Buddha Behind Bars

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

"This may seem like a small deal, but those things can blow up and reverberate. You can brush up against a guy and he'll hold a grudge for the rest of the day. And since you're stuck here, it can make your life miserable."

Morreale gets up from his plastic chair and walks over to the soda machine in the corner of the room. He calls over to Ninemire and asks him if he wants a soda. Ninemire looks over at Cruz. She shakes her head no. Ninemire tells Morreale he's okay.

Fodder for the path.
"When we come in here, we get two pairs of everything," says Ninemire. "Socks, shoes, pants. But people still manage to get hold of personal things. So when the guards do their shakedowns every once in a while looking for weapons, the guys get back to their cells and see that what few belongings they own have been pillaged. Sometimes their Walkmans or their shoes with gang colors will get confiscated. The few things that guys become attached to are gone.

"One guy came up to me after a shakedown and told me that they finally took the last thing that he cared about. Then he laughed and told me that the funny part about it was that the loss made him feel free. In his mind, his freedom relied upon this little thing. It's incidents like that which make us realize that our only captor is our mind. They can take our body but not our soul. Buddhism brought me around to releasing my attachments, and that's essential in prison. It took me forty years to realize that we can be as much captive outside as we can in here."

The two men lounge in the plastic chairs and keep up a lively discussion. Don compares Ninemire's experience to the story of the Zen master who said that if he could be reborn, he'd like to be reborn in hell. Ninemire replies that prison would be a suitable substitute. They seem like a couple of guys in a bus station waiting for their Greyhound to pull in. A guard comes into the room, and Ninemire checks his watch. Time to go back to his cell. But he has a last comment before his friend leaves.

"You know," he says, "there are a lot of guys in here who fight every minute of their time. They're either living in the future or the past in here. They'll spend all their time talking about crimes they pulled or women they're going to have when they get out. It's just like guys on the outside who live for the weekend.

"I'm just trying to live a full life, even if it's in prison. I'm not saying 'Come to prison and be happy,' but prison can be like coming home in some cases. The last seven years I've been in here have been, without a doubt, better than the previous seven I had on the outside."

Dane, a 33-year-old former bank robber, is now out of prison and working in computer-aided drafting and design (a skill he says he picked up in the joint). But he had the kind of experience that would test the patience of any person: Dane claims to hold the record for shortest time on the outside.

After his release last May from a seven-year stint, Dane got mixed up and went to the wrong halfway house. While he was going through orientation there, he got picked up by two U.S. marshals.

"I ate breakfast in the joint and I was back by lunch," says Dane. In his Nike hat and sports shirt, he looks remarkably like the apple-cheeked University of Colorado football coach Rick Neuheisel instead of a career criminal. "It was my fault, and the marshals understood it was a mixup and that it sucked, but it was out of their hands. Before I started meditating, something like this would have caused me to just lose it. I would have grabbed on to the rage and turmoil I felt and held on to it. But instead I just flowed with it for the next three months until I got out again.

"I'm not saying I wasn't upset, but I realized it was an impermanent thing. And that impermanence is the biggest thing that meditation stresses. Before, prison was like hell to me, but after I got into meditation, it became like a monastery. It was a slow transformation for me. I was a brawler, an angry young man. Anything would work me up into a lather. But when they brought me back from the halfway house, I accepted what had happened and didn't let it ruin all that I'd worked for."

Morreale was in the prison the day Dane was sent back after his aborted shot at freedom. "He was so cool," Morreale recalls proudly. "After seven years, he gets out and has to come right back. And he deals with it. This is not to say Dane didn't feel it, but he didn't let it get the best of him. I was really impressed."

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