Meditation Taught to Prisoners

-- David Foster
.c The Associated Press

SEATTLE (AP) - For 10 days and nights, the inmates are forbidden all worldly diversions: no talking, no touching, no reading, no writing, no smoking, no TV.

Cruel and unusual punishment?

Try Vipassana meditation, used for years in Indian prisons and now being taught for the first time in a U.S. jail. At Seattle's North Rehabilitation Facility, petty criminals, alcoholics and drug addicts sit silently in a dark room for 10 hours a day, hoping to bring inner peace to their messed up lives.

For these dropouts of 12-step programs and halfway houses, it's worth a try.

``What else do I have to lose?'' asked Rose Clinton, 31, one of seven women who volunteered this month for the jail's second Vipassana course.

She has had two crack-addicted babies, one of whom died, and has lost count of the times she has been to jail for drug dealing, prostitution, robbery and assault. Her forehead bears a jagged scar from a bottle hurled by an angry drug dealer. Welts on her wrists remain from the day in 1992 when that they took her third baby away and she tried to slash her wrists with a broken crack pipe.

For most of Clinton's adult life, introspection has been limited to the desperate, daily calculus of an addict: ``You think about where your next hit's gonna come from, or who you're gonna beat for some money.''

For 10 days ending March 7, Clinton pursued purer thoughts. Waking at 4 a.m. to the sound of a gong, she spent hours in ``noble silence,'' sitting on a cushion, her eyes closed, a blanket wrapped around her.

With help from a Vipassana instructor, she and her fellow students learned to observe their breathing and other bodily sensations. They learned to feel an itch and not scratch it, and they saw at least the possibility of doing the same with the anger and craving that have ruled their lives.

``We call it mental boot camp,'' said jail administrator Lucia Meijer, who authorized the program last fall after being persuaded to attend a 10-day Vipassana course herself. Her first impression, as she struggled to hold a meditation position for an hour, was that ``these people must be sadists.''

Later, she saw Vipassana meditation's potential for building inmates' self-discipline and insight.

``It's not a magic trick or a pill,'' Meijer said. ``It's hard, conscious effort. It teaches them how to control themselves, how to go inside and deal with what's there.''

Meditation comes in many forms, from the contemplations of Christian and Buddhist monks to the secular Transcendental Meditation.

Vipassana is considered the Marine Corps of meditation. As taught today by Indian teacher S.N. Goenka,it claims a direct lineage to techniques practiced 2,500 years ago by Buddha.

Its nonsectarian approach welcomes students of any religious belief. But its rigors put off most people: Of the 4,000 students who take a course each year at one of four Vipassana centers in the United States, only an estimated 10 percent embrace it permanently.

Adherents believe they have found a captive, eager audience in jails and prisons - if only they can convince skeptical jailers.

Even at Seattle's North Rehabilitation Facility, a minimum- security jail with a reputation for innovation and a focus on treating chemical dependency, the Vipassana program is a major disruption.

The students must be housed in a separate wing. Instructors and assistants insist on living at the jail during the course. The kitchen must prepare special vegetarian meals. Loudspeakers must be disconnected. Everyone who works with the students, including guards, must be graduates of a 10-day Vipassana course.

In the program's favor: It's free. All Vipassana courses are run by volunteers.

It's too soon to tell how well the Seattle program keeps inmates on the virtuous path after their release. But jail officials say behavior changes were striking after the first course last November, which graduated 11 men.

Everyone mentions Ernest, a huge, menacing ghetto warrior who spoke in grunts before the Vipassana course. Afterward, he was hugging everybody and declaring that love is the answer.

Richard Jimerson, whose alcohol-related crimes have bounced him in and out of jail for years, has attended two more Vipassana courses and volunteered to help at three since his release from jail in December.

A year ago, Jimerson was ``sad, lost, a waste,'' said Stephanie Maxwell, a vocational specialist at the jail. Now, she said, he is ``focused, honest, thoughtful.''

Jimerson, 31, put it this way: ``The rattling in my brain got put to sleep.''

Vivian Snyder, instructor for the women's Vipassana course, said her inmate-students were more chatty than those on the outside. But they were typical in other ways: They fell asleep in the first days. They threatened to quit. They thought they were being brainwashed. They were wracked by headaches and nausea.

Lila Bowechop, 33, said one side of her face went numb - the same feeling she used to get after alcoholic binges - and she thought that she might die.

In the end, though, they rallied. Seven women started and seven finished, an improvement over the men's course, which lost six students.

``They worked harder than any group I've seen,'' Snyder said. ``They didn't spend a lot of time on philosophical debates. They know they're suffering.''

On the seventh day, rage boiled up within Rose Clinton. It was a stew of old pains and regrets, made all the more maddening because she thought she had dealt with them long ago. She cursed. She cried. She knew she'd have to quit.

And then the anger passed. Like an itch.

Clinton hopes to keep meditating on the outside. She hopes to get her GED. She'll settle for avoiding behavior of the sort that put her away most recently: stabbing a woman with a screwdriver and a knife.

``Now I know I don't have to get that mad,'' Clinton said. ``I know there's a way I can come out of that anger.''

EDITOR'S NOTE: David Foster is the AP's northwest regional reporter, based in Seattle.

AP-NY-03-09-98 2359EST


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