Hard Labor

County Jail No. 3 is a hellhole. Can an ancient, intense form of meditation improve life for the inmates?

At NRF, all inmates get orientations in Vipassana, but they don't have to participate. Lathrop watched the video about Tihar Jail in India and learned about the background -- and the rigors -- of the meditation. He volunteered to try it, intrigued by its Buddhist leanings. But early in the program he wanted to quit. "It was tough to stay focused. Sitting there, your mind runs wild. It's scary, because anything can come up," he says. "You think of a lot of hurtful, painful memories. It comes in storms. Things are quiet and then something like lost time on drugs or my mom's death pops in[to] my head. I get anxious, my temperature rises, tears well up, and I start to tremble." After a few days, Lathrop's mind began to calm. "The initial shock wore off and I mellowed out. I started to feel inner peace."

Some inmates, such as Trina Gipson, never make it to that point. Like her, they drop out because it is uncomfortable both physically and mentally to attempt such intense meditation. The program also means sacrificing things regular prisoners enjoy: mail, television, and eating meat. Gipson, a 36-year-old mother of two, volunteered for a women's Vipassana course at NRF last month while serving a drunk driving sentence. She was quickly turned off by the videotaped messages from Goenka that teachers play at the end of each meditation session, and was particularly leery of the way teachers translated Goenka's chants. "I don't believe that's all he was saying. They just gave us a few lines, but his chanting went on and on," she complains. "It confused me and alienated me. I don't understand that language. What if there were subliminal messages?"

The "Noble Silence" Vipassana requires also bothered Gipson. She wasn't supposed to talk to anyone either out loud or in her thoughts -- not even a higher power. "I pray to God every day, and I don't believe anything is more important than having contact with the one who created me," says the lifelong Baptist. "The whole thing felt wrong and too controlling. My friend told me to be careful they don't brainwash you."

Such fears are usually calmed by jail staff. In the Seattle-area jail -- as will be true in San Francisco's -- the program requires that a certain number of administrators and security personnel take the course so they can better relate to the prisoners' experience. "When you are just herding inmates into the gym to play basketball, you don't need to understand the game. You just need to make sure no one fights," NRF director Lucia Meijer says. "But Vipassana requires a deeper level of understanding. And if it's going to work, the staff has to want to do it, buy into it, and care about it."

Just as the inmates have mixed feelings about the meditation, so do jail staffers. San Francisco has had trouble finding enough deputies willing to take a course to begin its Vipassana program. "I had to put out calls and explain it better each time to get people interested," Sheriff Hennessey says. "People in law enforcement are very conservative, even in San Francisco." While 12 members of the sheriff's staff agreed to try Vipassana, only six have successfully completed the course so far. One person quit on religious grounds, Hennessey says, while another who was going through a divorce at the time found the emotions evoked by the meditation too much to bear. As for Hennessey, he hasn't taken the course yet -- and he doesn't know when he will. It is difficult for him to take 10 days off, he explains, especially since he runs the sheriff's department and helps his wife care for a wheelchair-bound child. Besides, he jokes, "I'm an avowed meat-eater: steaks and chops."


The pot-bellied, cowboy-boot-wearing, oversized-belt-buckle-sporting Sheriff Hennessey stands in great contrast to the waifish, silver-haired jailer Lucia Meijer in her long, flowing dresses. But the two administrators share a common correctional philosophy -- and they respect each other's work. "I was impressed with Sheriff Hennessey's vision and open-mindedness, combined with a hard-nosed practicality," Meijer says. "You can't manage a jail with ideology alone and hope to control an inmate population."

Last year, Hennessey, Meijer, and Kiran Bedi from India's Tihar Jail met to discuss Vipassana in America's prisons. "There's always a bit of sizing up when anyone in our business meets," Hennessey says. "You wonder, "Are they for real? Are they running a real jail?' Well I can tell you Ms. Meijer brought a lot of credibility to that meeting. She really seemed to know what she was doing. And having Ms. Bedi there was quite powerful."

Still, there was a lot to be hashed out for Hennessey's sake. As moving as the experiences in Tihar Jail were, the sheriff didn't consider them to have much practical value in his shop. "It's easy to discount what goes on in other cultures when you think it won't relate to yours," he says. "That's why it was very important that this had already been developed in Seattle. They took what happened in India and translated it."

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