Between the Breaths

Kate Crisp

Prison meditation illustration

Illustration by Yuko Shimizu

Everything in this prison is a variation of khaki colorlessness: the concrete walls, the vinyl floors, the metal desks, the hard plastic chairs, and even the pajama-like outfits of all the guys in the room. We’ve been running a mindfulness class at the men’s prison in Rhode Island for years. On this day, I’m attending the graduation of the advanced class for the men who have been participating for three or more years. Most of these men committed serious crimes and have been in prison for decades, with many more years ahead inside. Many have been in prison since they were teens, and the majority are men of color.

As we form the 1970s-style schoolroom chairs into a circle, I notice the men are all smiling and laughing; they all seem to be at ease. We start off each class with a minute or two of silent meditation. One of our facilitators has brought a tiny meditation bell to signal the start and the end of the session. Our tiny bell rings. The “ding” is hardly noticeable to me, though, as the noise level just outside the classroom is insanely loud.

On one side of a very thin partition wall is a group of guards and other prisoners who are yelling quite loudly—I hear one man say: “I’ll kill that guy if he sets foot in here!”—and then tons of raucous laughter erupts. The rest of their boisterous conversation appears to be scripted from a torrid soap opera. I can clearly hear every word. Behind the opposite wall is a weekly Muslim service and they are playing a very loud film with a man preaching quite enthusiastically. I can hear every word of this, too. On top of all this, the loudspeaker in the hall is blaring something about commissary hours.

In contrast, the men in our room are all sitting still, silently meditating. Despite the cacophony of sounds assaulting us, as I scan the room I see nothing but “Buddha-like” figures. They all look quite regal, sitting here with relaxed yet upright postures. The way they are embodying meditation reminds me of my own Buddhist teacher’s suggestion for meditation posture: “Strong back, soft front.” At the end of the session, we begin a discussion.

As I listen to them talk about how much the class has meant to them and how it has changed their lives, I remember seeing a few of these men years ago, when they first started this class. The difference in their attitudes and expressions is quite striking. At first, some of the guys in the class were openly hostile. Some would just sit and glare with intense frowns on their faces; others would come to the class to lie on the desks and sleep; some would chit-chat with their buddies the whole time; and a few would yell out things like, “You crazy!”

We create “Operating Agreements” with the men at the beginning of each class series. They decide what they want to include on the list of agreements, and we have them all sign the sheet. Respect is in short supply in prison, so a lot of the agreements center on respect. In the world of “corrections,” that’s what they get all day long—correction of behaviors. Therefore, our approach to resistance has not been to “correct” them. Instead, as meditation facilitators we aim for acceptance. Whatever they bring to the class is OK as long as they agree to be respectful, in the same way that whatever appears in your mind during meditation is OK. In meditation, the practice is simply remembering to return to the breath. Likewise, the practice in the room is reestablishing respect. We invite participation and encourage it, and we also accept if folks don’t want to engage—that’s OK, too. Sometimes I think that if all we do in a class is show that we aren’t going to reject someone for their so-called bad behavior—that we are willing to hang in there with them and to still see their Buddha-nature or basic goodness—this in itself speaks volumes.

At the end of the class, I ask them to go around and let us know what they are taking away from the class. One of the men waves his hand toward the wall where much of the noise is coming from and says, “I dunno if this even makes sense, but since coming to this class, my life is between the breaths, not out there in that drama business of doom and gloom.”

Everyone in the room affirms that this makes perfect sense. Another man chimes in: “When I first came to this class, I had a problem taking it seriously. But toward the middle of the first class I started learning something and I said to myself ‘Hold up! Wait! I could learn something here!’ Then I learned about meditation, accountability, drama and started really taking the class seriously, and I dug in deep to my issues and started learning more. I love this class now!”

Our approach to Buddhist prison ministry is to train prisoners in the “soft skills,” to allow their own wisdom to flourish while increasing their capacities for resilience in the oftentimes harsh world of prisons, and after release.

I commend the men on how they could simply sit, seemingly without any reaction to all the chaotic noise swirling around outside the room. One older man explains: “After learning the ‘Listening Meditation’ you taught us, the noise in prisons is now like a symphony to me—all of it is just like rapping to my own breath. I don’t play against it now, I play with it.” He continues to talk about his meditation practice and how it has impacted his prison life: “In here, acceptance is the key. Nobody’s gonna hear your true melody if you are just talking about a theory and not doing the practice. Me—I practice.”

The last speaker in the circle has been in prison most of his adult life. He did some bad stuff as a teen and now is pushing forty. He is soon to be released. In this class, he talks about how he came to know that meditation was “real” and that it worked. “When I was first here as a kid I was totally anxious and claustrophobic. At night in my cell I was terrified. When I finally would fall asleep, the heating vent would always start to blast and wake me up. I thought I would go insane from the claustrophobia of it all. Then I remembered what someone said about simply connecting with the breath. So I tried it. And it worked! I’m sold. This stuff has totally changed my life and my way of thinking.”

