Doug, how did you get started
teaching meditation in the prisons?
I understood the teachings of the Buddha to be directed
at the relief of suffering and I saw the prisons as places
where suffering is at its worst, perhaps, and wondered if
meditation would help. I had read books by Bo Lozoff, whose
work in this area for the past 25 or 30 years has been very
helpful to inmates. About four years ago I called up the
assistant warden and program director of the Santa Fe Penitentiary,
south facility, and asked him if he'd like to have a free
meditation program. I called it "stress reduction/meditation"
to make it more palatable to the mostly Christian administration.
He said yes, so I started classes, going in once a week,
and only a few came. Those who did come never returned.
I didn't know what the problem was, and I quit for awhile.
Later I realized that I had been reading from books that
said "Zen" and were based on Eastern religion and thought.
They weren't very accessible to most of the prisoners. Then
Joan Halifax, roshi of the Upaya Zen Center, was starting
up her Upaya Prison Project and wanted a male to go into
the maximum-security facility with her. I started working
with her and then later began teaching weekly classes at
the minimum-security unit.
What is your experience and
training for this kind of work?
I've meditated about 20 minutes a day for the last 12 years,
practicing Vipassana or insight meditation, which is a Buddhist
practice. For about a month every year, I also go on extended,
intensive meditation retreats. As to training, I completed
the Community Dharma Leader Teaching Training Program at
Spirit Rock in California, under the direction of James
Baraz, Jack Kornfield, Sylvia Boorstein and other Spirit
You're working in four different
prisons now. Is your program uniform? Do you do the same
sort of thing in all of them?
They're all a little different, depending on the prisoners'
interests and needs. Because the New Mexico State Penitentiary
is right here in Santa Fe, I go once a week and teach an
hour-long class. It's an eight-week course that ends with
a graduation ceremony and the students receive certificates
of completion. Many have never completed anything in their
lives before so most of them are very proud of that certificate.
The prison in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, is about two hours
away, so we try to get there about once a month and run
a day-long class. I'm not the only teacher now; we've also
got a therapist, a former inmate, a Qi Gong instructor,
a psychiatrist, a medical doctor, and a sensory awareness
instructor, all with strong meditation practices of their
own, and we're trying to get to the outlying prisons more
often. We've had a lot of support from the administration
at Santa Rosa, and from Father Dennis Bryan of the Church
of Antioch, who's the prison chaplain. Father Bryan advocates
the men doing anything on the psycho-spiritual level. He
feels that type of work is integral to healing. We have
done several two-day silent meditation retreats there, a
first in New Mexico prisons. Another prison is in Grants,
New Mexico. It is quite a drive so we go out once a month
and teach day-long sessions of meditation, Qi Gong, and
council process. Also, we just started to work at the women's
facility in New Mexico, which is also in Grants. There's
a meditation pod at the men's prison in Grants now, and
. . .
Excuse me, could you explain
what a "pod" is?
A pod is a prison dormitory, in this case housing 16 men
in single cells, with a common area.
How did the "meditation pod"
There was an inmate I'd met back in my early days who had
a very profound meditation practice and he got shipped to
Grants. He wanted to see something like this happen there.
So he wrote some letters and got in touch with me, and I
started going out to the prison. Then New Mexico's governor,
Gary Johnson, got turned on to meditation and asked how
he could help. I said, "Start a meditation pod."
You say a prisoner has a very
serious practice of his own? People don't expect that kind
of attitude in a prison. We often stereotype prisoners.
Do you find a number of inmates who really have a serious
I haven't had a lot of experience with the gene-ral population,
but there are people who will probably be incarcerated for
many years, if not the rest of their lives, who really want
to transform and understand who they are. Those guys are
really committed. One of them got a mail-away course in
meditation and studied a Hindu practice with a mantra. He
set it up on his own. Then he wanted some support from the
outside and also wanted to use a wing of the prison where
he could do contemplative practice, with only like-minded
people in there, even if they had different practices.
The pod's been going for about five months, and it's doing
very well. The men are enjoying the trust that is building
and the common dedication to spiritual practice. Theft has
stopped and mutual respect is growing. The 16 men living
there were selected by the addiction services manager, mainly
for their abil-ity to get along with others, and for their
sincerity toward their own spiritual paths, not to mention
their willingness to resist preaching to others. The men
themselves decided to have three hours of silence set aside
each day for personal spiritual practice. They also chose
to restrict TV and smoking to their cells so the common
area stays fairly quiet at all times. Two inmates teach
yoga and Qi Gong six nights a week and anybody can come.
I see us teachers as supporting their practices and their
ability to run their own pod. When problems arise, we use
council process to pose questions like, "How do you picture
the ideal pod?" "What can you do, personally, to make it
happen?" "If you broke one of the pod rules, how would you
like the others to handle it?"
There are several lifers in the pod, and two are very ill.
As their sense of community builds in the pod, the healthy
men are beginning to take care of those who are not. As
they become more adept at working out their own problems
and creating the space they truly want for themselves, they're
also developing a remarkable sense of personal empowerment.