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From Murder to Meditation

By Parthiv N. Parekh Email By Parthiv N. Parekh
September 2011
From Murder to Meditation

Many of the inmates in one of Alabama’s toughest prisons are in for heinous crimes such as murder. Thanks to a revolutionary rehabilitation program, highlighted by a rigorous 10-day meditation retreat based on the teachings of the Buddha, these distressed souls are finding a way out—while never leaving the walls that imprison them. 

Global warming, terrorist threats, unending wars, a depression-inducing recession, nerve-wracking unemployment, debilitating political infighting ... the list of things gnawing at our collective consciousness is unparalleled in recent history. At times like this, despair is bound to overwhelm society.


I, too, would have been a card-carrying cynic and a pessimist—if not for the fact that early in my life I was witness to a historic and miraculous transformation that infused in me a measure of optimism anchored in reality. The metamorphosis of the city of Surat, India, my hometown for six years in the early eighties—from a notoriously filthy city to one that stands today as a role model of cleanliness, progress, enterprise and civic pride—has been a revealing example of what is possible even when all indications are to the contrary.

Prior to a plague in 1994 that killed more than 50 people and spread terror across the city, Surat was perhaps the dirtiest city in India. The story of how S. R. Rao, a gritty and visionary municipal commissioner, used the fear and disgust caused by the plague to challenge a decaying bureaucracy and the people’s hopeless mindset to reinvent the physical and mental landscape of the city inspired a documentary film called Blessed by the Plague.

The Dhamma Brothers is a documentary celebrating a similarly unbelievable transformation, if not of an entire city, of the dead-end lives of numerous hardened criminals—murderers, even—into relatively enlightened beings who have found peace, hope, wisdom, self-awareness, compassion, and even a degree of internal liberation despite the fact that they will most likely never leave their jail cells.

The W. E. Donaldson Correctional Facility in rural Alabama is one of the state’s most notorious prisons. Named after an officer who was killed by an inmate, Donaldson is an end-of-the-line facility that is home to the most hardcore of Alabama’s convicts. Many of its inmates are on death row, and most of the others are “lifers”—those with virtually no chance of ever being released. Fights, stabbings, killings, suicides, and severe mental illness characterize the general environment of this prison. No wonder the inmates refer to Donaldson as the “House of Pain.”

Imagine my shock therefore, when in the course of watching the film The Dhamma Brothers, and reading the book Letters from the Dhamma Brothers, both of which are about the miraculous transformation of the inmates of Donaldson, I was gradually allowed a peek into the hearts and minds of these so-called hardcore criminals—to find them remarkably reformed and profound in their insights about life.

Here were some of the most disadvantaged men, most from broken families, most from rural Alabama, who were living the truth revealed by the Buddha himself. These country boys from the South were even using the language of the Buddha—using terms like dhamma, metta, anapana, Vipassana, and many more.

How did this feat come about? How were these tormented souls and raging bulls transformed into wise beings who had made genuine peace with their fate as lifelong prisoners? How did the program that made it possible come to Donaldson despite the odds?

To be sure, Donaldson, like other prison systems, had grappled with various types of rehabilitative programs. Dr. Ron Cavanaugh, Director of Treatment at the Alabama Department of Corrections, had experimented with programs such as faith dorms, honor dorms, GED programs, substance abuse programs, and others addressing mental health, stress management, and anger management. But none of these, said Dr. Cavanaugh, showed any long-term promise of making a lasting impact on the highly challenged prison population. “What we were looking for is a program that was sustainable—to settle the institution down, to settle the inmates down, to have better interactions between the inmates and the staff. …We were looking for something that had the power to change your lifestyle, your way of thinking, the way you conduct yourself, your values, so you have more of a foundation to be rehabilitated or socialized.”

Thankfully for Dr. Cavanaugh, it was Dr. Kiran Bedi, India’s famous Inspector General of Prisons, who had faced similar predicaments for an even more notorious prison—the infamous Tihar Jail of Delhi—and had experimented in the early 1990s with a bold, visionary program involving a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat for a thousand of its inmates. The grit and novelty of such a solution, the grueling preparation for the first Vipassana program at Tihar, and the dramatic, transformative experiences of its participants were beautifully captured in an acclaimed documentary, Doing Time, Doing Vipassana. A copy of this film, sent to Dr. Cavanaugh by Jenny Phillips, the director and producer of Dhamma Brothers and author of Letters from the Dhamma Brothers, spiked his interest in the Vipassana program.

