Buddha Behind Bars
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.
"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.'
"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."
Dane asks that his last name not be used. "I don't have a problem with my past," he explains, "and neither do my friends or employers, but their friends might." He's been on the outside for over a year, but he says he misses Ninemire and his other fellow prison Buddhists.
"I have a sense of being separated from the flock," he says. "The greatest practice moments I had were in the joint. Here, daily stuff keeps you so engrossed, so it's not as easy to meditate as it was on the inside. There was more community in there. The texture outside is just so different. And since it'd be a parole violation for me to associate with any of the other guys who are out, I can't get nearly as much support. It's like soldiers talking about the bonds they formed in foxholes. It kills me that I can't talk to Pete."
Dane's roots are in Appalachia; his career was bank robbery. In and out of jail his whole life, he was paroled in January 1990 by the Colorado Department of Corrections and returned to his wife. Just two weeks later, she was struck by a car and killed while walking across the parking lot of Villa Italia Mall in Lakewood. She was 24 years old.
"All my dreams and plans were lost right then and there," says Dane. "Four months later I walked into a bank in Longmont with an unloaded gun." It was a suicide mission, he says now.
"The cops came and I refused to drop the gun. I don't know why they didn't shoot me," he says. "I figure if I was anywhere but Longmont, they would've killed me. Then I went before this judge who had a reputation as a hanging judge and was expecting to get the full twenty years. But he looked at the circumstances and gave me 96 months. It was a break I'd never get again."
Soon after being sent to federal prison, Dane says, he heard about a daylong meditation retreat and thought it might be a good place to score some free food and break the daily monotony.
"Having been raised a Christian in Kentucky, everything they were saying was Greek to me," Dane recalls in his thick Kentucky drawl. "But there was this little bitty Tibetan nun who had come in to visit, and when I met her I had this 'comin' home' feeling. I just felt so much peace and contentment in her presence--it was something I'd been looking for my whole life and hadn't known it. It's like I'd leaned this ladder up against a wall and climbed rung by rung to the top only to find out when I got to the top that it was the wrong wall. I thought happiness was having money, a nice car and the right old lady. And like all criminals, I was seeking that life outside legal boundaries. But Buddhism looks directly at that illusion of reality and thinking that material things are going to make us happy. I took my vows that day and I never looked back."
In addition to the Wednesday-night sessions, Dane used the prison chapel on weekends. During the rest of the week, he'd sit in his cell and meditate, blocking out the din of the cell block. He says it took a lot of practice before he was able to meditate amid the clamor.
"Meditation is a tool which, at the very least, teaches you patience--something that every con or ex-con needs," he says. "And part of that is the patience to allow yourself to change. So many people get stuck in a mindset. You fancy yourself a gangbanger or a biker, and that's the way you act. Instead of changing that mentality, it's easier to just throw up your hands and say 'Fuck it' and go back to the same old thing.
"It's at times when I just want to say 'Fuck it' that I find meditation really useful. It's said that humans have an average of 3.2 thoughts per second and we tend to obsess about a lot of them. At times, when it gets overwhelming, I think about this analogy one of my teachers passed on to me: Life is like a dirty glass of water. If you let it remain still, all the sediment will sink to the bottom and things will become clear. That's not to say that it doesn't get stirred up, but you just have to know how to deal with it when it does."
Dane says he even discovered that he could personally relate to some of the Buddhist masters, especially Milarepa, whom he calls "the patron saint of criminals." Angered by cruelty shown to his parents, the eleventh-century Tibetan Milarepa chanted black-magic spells that unleashed destruction, killing his wicked uncle and aunt and destroying a village's harvest. Racked by guilt, Milarepa traveled to a Buddhist master, told him, "I am a great sinner and have committed all these negative actions" and set foot on the path to rehabilitation. His path was marked by hard labor, solitary confinement and repeated verbal and emotional abuse by the teacher, who finally showed him the light. Milarepa wound up becoming one of the most revered teachers in Tibetan Buddhism, known especially for his songs and his sense of humor. (Some ex-gangstas who have taken a gentler path claim that Milarepa was a rapper--first of destruction and then of 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."
Van Etten points out that, like the Buddhist volunteers, the Quakers came to prison more to help inmates come to grips with their crimes as opposed to trying to convert them to their religion.
Bill Bilek, in the slammer for mail fraud, says he doesn't consider Buddhism a religion.
"I see it as a way of life, and I think I've made lifelong changes," says Bilek, a soft-spoken, big-bellied man with a mustache. "I know people in here who have found some form of organized religion and are using it as a coping mechanism which they can disregard when they get out. I feel really at peace in here. When I walk the track, I don't even see the fences; I see the mountains and the sky. I guess you could say that guys like Pete and I are complete aberrations in here, because so many people in here can't see beyond the fence.
