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Buddha Behind Bars

For these federal prisoners, their last chants finally gave them inner peace.

In 1995, the famed Tibetan Buddhist monk and scholar Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche visited the Federal Correctional Institute in Englewood. The holy man walked through the main entrance of the medium-security prison onto its linoleum floors, which looked dull even under the harsh fluorescent lighting, and through a rabbit-infested courtyard sprinkled with wildflowers. On Wednesday nights, like the one when Khenpo visited, incense vapors waft out of the prison's chapel. The compound looks like a high school where students can't cut class.

The prison's one-story brick chapel is divided into several small rooms. Khenpo, who regularly teaches at gatherings throughout the U.S. and Europe, was led into one where a dozen or so inmates had set up an altar. Khenpo sat on cushions among the inmates and started discussing meditation with them through an interpreter.

"They were very high-level teachings," says Dane, an inmate who has since been released, "and the volunteers said that people follow Khenpo around for ten years and don't get that kind of teaching. And there we were, a bunch of inmate novices.

"Finally, there was a moment of silence, and Khenpo, who's a very jovial, happy-go-lucky guy, looked around and smiled. Then he got up and walked out into the courtyard, where he stood looking at the sky. I was allowed to go up and ask him a question, which was what was the best advice he could give to me on how to deal with the obstacles I was facing. He just looked at me and laughed. Then, through his translator, he said, 'There are no obstacles.' It blew me away."

The message was that prison was just as good a place to be in as anywhere else. In fact, because of all the suffering that comes with incarceration, prison may be the perfect place to embark on what the Buddhists call the "path to enlightenment."

Other people in Colorado may want to listen in. For prison reformers--or even for those who are convinced that there is no such thing as a rehabilitated convict--the various Buddhist practices of meditation are definitely something to ponder. According to corrections officials, recidivism rates are about 40 percent among Colorado and federal prisoners. But current inmates, ex-cons and volunteers involved in prison Buddhist groups in Colorado and other states assert that the recidivism rate for participants in the Englewood prison's Buddhist group is practically zero. They chalk this up to the way Buddhist meditation techniques force people to examine the roots of their behavior. Not to mention that inmates can readily relate to Jetsun Milarepa, a badass practitioner of black magic in medieval Tibet who killed 35 people before seeing the light of Tibetan Buddhism--thanks in part to solitary confinement--and becoming one of its greatest teachers.

Instead of spending their prison sentences fighting other inmates or the legal system that convicted them, prisoners in the Buddhist meditation groups say they try to change the mindset that got them in trouble in the first place. Rather than pumping iron in the yard, these inmates look inward and work toward accepting their situation and avoiding confrontation. Many of them say prison has stopped being the barrier to what they refer to as "the real world." One inmate says that since he's taken up Buddhist meditation, prison has become like a retreat where he's learning how to better deal with society when he's released.

The effect of Buddhist practices isn't lost on some prison officials.
"I can't speak to the overall impact of how meditation affects recidivism, because we haven't done any formal studies on it yet," says Maureen Cruz, the executive assistant to the warden at FCI Englewood. "But I have interfaced with these inmates, and I've found them to be very calm, thoughtful and responsible. Not only does it add a human element to the institution, but it really focuses on the belief that every human has an inherent ability to change. I can't see anything but a benefit to it."

Such meditation practices, of course, don't mean the end of all bitching. But prison may be the ideal place for Buddhist practices to flourish. Khenpo urged the inmates to realize this.

"I don't know what you're complaining about," Khenpo told them. "I spent nine years in a cave when the communists invaded Tibet. This is the perfect place to practice meditation."

If prison is the right place to practice meditation, then Pete Ninemire is going to be an expert when he gets out, in about twenty years. Another inmate and fellow Buddhist jokes that Ninemire is eventually "going to be so enlightened that he'll float right out of here over the fence."

The 43-year-old Ninemire is serving a 24-and-a-half-year sentence for growing marijuana. Because he had two prior convictions (one for possession and another for cultivation), he was given the mandatory minimum sentence when he got busted the third time.

"Back on the farm in Kansas, they used to call me 'twelve-by-twelve,' because I'd smoke twelve joints by twelve noon." he says. "Looking back, I lived with a lot of anxiety. And anytime I felt anxious, I smoked a joint. Now I meditate.

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