February 25, 2011
Vipassana, a 2,600-year old Buddhist meditation practice that focuses on introspection, is bringing peace to inmates locked up for life — and a 20 percent reduction in behavioral issues — at the Donaldson Correctional Facility, the worst prison in Alabama.
"People are in for horrendous crimes—rape, multiple murders, child molestation. It's the end of the line for them," said Kathryn Allen, the prison's psychologist. "Vipassana makes them calmer, have less mood instability, less angry. They even hold themselves straighter, have better hygiene, and take better care of themselves in general."
Allen and Ronald Cavanaugh, director of treatment for Alabama's Department of Corrections, spoke to Emory students after the Feb. 22 showing of "The Dhamma Brothers," an award-winning documentary about the prison's Vipassana program.
"This is one example of socially engaged Buddhism. They have a lot to teach us," said Tara Doyle, senior lecturer at Emory who specializes in socially engaged Buddhism. Doyle co-hosted the event with Elizabeth M. Bounds, associate professor of Christian Ethics at Candler School of Theology, who focuses on prison ministry.
"I agree with the enormous importance of this kind of work, and I can foresee Candler collaborating with other Emory groups doing meditation work in the prison setting," said Bounds.
Nearly 450 of the 1,500 inmates at Donaldson have taken the Vipassana course. They meditate 10 hours a day for 10 days straight without ever speaking to each other. They also must follow a set of precepts: no killing, stealing, lying, sexual activity, or use of intoxicants.
"Vipassana gets people back in touch with their humanity," said Cavanaugh, who started the program at Donaldson in 2002. "When they sit quietly for 10 hours a day, guilt and anxiety come up and they have to resolve this. If they choose a pro social approach, their guilt and anxiety go away, and they feel good about making an appropriate choice. As they continue to do this, we see increased pro social behavior in the prison."