But introducing such an intensive program that called for a significant disruption of the prison setting was not going to be easy. The biggest challenge was finding a dedicated space within the prison that would house the participants in isolation from the rest of the prison—for 10 days and nights. Then there were requirements such as vegetarian meals and training in Vipassana for the guards and personnel who would oversee the program. The Eastern spiritual roots of the course meant there might be resistance to it in a prison in the radical Bible belt of the South.

None of this deterred Phillips, a psychotherapist who was teaching meditation to prisoners in Massachusetts as a part of a program called “Houses of Healing.” In 1999, when she heard of the several inmates at Donaldson who were regularly practicing the meditation that they learnt from this program, and reporting positive results, she decided to interview them – which, incidentally, also went on to form the basis of the book and the film surrounding their experience with Vipassana later.

Once Phillips saw that Donaldson was ripe for duplicating a Tihar-style Vipassana program, she worked towards that end relentlessly. Encouraged by Dr. Cavanaugh’s receptivity, Phillips facilitated several meetings between the Donaldson personnel and the people from the Vipassana Prison Trust in Massachusetts. The efforts, spearheaded by Phillips, Dr. Cavanaugh, and Jonathon Crowley of the Vipassana trust, culminated in a 10-day program in Shelburne, Massachusetts, which was taken by Phillips, Cavanaugh, and several personnel from Donaldson and the Alabama prison system.

After personally experiencing what the program was all about, Cavanaugh confirmed that the values Vipassana offered were exactly those that they were trying to instill in their inmates. He had to ensure, he said, that this was not a “dog and pony show where everybody had a great time and felt good, but nothing changed.” What they discovered was that while most other programs were informational and educational, Vipassana stood out as one that had transformational potential.

And did it! Meet Grady Bankhead. One day, when he was just five years old, his mother drove him and his three-year-old brother Danny out into the countryside, and left them on the porch of an old, abandoned house at the end of a long driveway. They were instructed to stay on the porch, and Grady was to take care of Danny until their mother came back to get them. After standing there all night, Grady climbed down and found an old hubcap filled with water. He also found a dead bird. These were the rations that kept the boys alive a few days. Their mother never returned, and they were not found for several days. Danny, who had always been frail, died in the ordeal, and Grady was filled with guilt about his death.

With such deep wounds on his formative psyche, it is hardly a surprise that Grady Bankhead wound up at Donaldson. He was serving a life sentence without parole for his involvement in a murder. Tormented by guilt and a tremendous anger and restlessness about his incarceration, Bankhead indicated he would have preferred the electric chair.

A cynic’s cynic, he scoffed when he first heard about Vipassana at Donaldson, “I have been through every course imaginable. I know it all. A meditation course? Come on!”

Now, after taking the course and making meditation part of his daily routine, Bankhead’s response to yet another tragedy in his life—the murder of his 29-year-old daughter—is more characteristic of a saint than an angry man locked up for life. Of course he was distraught at the news, and had his momentary reactionary feelings towards the murderer. But what surprised him was how soon he was able to transcend these feelings and acknowledge that the murderer was just a human being like himself. “I know how it feels on both sides now,” he observes. Such equanimity is a far cry from the anger that once ruled him. “This is not the Grady Bankhead I have known for over 50 years of my life,” he says about his transformation. “I have only one thing on my agenda. When I see my God when I die, whatever I have gotten in my bag, I want to be excited and happy about it! I don’t want to be ashamed of it. And Vipassana is the only way I know to accomplish that.”

Dozens of such scarcely believable changes have been documented by Jenny Phillips both in the film and the book. Inmate after inmate gives touching personal accounts of how they have been altered by the program, the daily meditation practice, and the simple, secular insights.

“The day that I let go my past and allowed the practice of Dhamma to take its course was the day I found peace from within. After learning how to develop awareness and equanimity towards sensations, I can actually see a much brighter future,” writes Edward Johnson, who prior to Vipassana’s coming to Donaldson, was notorious as a troublemaker feared by fellow prisoners.

