Transcendental Incarceration

The first San Bruno Jail inmates to take part in an experimental meditation program say it has helped to free their minds, if nothing else

San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey readily admits the aging county jail complex in San Bruno is a "hellhole," but he has an unusual plan to bring order and rehabilitation to the inmates there. As SF Weeklyrecently reported, prisoners can now take part in a Buddha-inspired meditation course called Vipassana ("Hard Labor," Dec. 20, 2000). In the works for two years, the pilot program was successfully completed this month.

San Bruno's medium-security County Jail No. 7 became only the second -- and the largest -- correctional facility in North America to teach Vipassana (pronounced Va-PAH-shana), the ancient form of meditation used to calm inmates in some of the most notorious prisons in India. Hennessey modeled his program after one at a much smaller, minimum-security facility in Seattle that has been offering Vipassana for three years and is the subject of a National Institutes of Health study to determine whether the meditation technique has any real effect on addictive and criminal behavior.

Isolated from the general inmate population, 13 men at San Bruno emerged Feb. 5 after 10 days of intense, silent meditation led by local Vipassana teachers. "I was very pleased; it certainly ran well," Hennessey says. "Everyone involved was excited by the course and how it overcame some considerable obstacles to work within a large jail setting like ours."

San Bruno inmates and Vipassana graduates Greg Carter, James Crowley, and Carlton Allen.
Anthony Pidgeon
San Bruno inmates and Vipassana graduates Greg Carter, James Crowley, and Carlton Allen.
San Bruno inmates and Vipassana graduates Greg Carter, James Crowley, and Carlton Allen.
Anthony Pidgeon
San Bruno inmates and Vipassana graduates Greg Carter, James Crowley, and Carlton Allen.

Offices in a secure and quiet building next to the No. 7 jail were converted into temporary housing for the inmates, where they practiced the meditation for up to 12 hours a day in total silence under the watch of sheriff's deputies. The demanding regimen also required vegetarian-only food, which was cooked in the main jail's kitchen and delivered to the participants. But only one inmate dropped out of the program, which required giving up such privileges as visitors, phone calls, mail, and television in order to remain silent and focused. The remaining 13 describe a life-altering experience.

"It was by far the hardest 10 days of my life, but the most therapeutic," says James Crowley, a San Francis-co native awaiting trial on domestic violence and harassment charges. "All these thoughts flooded my mind, and I relived a lot of the misery I have caused people. I know if I wasn't doing drugs or cheating on my wife, I wouldn't be in this situation. And if I had known Vipassana, I wouldn't be here. Now I can see how it can help me change my thinking and purify my mind."

Unlike popular relaxation practices like transcendental meditation, Vipassana takes a much deeper journey into the mind that can be tumultuous and draining. Three entire days are spent focusing solely on breathing, and letting the mind run wild until it is calm and cleared of its thoughts. The remaining seven days are devoted to teaching students how to observe their bodies, so they can feel, interpret, and then detach from the sensations that signal undesired behavior. Even the slightest bodily sensations are brought to the forefront: muscle twitches, pricks and tingles of the skin, even subtle rises in body temperature and blood pressure. Meditators think about wanting to drink, smoke, or get angry, then learn the sensations associated with those urges -- and how to let them pass.

"All my addictions came up," says Carlton Allen, who at 29 has been using crack cocaine and heroin since he was a teenager. "But Vipassana is helping me push my cravings away. I can see they are only sensations -- just like a headache that comes and goes. I'm surprised that Vipassana works. It really calms me and soothes me. I'm not a completely different person yet, but I'm on the track of change."

For Vipassana teacher Harry Snyder, that is the most he can expect after one 10-day course. Having taught inmates in Seattle, Snyder is satisfied with the San Francisco results.

"These inmates succeeded at something extraordinarily difficult, which is important, considering they are in jail because they have failed so often in their lives," Snyder says. "These men will not become saints overnight, but at least now they have the understanding and the tool it takes to find a way out of their problems."

Until the next Vipassana course is offered and the pilot program is given a regular schedule, Snyder is visiting the jail every Thursday to lead the graduates through a refresher meditation session. The rest of the week, they try to meditate on their own in their bunks every morning before the rest of the inmates wake up.

Allen, who has a court date next week on drug-selling charges, says his fellow inmates have been quick to tease his meditations. But Allen says he doesn't care because Vipassana keeps him out of trouble. "Lots can happen in jail, and now I know how to humble myself and think before I act," he says. "Before, I'd be ready to fight."

Most of the nearly 400 inmates at County Jail No. 7 wanted nothing to do with Vipassana, especially when they learned of its social restrictions. Still, 100 men expressed interest, though many admit they were more interested in going someplace other than the regular jail and having special food -- albeit vegetarian -- cooked for them. Allen says he certainly felt that way, and quickly learned the perks of Vipassana were not worth the hard work involved. "The first five days I was really irritated. I didn't realize what I was getting into -- getting up at 4 in the morning and meditating until 9 at night. It was hell on the body. I wanted to quit," Allen says. "But at day six I really got into what was going on. I learned how to get in touch with me."

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