Buddha Behind Bars

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

"I don't want to diminish the ridiculousness of the sentence handed down to me by the U.S. government. I can't justify their action. But I can accept it, and I've realized that this is an opportunity to get to know myself and understand how I got off on the wrong path. I was trying to make a million dollars a year growing pot, but I never had any idea who I was.

"When I received my sentence, I had to accept the fact that I was going to spend a good part of my life in prison. From a survival standpoint, I knew I had to find a way to turn this negative into a positive. And in order to do that, I had to accept my situation and be accountable for it. Buddhism has been a big part of that."

Ninemire has been practicing Buddhist meditation now for two and a half years. He's one of a small group of cons in Englewood and throughout the U.S. prison system who are using Buddhist practices of brief discussions and long meditations (as they sit on crimson cushions in the lotus position) as a way to cope with their incarceration. With the help of volunteers who come to the prison every Wednesday night to lead a one-hour meditation group, Ninemire and other inmates say they have come to accept their lives--in and out of prison.

Ninemire stands out from the general population in FCI Englewood, which is just off Kipling Street, a mile or so from some public softball fields. Like Tim Robbins's character in The Shawshank Redemption, Ninemire strolls the grounds of the prison like he's walking through a park. The self-proclaimed busiest man in prison talks excitedly about inmate programs he's involved in. But mostly, he talks about Buddhism.

"When I got transferred to Englewood from Leavenworth," Ninemire recalls, "I did everything I could to keep a positive attitude. I figured there's a reason for everything, so I accepted my situation and took accountability for what I did. It was a slow transformation. Then I met Don, my first and original teacher. He's brought a lot to my life."

Don Morreale is one of the Wednesday-night volunteers who help run the meditation group inside the prison. A bowling ball of a man with a thick gray mustache, he has been trundling through the prison in his brightly colored polo shirts with upturned collars since 1992. Morreale, who lives in Denver and makes his living as a landlord, has just compiled and edited a guide to retreat centers called Buddhist America, which, in true Buddhist fashion, he refuses to hype even when questioned about it. The book includes a forward by the Dalai Lama.

The inmates get an hour or two with volunteers like Morreale every week. Some weeks there are more volunteers than inmates meditating and discussing spirituality in the small, brick-walled room set aside for them. (Aside from a small altar, two supply closets, marked "Buddhist" and "Islam," are the room's only adornments.)

"When I walk out of there," says Morreale as he sits in the prison's visiting room with Ninemire and Cruz after a Wednesday-night session, "there's a tremendous sense of relief on one hand, because I realize it could very easily be me in there--there are so many laws to break these days. But I also feel a spiritual connection with these guys. These are my buddies. Even on days when I don't feel like coming in here, I leave with a sense of spiritual fulfillment."

Morreale helped Ninemire learn the basics of what they refer to as "the practice." They talked about how suffering is a core of Buddhism and about how not to add to it by latching on to negative thoughts or dwelling on material possessions. But the most important thing Ninemire says Morreale helped him understand is how to control his ego.

"I run into situations every day where I could get into a physical altercation with another inmate," says Ninemire. "Diplomacy becomes very important in here, and in order to avoid confrontation, you've got to put your ego aside. We had an outdoor event a couple weeks ago where we had food and a softball tournament. But we had a problem with people cutting ahead in the food line and getting more than their share. I was concerned that there wasn't going to be anything left for some of the guys at the end of the line, so I went up to the servers and asked them to be mindful of the fact that we had a lot of people to feed. But this other guy steps up and gets in my face. He's like, 'Fuck you, Pete. You a cop or something?'"

Pete's voice rises in the empty room, and Cruz, who's keeping an eye on Ninemire and Morreale, looks up from her paperwork. Ninemire smiles at her.

"Now, in the past," Ninemire continues, his lanky frame sprawled across a couple of chairs and one of his hands constantly flicking his long bangs out of his eyes, "this could've come to blows. But I stayed calm so the situation wouldn't escalate. I let him cool off, and a couple days later I apologized to him for messing with a man's food--something you do not do in here. And the guy apologized in turn. It worked out. It was what we call 'fodder for the path.'

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