Hard Labor

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

But Meijer's jail houses only minimum-security offenders; fewer than 300 men and women live in pre--World War II Navy barracks nestled in the woods outside Seattle. NRF is hardly as tough as San Bruno's medium-security No. 3 jail, where most inmates have prior prison histories and the vast majority serves felony convictions. No. 3 is built to hold 400 prisoners, and when Hennessey visited earlier this month, 402 packed the roster.

Meijer laid out to Hennessey all the logistical difficulties she had in implementing Vipassana, from converting staff offices to bunk and meditation space, to building showers and teaching the jail's cook vegetarian fare. "We did it, but I can't say to all wardens, "Go ahead, it won't hurt,'" she says. "We had to work hard to make it happen, and the folks in San Francisco sure don't have the nice, summer camp setting we're in."

In targeting San Francisco, Vipassana teacher Harry Snyder -- who arranged the meeting of wardens -- did his homework. Finding any quiet space in San Bruno's cramped, dilapidated No. 3 jail would be impossible, so Snyder proposed an unused women's jail that sits nearby. The dormant jail had been renovated in 1989 to become an educational center for County Jail No. 7, which was added to the San Bruno grounds in the same year. By clearing some offices and classrooms in the learning center -- adding cots and constructing temporary showers at a nominal taxpayer expense -- Vipassana could become a reality for both jails. (The San Bruno complex already offers a vegetarian menu, one of the first and largest in the nation to do so.)

The Inmate: Michael Lathrop tries to manage an addiction to crack.
Shane Carpenter
The Inmate: Michael Lathrop tries to manage an addiction to crack.
The Inmate: Michael Lathrop tries to manage an addiction to crack.
Shane Carpenter
The Inmate: Michael Lathrop tries to manage an addiction to crack.
The Inmate: Michael Lathrop tries to manage an addiction to crack.
Shane Carpenter
The Inmate: Michael Lathrop tries to manage an addiction to crack.
The Inmate: Michael Lathrop tries to manage an addiction to crack.
Shane Carpenter
The Inmate: Michael Lathrop tries to manage an addiction to crack.
The Warden: Lucia Meijer.
Shane Carpenter
The Warden: Lucia Meijer.
The Test Case: Vipassana meditation room at Seattle's North Rehabilitation Facility.
Shane Carpenter
The Test Case: Vipassana meditation room at Seattle's North Rehabilitation Facility.
The Test Case: Vipassana meditation room at Seattle's North Rehabilitation Facility.
Shane Carpenter
The Test Case: Vipassana meditation room at Seattle's North Rehabilitation Facility.
The Test Case: Vipassana meditation room at Seattle's North Rehabilitation Facility.
Shane Carpenter
The Test Case: Vipassana meditation room at Seattle's North Rehabilitation Facility.

Hennessey listened to the proposal and gave his OK. For the first course, the sheriff requested that the minimum-security inmates from No. 7 test the program; once any kinks are worked out, the more problematic residents of No. 3 could be included. "I need to start with a cautious approach," he says.

After more than a year of planning in San Bruno, the first course has yet to be offered. But the current timeline has Vipassana orientation starting by February 2001. "We've made up our minds to do it," Hennessey says. "We're just working out the mechanics."

Meijer is confident San Francisco can set an example of far greater impact than her little jail. "If there is a way to do Vipassana in a correctional system as large and complex as the one Sheriff Hennessey is in charge of, he is the kind of leader who could make it happen," she says.

Hennessey is more modest in his aims. As he walks through the bowels of old County Jail No. 3 with notebook in hand, he stops every few steps to write down another embarrassing condition -- things that in any other jail could almost represent cruel and unusual punishment. "Even though this is a completely despicable place," he says, "at least I feel good we are doing the best we can to make it sane."

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