"As far as freedom is concerned, you can still get that in here. I don't feel sorry for myself. I feel sorry for my wife because she's still out there in the same corporate life I was. I feel like I've been set free and she's still in prison."
Bilek says he had to come back to prison to feel freedom. Wearing a tan prison uniform, he looks relaxed, almost relieved, behind the twenty-foot-high fences topped with razor wire.
"When I first got in here after a parole violation and met Pete Ninemire I told him that the outside world is overrated," says the 42-year-old Bilek. "I told him he's got everything he wants in here. It was sort of a joke, but I truly believe it. I'm experiencing the first control of my life I've had in a long time."
Bilek once ran his own publishing company and bilked advertisers who thought they were financing something to help police and firefighters; the money went into his own pocket. He originally got nailed on 69 counts of mail fraud in 1984. He got out in 1990 but was arrested for trespassing and assault last February. Those parole violations sent him to FCI Englewood, where he'll serve the remainder of his fraud conviction. He's scheduled for release in 2001. Bilek looks as if he wouldn't mind a longer sentence. Like Ninemire, he never mentions court appeals or any other attempt to shorten his sentence.
The outside world doesn't seem to hold any allure. After his first stint in prison, he got a job working as a sales supervisor for MCI. He soon found himself putting in thirteen- and fourteen-hour days at the office.
"I got totally caught up on materialism and power of position," says Bilek. "I wanted to be over people. Now I see I was living all wrong. Coming back to prison for me was a necessary evil. If any of us in the group had been allowed to stay out there, we wouldn't have had the opportunity to break free of crime and to think about how that mindset has affected our lives.
"Meditation should be mandatory for all prisoners, because we all rationalize that we're the victims. Most criminals can't get over that part. If a guy is a bank robber, he feels like Robin Hood. He thinks there's no harm because the money is insured. But he never thinks about the trauma he's caused the bank teller who's looking into the barrel of his gun. And that's the first step in Buddhism: accepting and taking responsibility for your crimes. That's what's going to set you free."
Growing up as a black man in Kansas City, Kenneth Johnson says, he had two religious options: Christianity and Islam.
"In my 'hood, which was pretty much all black, there wasn't any other choice. I tried both of them and came out empty," he recalls. "So when I got bored in prison, I picked up a book on meditation and liked the different slant it had on religion. Plus, I'd been living a life of crime since I was fourteen years old, and I was just tired of going to jail, so I thought I'd give it a try. And when I finally met my teacher, Gangaji, I knew I was finally awake."
Gangaji, a 56-year-old former schoolteacher and acupuncturist who was christened Antoinette Varner and grew up in Mississippi, traveled to India, where she picked up some Hindu meditative teachings from a man named Papaji. Upon her return to the U.S. in 1993, she was invited by a group of inmates to visit Englewood--the first prison she'd ever been to. Her teachings apparently have caught on. An employee of the Gangaji Foundation in Boulder says that there are more than 14,000 people on the group's mailing list. Gangaji now lives in northern California.
While Buddhism focuses on the path to enlightenment and higher consciousness, Gangaji says people are already there. She stresses that there is no path that needs to be followed. Despite that difference, Johnson meditated in prison with Ninemire and Bilek. He credits Gangaji's teachings with keeping him out of jail since he was paroled in 1994.
"I was a diehard con," the fifty-year-old Johnson explains in a gravelly voice while taking a break from mowing a friend's lawn in Boulder. "I did 27 years in prisons around America. In 1982 I got sentenced to do forty years for writing bad checks and was going to have to do ten years flat before I had any chance of parole. I was 32 years old, and I was thinking suicide, because ten years was longer than I could imagine. But I found meditation before I killed myself, and it was the fast track to spiritual freedom. Before, I thought freedom was going to come from money, drugs and women, and I always thought that I was just one more hustle away from getting all those things."
Since his release, Johnson says, he hasn't returned to a life of crime, and he's even been on the Gangaji movement's speaker circuit, but he has experienced the same feeling of being separated from the flock that Dane described. He says that upon his release he went back to Kansas City to live with his mother, but it didn't feel right.
Echoing others, Johnson says, "Prison is like a great monastery. There are no distractions like having to mow the lawn, which I should be doing right now. But once you establish a bond with others, in prison or out, and have to leave, you feel so alone. That's why I came back to Boulder. All the people in Kansas City were asleep. Back there, I felt like a thousand people were plugged into me and draining me of my energy.
"It's good being out, but it's still not the same as meditating in prison. That's the greatest thing that can happen. You just let all your thoughts go and you're truly free. No hustle needed.
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