Indeed the stories of these prisoners touched by Vipassana are so dramatic that it is bound to make one incredulous. Listening to them talk like spiritual masters, I ask Dr. Cavanaugh if they are indeed transformed to such wise men as they sound to be, or were they faking it? “Not when you are on life without parole. There are no ulterior motives [of an early release, for example] when Donaldson is your final home.”

I also reflect back on the boy-scout looks of many inmates shown in the film. Seeing them and listening to them defies the notorious image of Donaldson as one of the toughest prisons in Alabama. So I ask Dr. Cavanaugh if perhaps only those of the inmates who already have a bent for self-growth and goodness are taking the Vipassana programs while maybe the worst of them are not. “That’s possible. The course is based on volunteering. We don’t force anyone to sit through it.” But he soon adds, “Interestingly, the people that are coming to take this course, 10 years ago, I’d never have thought would volunteer for the program. These are the people that were spending their time in segregation, killing other people while in prison, and now they’re sitting on this pillow saying it’s time to settle down.”

Take Johnny Mack Young, for example. This Evander Holyfield lookalike with a disarming smile was, according to Dr. Cavanaugh, a “chronic behavior management problem, spending most of his time in segregation.” When he was 11-year-old, Johnny got into a fight with his brother and accidentally knocked over a gas heater. The house burned down, killing Johnny’s younger sister. In fear, Johnny ran away from home, starting a rough life on the streets. At age 15 he found himself in prison for a spate of robberies. There he got into many fights. “I turned into a hardcore man-child in a violent world where any sign of weakness and you will become a victim.” In 1985 Johnny was convicted of murder and sent back to prison for life without parole. Since then, he has stabbed other inmates, and has been stabbed by others several times.

Now in his late fifties, Johnny has stopped fighting, and has taken every program available, so when Vipassana was offered, he took it with the same sense of enthusiasm. Speaking of what it has meant to him, he says, “There is a strong possibility I will never get out of here. I was always seeking to escape. My life was in constant turmoil. But when I took the Vipassana course, it changed my thinking. I can now say that I am okay with my situation spiritually and mentally. I credit that a lot to what I learned in the Vipassana course. This is like freedom. It’s like setting me free.”

Together, these Dhamma brothers, as they call themselves, not only talk but also live the ideals of impermanence (the liberating realization that life is full of ceaseless change), equanimity, love and forgiveness. As amazing as the individual transformations are, what makes the Vipassana solution an exciting one for Dr. Cavanaugh is its impact on the prison system as a whole. Nearly 500 inmates at Donaldson —almost 30 percent of the total prison population—have taken the program. While there is a substantial reduction in disciplinary action against these inmates who have done Vipassana, the benefits don’t end there. “This program spills over to the rest of the prison population to have a calming effect on them also. There is less tension, less friction. People are more cooperative,” says Dr. Cavanaugh of the overall mood and environment at Donaldson now.

Gary Hetzel, who is currently the warden at Donaldson, doesn’t fully understand how the program can transform violent inmates into calm men using contemplative practices. But Hetzel knows one thing. “It works. We see a difference in the men and in the prison. It’s calmer.”

The noticeable changes are evident to everyone within the prison, including the officers charged with keeping the inmates in line. One of them, Sergeant Joel Gilbert, is quoted in the book as saying, “To be honest, when I first heard of the program, I was skeptical of it myself. I thought, well, we are going to waste some time here. Some of the inmates are going to use this program as a way to get away from the block and to do their own thing. After experiencing the first group coming through and noticing how faithful the guys are to come to meditation each morning, evidently something is working somewhere. They are more relaxed, they are easier to get along with, and they don’t cause any problems.”

So what is this mysterious program, and how does it transform even these men of Donaldson simply through meditation?

Most people think of meditation simply as sitting and concentrating. But the kind of meditation Vipassana calls for is deep and sustained. The word Vipassana means “to see things as they really are.” To achieve this—to see things as they really are—the intense10-day program is designed as an isolated retreat where participants have absolutely no contact with the outside world for the entire duration of the program. For the Donaldson inmates, this means a prison within a prison, as the gym is converted into a meditation hall where the program is conducted. Any type of sensory stimuli or media—books, music, TV, internet, etc.—is out of the question. They not only eat, sleep and stay in, but also have a set of rules to obey including “noble silence”—no talking for the entire 10 days.

