Meditation class helps lower violence at AL prison
In this Jan. 18, 2011 photo, William E. Donaldson prison lifer James Bank head, right, talks with Dr. Robert Cavalryman at the maximum security facility Bessemer, Ala. Cavanaugh conducts a meditation program at the prison. Bankhead, a convicted murderer, said the long hours of meditation forced him to accept responsibility for his crime and helped him find inner piece. Cavanaugh brought the program to Donaldson while working there and is now treatment director for the Alabama Department of Corrections.
Deep inside an overcrowded prison with a reputation for mayhem, convicted killers, robbers and rapists gather in a small room. Eyes closed, they sit silently with their thoughts and consciences.
Their everyday life is just outside in the hall - a cacophony of clanging steel doors, yelling and feet shuffling along cold concrete floors. The noise never really ends; peace is at a premium in Alabama's toughest lockup.
Despite a history of violence at the William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility, which is named for a slain corrections officer, the prison outside Birmingham has become the model for a meditation program that officials say helps inmates learn the self control and social skills they never got in the outside world.
Warden Gary Hetzel doesn't fully understand how the program called Vipassana (which is pronounced vuh-'POSH-uh-nuh) can transform violent inmates into calm men using contemplative Buddhist practices.
But Hetzel knows one thing.
"It works. We see a difference in the men and in the prison. It's calmer," he said of the course that about 10 percent of the prison's inmates have completed.
The word Vipassana means "to see things as they really are," which is also the goal of the intense 10-day program using the meditative technique that dates back 2,500 years.
Vipassana courses are held four times a year in a prison gymnasium, where as many as 40 inmates meditate 10 hours a day. Most sit on cushions on the floor, while a few use chairs.
The courses begin with three days of breathing exercises - the prisoners learn to focus on bodily sensations so intently they feel the exhalations on their upper lip. Students are required to not speak to each other.
Outside volunteers guide their way, along with recordings of chanting and instructions.
On Day 4, students are told to begin letting their deepest thoughts percolate up through their consciousness so they can sense the effects on the body, like tension or anger. The ultimate goal is to learn not to react to those sensations.
Students are forced to grapple with their innermost selves. Some men are brought to tears; a few have thrown up. It's not unusual for half of the students or more to quit or be sent back to the prison population for disobeying the rules.