I then ask the men what advice they could provide for the kids in juvenile detention where I lead a weekly class. One guy says, “There is always mentoring going on in these places and most of it is just bad mentoring,” meaning the younger guys are learning from the older ones how to be stuck effectively in the loop of prison and crimes. Several chime in that all they want to do is to mentor these kids so that the kids don’t go down the route they have. A few come up to me after class to ask if they might help with this after they are released.

In theoretical talk about the rehabilitation of inmates, there is often a comparison made between the need for “hard skills” versus “soft skills.” The bias tends to be toward “hard skills” since these will give an inmate the technical knowledge to get a job and, hopefully, to become a successful citizen. It is true that many prisoners are undereducated and ill-prepared to succeed in the current job market.

But two of the critical components underlying one’s ability to learn are attention stabilization and capacity for emotion regulation. Modern neuroscience has clearly demonstrated that the kind of mindfulness meditation that has been taught in Buddhist traditions for over two thousand years effectively promotes significant gains in both attention stabilization and emotion regulation, and that this will lead to more effective learning and greater results overall in life.

So our approach to Buddhist prison ministry is to train prisoners in the “soft skills,” which will allow their own wisdom to flourish while increasing their capacities for resilience and self-management in the oftentimes harsh world of prisons, and along the sometimes even harder road that must be navigated post-release. Soft skills also include emotional and social intelligence skills for effective communication and problem solving. These so-called soft skills are essential for the self-regulation, resilience, and good judgment that are necessary to live a life free from crime and incarceration.

Roberta Richman, a former Rhode Island prison warden who was a great supporter of our work, says: “People don’t understand the value of what they call the ‘soft stuff,’ and I sometimes think without the soft stuff—no matter how much hard stuff you have learned—you are bound to fail.”

Mindfulness is a soft skill that can create the presence of mind to recognize unhelpful thought patterns and emotional reactions that often lead to unskillful actions, and, most importantly, to shift one’s thinking or manage one’s emotions such that a person can choose a skillful response to whatever circumstances he or she may be facing.

I am often asked about the overall effects Buddhism, or Buddhist practices such as meditation, can offer to prisoners. Is it effective to support “rehabilitation”? The dictionary defines rehabilitation in terms of restoring health, the ability to work, establishing a good reputation, or restoring a person to his former standing. Yet, in all the times I’ve gone into prisons, I’ve never heard a prisoner use the word rehabilitation to describe what he or she wants to do with life. The people I have met want freedom, change, respect, meaningful work, and, most of all, they want to be with their families.

In all of these respects, my answer is, “Yes, it works brilliantly—sometimes.” Other times, the impact is hard to see. Throughout the advanced class—which I would call very inspiring—my mind keeps flashing to the young guys at the juvenile “training school” who generally act the opposite of inspired. Classes with the kids are sometimes really hard: they present with lots of resistance and “out of control” sorts of behaviors. These kids have deep scars, many have been shot, and many of their relatives are in prison or have been killed. Some are lacking in basic language skills. They often mumble. I asked them once why they mumble. One kid said, “Everyone says that to us . . . ” I asked, “Do you think no one really wants to hear what you have to say?” He replied, quite adamantly, “Yeah, no way!” I then said, “I really want to hear what you have to say, I think you all have a lot to say.” One usually tough-looking kid looked at me sheepishly and softly said, “Thank you, Miss.” But most days, it’s really hard to go in there and not leave with a sense of hopelessness.

On the other hand, it’s not all bleak and hopeless. I’m continually surprised at how much humor there is in prisons. There is a lot of laughter and camaraderie. Sometimes we go around the circle for “weather report” check-ins, and everyone smiles and says, “blue skies and sunny.” Sometimes I even say, “Really? Even in here?” And they laugh and say, “Yep!” I often reflect on the three tenets of the Zen Peacemaker Order: not knowing, bearing witness, and loving action. I definitely achieve the “not knowing” every time I go in. I usually have to give up any fixed ideas about plans, assumptions, and agendas in the classroom. Classes are always different, people are always different. It’s all about the navigation of whatever arises.

On this day, it is very heartening to go into the advanced class and see so much passion for the practices, and to see the possibilities for change in the older men. But it’s also heartening to go into juvi and maybe just toss some “seeds” out in the room, or to simply be with the kids and listen, even if we never get to more than one minute of meditation.

Prisoners always say it best themselves: “Practicing mindfulness over all these years has given me coping skills I never had before, as well as giving me a peace and way to look at this world I live in that I never had. My emotions now don’t run out of control. Yes, in moments they do, but now I can ground myself with my breath and just pause before I act. My family even says I’m a hundred times calmer than I was. I feel like a new me and enjoy life much more now.”

Or, as another young man succinctly puts it, “Meditation—it gets my mind right!”

Kate Crisp is the executive director of the Prison Mindfulness Institute (Prison Dharma Network). She has taught Buddhism, meditation, and emotional intelligence skills in prisons and jails for seventeen years. She is the author of Path of Freedom: A Mindfulness-Based Emotional Intelligence Workbook for Prisoners and the publisher/editor of Dharma in Hell: The Prison Writings of Fleet Maull and Sitting Inside: Buddhist Practice in America’s Prisons.

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