms. Getting cleared to teach in the post 9-11 atmosphere of suspicion took several months. The orientation session included finger-printing and launched the thorough background check with state and federal authorities. During the orientation, the zealous officer in charge explained the rules of conduct with inmates in detail. The rules included prohibitions against letter writing or phone calls with current or past inmates. They forbade prison rights or advocacy involvement and favors for present or past inmates or their families including passing letters, giving gifts or offering any support. The rules extended to a dress code standard for volunteers, a no hugging policy and a requirement to use last names only. More rules populated the list on the clipboard of our orientation officer but you get the sense of it. It was clear that any violation would spell the end of the program. Since that first immersion into that concrete world of America’s correctional system, I have learned a lot. I have received far more than I've given, inspired by the indefatigable spirits and compassionate hearts of these remarkable and heroic women. We now have a “faculty” of a half dozen teachers who staff the classes. We enjoy great fun carpooling to the prison and teaching together…kind of a rolling party that includes the women once we get there. We enjoy plenty of laughter and shed a good measure of tears as we listen, talk with and sit with the women. Everyone who participates in teaching comments, “I always feel better by the end of the group.” No matter what has befallen our meditation instructors that day, teaching at the prison brightens their mood. The women shower the instructors with palpable honest appreciation and affection. Virtually every woman has a severe trauma history. Therefore, we've discovered that small groups work best. The smaller groups allow for more personal attention and opportunities for relational activities. Each session generally begins with checking-in, a time where everyone can express what is up for them and the others listen and respond in support. We offer the women many dyadic exercises that promote mindfulness, joy and healthy supportive relationships. Trust and a sense of safety grows over time. Blue Ridge Prison Project teachers learn some basic trauma theory so they better understand the women. The teachers often offer creative adaptations to traditional meditation practices that mitigate against the likelihood of triggering the intrusive symptoms associated with PTSD. One popular adaption includes having prisoners stand and sway in a soothing motion as they pay attention to shifting their weight from side to side. This swaying meditation works well for prisoners who “can’t sit still because all the feelings get too big.” Nowadays we run two groups, an “old-timers group” for inmates who graduated from the basic mindfulness program and want to continue indefinitely and a beginners’ group. Each has about 12-15 attendees. We have come to believe that groups over 15 are too large. The sessions run for two hours and generally include a mindful movement period often led by the women, each offering their favorite stretch or exercise to the group. We also have an active pen-pal program with the “pals” of the inmates coming mostly from our local sangha of practitioners. Some wonderful relationships between sangha members and the women have formed. Over 200 women’s names sit on the waiting list to enter the program. As staff, time and space allow, we plan to add more groups. In the long run, we hope to offer day long retreats and establish a meditators’ residential wing where like minded practitioners can support one another. There are many heartwarming stories to share. Many personal transformations take place before our eyes. One woman, having served 15 years of a life sentence for killing her violently abusive husband has been coming to group since the inception of the program. She literally has dissolved her anger, broadened her perspective to include a deep understanding of the nature of suffering, impermanence, and the selfless nature of it all. Her heart automatically and ceaselessly responds to the suffering of others. She lives the dharma. With her big kind heart and jovial perspective, she is a total joy to be around. Another young woman, unable to control her reactions, which resulted in being repeatedly put in segregation, aka “the hole”, learned she had choices. Through developing some rudimentary mindfulness, she could pause and then choose what she would say or do. Her comportment so improved she was transferred to a minimum security facility. We watched another woman serving a long term for a drug related murder transform from a threatening, steely eyed persona with a history of bad behavior at the facility to an energetic yet soft, warm, compassionate being. Her change was seen by the prison administration and she too was transferred to a less secure facility and now has a realistic hope for parole. Each week the women recount ways their practice has helped them cope with their harsh reality, from being better able to manage difficult and disturbed cellmates, or skillfully negotiating their way around abusive correction officers to finding ways to relax and keep their sense of humor and dignity through the loud, chaotic, demeaning and arbitrary ways of prison life. Leaving the prison each Wednesday night is bittersweet. Energized and feeling bathed in love and appreciation, I look back at the stark buildings, harsh lights, barbed wire and fences and wonder how have we done this? How have we locked all these women in cages? What craziness is this? My direct experience over these 7 years tells me that the vast majority of these people only need a skilled therapist, a good friend or two and a job... and they'd be fine.

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