At 10 hours a day, the participants meditate for a marathon 100 hours during the program. The first three days, they learn to focus intently on their breath as it comes in and out over their upper lip. Called anapana in the Pali language of the Buddha’s time, this practice requires them to gently reorient their attention on their breath every time they catch their thoughts wandering. This is done time and again through the first three days so that by the fourth day, the mind settles to a laser-sharp focus—ready to begin the process of Vipassana, where the participant is led to focus attention through each region of the body in a particular way as prescribed in this 2500-year-old technique.

As rigorous as the program is, one wonders what exactly happens within the participants in those 10 days that so profoundly change most of them for the better. When I ask Dr. Philippe Goldin of Stanford University, a leading researcher of mindfulness meditation, he explains, “People are beginning to modify their relationships with themselves. The way that they view themselves and relate to themselves is shifting—from unhealthy, angry, self-deprecating to more accepting, more forgiving—and the shift in the relationship with the self is fundamental to everything else: depression, stress, how you relate to yourself.”

Jenny Phillips, in her detailed explanation in the book, writes, “Vipassana is the process of observing sensations and hence all mental contents (thoughts, emotions, etc.) without reacting. A fundamental tenet of the Buddha’s teachings is that bare attention or equanimous observation of what is actually happening within the mind/body each moment, is, in and of itself, transformative and healing.”

While the full scope of how Vipassana works may not lend well to an objective explanation, many feel it demolishes the mind structures that house any and all suffering, leaving one with a distilled and empowered clarity that helps one maintain peace and joy regardless of the circumstances—even if they involve a lifetime of imprisonment.

S.N. Goenka, the man who revived Vipassana from dormancy to its widespread following in our times, elaborates: “A bigger prison is the prison of one’s behavior patterns. Deep inside, everyone is a prisoner of his unwholesome behavior patterns at the depth of his mind. Without knowing what one is doing, one continues to generate some negativity or other: anger, hatred, aversion. By this technique (Vipassan) one starts realizing: ‘What am I doing? Every time I generate negativity, I am the first victim; I become so miserable….’ Yet out of ignorance you make yourself miserable. Now you realize, ‘I have a wonderful technique to come out of this misery.’”

But getting there is no picnic.

When such intense meditation is practiced by inmates with a criminal and often violent past, there are bound to be dams of emotions that are going to burst. The “dark storms” as the inmates have come to refer to them are all too familiar to them. Coming face-to-face with a lifetime of buried guilt, anxiety, anger, hatred, and remorse can’t be easy.

“It was horrible!” says Grady Bank- head. “I spent eight-and-a-half years on death row, and this was harder. It was hard to keep composure and stay on the mat. I wanted to jump and run away…. I had always justified some of my behavior during that crime, but on day five [of the course], I just couldn’t get away from myself. I had to actually see it. Things don’t just happen. Your behavior causes them.”

In the tough prison environment where any sign of weakness, let alone a breakdown into crying, is as foreign as can be, in the Vipassana program it became quite common. Benjamin “OB” Oryang was convicted of murder in a case of random shooting soon after his immigration to the U.S. from Uganda, when he was going through what he refers to as his “stupid kid” phase. His case received a lot of publicity in Alabama. “The media,” OB said, “portrayed me as a ruthless, mindless animal from Africa.” With several mental scars from the violence from his childhood days in Uganda and from spending most of his adult life in prison, OB felt miserable and lonely, but had never shown it. “I have never cried in prison,” he says. “But with Vipassana I didn’t try to escape from my emotions. I was shaking and crying. …But I wasn’t embarrassed. And that seems so funny now because ordinarily I would be so embarrassed.”

Massive breakthroughs and life-altering revelations seemed the norm for many of the Dhamma brothers. From former criminals, these folks are turning into students of life. They are perfecting their religious beliefs, whether as Muslims or Christians. They are reading lofty books and scriptures such as the Dhammapada, The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering, Everyday is Sacred, The Moon Appears When the Water is Still, The Seat of the Soul, A Manual of an Excellent Man, and many such titles dealing with the self and its transformation. Above all they are becoming unbridled proponents of the power of Vipassana.

