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Buddha Behind Bars

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

"This guy Milarepa killed, like, thirty people," says Dane. "He was a bad man, but he turned it all around and became one of the greatest teachers of all time. He's a model that all convicts should strive for. Being on the outside isn't easy. Sometimes you slip up. It's like walking the razor's edge. My faults didn't vanish with my five years of practice. But now I have a different relationship to them.

"You know, the universe does have a sense of humor. I work in this office building that houses a bank. Here I am, a convicted bank robber, and I've got my own reserved parking space outside a bank."

"A lot of these guys seem too good to be true," says Bill Karelis of the Shambhala Prison Community, one of several volunteer groups that visit the prison on Wednesday nights. "The issue of not being conned, physically or spiritually, is very important. After all, these guys are in prison for a reason."

Karelis has security clearance in thirteen prisons in Colorado, Texas, Illinois and Minnesota. Groups like his Buddhist meditators are advertised among prisoners only by word of mouth. Usually, a newcomer will sit in on a meditation session or he'll write a letter to people like Morreale and Karelis, who in turn will arrange a personal visit with the inmate to teach him the basics of meditation. Karelis says his group has been flooded with so many inmate letters that it's having a hard time keeping up. The number of prisoners who have taken the Buddhist path is difficult to know; the loosely organized programs, of which Shambhala is only one, keep no statistics, and neither do prison officials.

Karelis acknowledges that he always watches for inmates who are trying to pull a fast one on him. But the vast majority of the prisoners who get involved in meditation, like those in the Englewood group, have seemed sincere, he says, in their desire to change their lives.

"I've had cases of people coming into the group and being very obsequious," he says. "But if guys come in and try to run a number, the other guys pick up on it pretty quickly, because it's fairly transparent. It has never turned into a confrontational situation. Mostly the guys just try to laugh the new guy out of his trip. But the bottom line is that the meditation groups attract very thoughtful and sane people.

"Of the twenty or twenty-five inmates who've been involved in meditation groups and have been released, we haven't had one guy get sent back." He doesn't count Dane's halfway-house mixup.

"There haven't been any formal studies on the effect of meditation on recidivism yet because, as far as I know, these meditation groups only started springing up about five years ago," says Karelis, who splits his time between running the Shambhala Center in Boulder and teaching Buddhist psychology at the Naropa Institute. "But it's obvious that something is happening which I can't really explain. I don't want to seem naive, but these are exceptional people, and as far as I can see, they're good people. I see a lot of potential for this, but we're really only at the beginning of a long road."

It's one of many roads offered to inmates. If there's one freedom an inmate does have, it's religion. On Wednesday nights in the FCI Englewood chapel, there are Buddhists meditating, Nation of Islam members reading the Koran, a couple of American Indians watching a video in preparation for a powwow and a group of Hispanics studying the Bible in Spanish.

"Just because you're incarcerated doesn't mean you lose your right to practice religion," says administrator Cruz. "We offer a number of religious and secular programs here, but it's up to the inmates to take advantage of them. You offer tools to people and hope that they take advantage of them. Every inmate walks out the front door eventually, and you just hope that they've picked something up in here, religious or otherwise, to make that transition to outside life successful."

But the Buddhist "conversions" seem to be more of a throwback to some of the original ideas behind prison reform--the slang word "pen" comes from "penitentiary," which comes from "penitence." In some ways, the Buddhist volunteers are similar to Quakers who tried to rehabilitate prison inmates in the 1700s.

In a 1953 essay titled Prison and Prisoners, French prison reformer Henry Van Etten notes that the Quakers tried to bring a non-evangelical type of reform into prisons that had previously been interested only in punishment.

Van Etten writes that in 1776 a group of Pennsylvania Quakers called The Society for Relieving Distressed Prisoners was put in charge of the Walnut Street Prison in Philadelphia. "Since the United States Constitution forbade 'cruel and unusual' punishment," writes Van Etten, "and abolished 'bloody punishments'--such as beatings, mutilations and branding--the prison had become more and more the place of prolonged residence for which it had not been intended.

"The Walnut Street Prison was intended as a place of reform and was called the 'penitentiary.' The purpose of confinement was to give the prisoners the opportunity to reflect, meditate and repent. These principles were far in advance of the ideas at that time."

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