In their letters to Jenny Phillips and to the teachers of the Vipassana programs, these Dhamma brothers leave no doubt about Vipassana’s enduring impact on their well-being. Here are some excerpts from the book:

“Vipassana meditation is a practice I’m using while residing in this contaminated womb. The practice has become one of my most productive tools against a stillborn delivery becoming my fate.”
—Torrence Barton

“On the third day I began to feel calm. And then and there, for the first time in my life, I was really ready—ready to deal with Edward Johnson. A lot of guys was afraid to deal with ‘Big Ed’. And now I was ready to take him on, right on that meditation mat. … You can take all the rest of the prison courses and roll them into one, and they don’t equal Vipassana.”
—Edward Johnson

“I am more caring. I am kinder. I am more gentle with myself and others. I forgive much easier now. I am happier, Jenny. I have perceptional skills I heretofore didn’t have, especially of what was happening within me. … I believe there is a psycho-emotional state underlying the African-American experience that manifests a ‘something is wrong with me’ condition. The Dhamma can be a source of healing for this condition.”
—Omar Rahman

“I can observe circumstances, situations, and events more fully, thereby allowing me to maneuver through life in a more peaceful way. That’s because I am learning the inner me, and what stimuli is most potent in making me respond.”
—Charles Ice

“Before entering the course, I could barely put up with anybody else’s attitude different from mine…. If words couldn’t find peace, I’d force fights. Vipassana has provided me with the tool to endure a whole lot and then some.” “I truly value that experience more than any that I have experienced before.”
—Willie Carroll, Jr.

“Experience has shown us here that this is not just a ‘self-help theory’ read in a book. This is the sweet fruit of actual practice. … I guess once the blind see, there is no going back.”
—John W. Johnson

“My meditation has become deeper, my understanding more thorough and my acceptance far greater. The balance I have achieved is unbelievable. I am no longer overwhelmed by daily situations. I rather observe without reacting, acknowledge it for what it is and let it pass away. Equanimity! … I must say that Vipassana had the most profound effect I have ever witnessed on a group of inmates.”
—James George

“…never have I witnessed a ‘Detoxification Process’ so powerful, so real, as what I have experienced with these Vipassana courses.”
—John W. Johnson.

[Credits: Several unattributed quotes and citations of the inmates are from the film, The Dhamma Brothers and the book, The Letters from the Dhamma Brothers.]



The genesis and chronology of the Vipassana program at Donaldson:


• Meditation as a means to rehabilitation was first introduced at the Donaldson Correctional Facility in 1995 by a groundbreaking book, Houses of Healing: A Prisoner’s Guide to Inner Power and Freedom, by Ms. Robin Casarjian, director of the Lionheart Foundation. After reading this book, R. Troy Bridges, an inmate who was serving life without parole, started practicing its prescribed activities and formed a study group based on the book.

• In 1996, Bridges wrote to Casarjian about the benefits he and others derived from the book. The Lionheart Foundation began to provide guidance and assistance to the inmates by sending them books, training manuals and videotapes, forming a “Houses of Healing” course and support group. During the next six years, over 300 inmates at Donaldson participated in it. From this pool of inmates emerged a growing readiness to cultivate inner healing and wisdom through the practice of meditation.

• In 1999, Jenny Phillips, a psychotherapist who was already teaching meditation to prisoners in Massachusetts, heard of the large group of inmates at Donaldson who were participating in the Houses of Healing program and meditating regularly. Her interest led her to interview several of these inmates.

• After that visit, Phillips sent two films to the prison psychologist, Dr. Ron Cavanaugh: Doing Time, Doing Vipassana and Changing from Inside.

• Encouraged by Dr. Cavanaugh’s receptivity, in January 2000, Phillips contacted the Vipassana Meditation Center in Shelburne, Massachusetts, to explore the possibility of developing a Vipassana program at Donaldson.

• In January 2002, Donaldson became the first state prison in North America to hold a rigorous 10-day Vipassana course.

• Later in the same year, to the huge disappointment of the Dhamma Brothers—those who had already taken the 10-day Vipassana program—the program was terminated without any explanation. It is believed that the Buddhist origins of the program threatened the Christian values of the region.

• In 2006, thanks to the sustained interest and practice of Vipassana meditation by a huge number of the inmates as well as some of the corrections officers who had taken the course, the program was reintroduced to Donaldson. Currently one three-day program and two 10-day programs are offered each year.

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