Folsom’s Buddhist inmates struggle to live in the moment—even when that moment happens in a 6.5-by-8.5-foot prison cell
To get to the chapel at Folsom Prison you must go deep into the bowels of the penitentiary, first passing through heavy steel doors that buzz open and slam shut, clearing a checkpoint manned by guards protected by inch-thick yellowing glass and passing through a metal detector so sensitive that a jacket, zippered boots and even a bra with underwires must be shed before entry is permitted.
Buddhists from the community have been making this walk under a program started in 2000 at the prison’s request by the Venerable Lama Yeshe Jinpa, a psychotherapist who practices in Sacramento and directs the Lion’s Roar Dharma Center there, to bring religious teachings to men incarcerated at Folsom and the adjacent California State Prison, Sacramento.
With its massive stone walls, arched entryways and turreted towers built in the late 1800s, Folsom, from the outside, looks somewhat like an ancient castle. But inside, the feel is more medieval dungeon. The light is artificial, the air still, and the walls the same gray granite. In the four-tier cellblock the Buddhist volunteers go through on their way to the chapel, hundreds of men are crammed two to a cell, together with everything they own, bunks and a toilet, in a space—6.5 feet wide, 8.5 feet deep and 8 feet high—that’s not much bigger than most people’s bathrooms. Men shower in the open and eat in a fenced-in mess hall. The noise is unnerving.
No place in a prison is more dangerous than the main exercise yard where inmates are thrust together in general population, and fear peaks for the volunteers as they cross over to the chapel. Most days, armed guards, posted rules—“no congregating in groups of more than four,” “no catcalls,” “no urinating against the wall”—and gang affiliation maintain a tenuous order. But it is here that a violent melee erupted recently that’s kept all of Folsom’s black and white prisoners locked down in their cells for months.
At last inside the chapel, the protection of locked gates allows the Buddhists to relax somewhat as a calming silence pushes the yard racket into the background. In here they’ll sit together with inmates for an hour-and-a-half service that involves chanting, teachings, discussion groups and walking and sitting meditation.
Americans on the outside struggle to fit Buddhist practices designed for the seclusion of monasteries into their busy lives. The difficulties are only magnified in the pressure-cooker conditions that exist in prisons. Cramped space and incessant noise make meditation an even more frustrating experience than it is in the relative quiet of an urban practice center. Surrounded by a constant threat of violence, prisoners live in a state of hyper-vigilance that amps up stress levels. Gang pressures segregate men. Lockdowns and bureaucratic foul-ups regularly threaten the continuity of spiritual programs. Under these conditions, renouncing violence for a spiritual life is one tough choice.
The Folsom Prison Pathways Sangha (a sangha is a Buddhist community) has grown over the past few years under Jinpa’s oversight and volunteer efforts coordinated by Helen Hobart of the local Buddhist Peace Fellowship chapter. Now, about 10 volunteers meet with inmates at Folsom and in the B and C yards at Sacramento, still colloquially called “New Folsom,” though the prisons separated formally in 1993.
Between them, the prisons house 7,500 men. Sacramento is a maximum-security facility, where 42 percent are serving some form of life sentence. Ten percent will never be paroled. Built in 1986, Sacramento is designed in three yards cordoned off by parallel 20-foot-high chain-link fences topped by razor wire that straddle an electrified fence. That’s where SN&R joined three volunteers and 10 inmates for a Buddhist program in the cinderblock chapel in Yard C in mid-November.
The Rev. Seicho Asahi from the Northern California Koyasan Temple led the group that evening in reciting Buddhist teachings. Then he spoke about the cycle of life and death, karma, cause and effect, suffering and freedom. Buddhists, he said, don’t worship God or gods (or even the Buddha). They don’t believe in heaven and hell. “They don’t think much about life after death. They talk about how to live.
“You have the control,” he told the men, their faces rapt, heads nodding. “If you get angry, you may have to fight with someone. Learn the teachings. You can control yourself.”
That night’s talk was basic, but Asahi’s answers to the men’s questions delved deeper into the complex teachings. Discussing a central Buddhist concept known as emptiness, he explained, “Emptiness is a bad translation. A better word is ‘boundarylessness.’ The ego is a fence we need for protection. If you want to live really free, you have to break down the wall [of the ego] entirely.”
Questions answered, everyone rose for walking meditation. Inmates together with volunteers—some holding their hands in a steeple in front of them, and others with their arms outstretched gracefully—stepped slowly with exaggerated dance-like movements while concentrating their attention on each small component of the process of walking that’s typically never given any thought.
The men returned to the group for sitting meditation. Some sat in chairs set up in a circle in the center of the chapel. A few fashioned meditation cushions out of blankets and sat cross-legged on the cold floor. During meditation, they focused on their breath, acknowledging intruding thoughts but then letting them simply drift away as they returned their attention over and over to their breath.
Afterward, the men retrieved their shoes and milled about in small groups chatting quietly. But only a few minutes passed before the reality of prison life shattered the calm. Doors clanged open. Guards shouted out numbers. Inmates lined up. They were searched and returned to their cells.
While together in the sangha, volunteers and inmates follow prison protocol and use only first names and never ask nor volunteer the nature of their crimes or length of their sentences. It’s not relevant, Hobart said, because Buddhism focuses on life in the present moment: “It’s all about who we are right here and now.”
But the other reality is that most of the men seeking to turn around violent pasts through the practice of Buddhism have been convicted of heinous crimes. Those in the C Yard group committed felonies ranging from first-degree murder and assault with semiautomatic weapons to a sexual offense and robbery—and are serving sentences that vary from nine years to life.
One of those men is Joel Fox, his thin graying hair held in a waist-length ponytail by brightly colored elastic bands, who began studying Buddhism eight years ago in his hometown of Berkeley and has practiced for the past four years in Sacramento after being sentenced for second-degree robbery and other crimes. Fox speaks with polite formality without ever making eye contact. He says he’s not a Buddhist. But when asked why he practices, Fox replied with language that mirrors the vows Buddhists take: “I practice for the benefit of all sentient beings with a compassionate heart—selflessly.”
Buddhists believe that studying the self ultimately leads to an understanding of the interconnectedness of everything and every being. That leads naturally to compassion and selfless action. Practices like meditation, which train the mind to focus on the reality of the present moment, have a steadying effect and help loosen the grip of emotions and prejudices. Inmates say practicing Buddhism has helped them to become less reactive and allowed them to experience peace.
For Fox, peace comes through “correct action,” which he’s committed to by adhering to Buddhism’s five lay vows of not killing, lying, stealing, being involved in sexual misconduct or using intoxicants. At 46, he’s got a long haul in front of him; his earliest possible release date is 2018.
If you didn’t know anything about Richard Walton, who joined the C Yard sangha in March after transferring from Pelican Bay State Prison, you might think you were talking to a kid. Sitting on a low platform in the chapel, he leaned forward, folded his arms around his legs and pulled his head downward, wrapping himself in a ball. He tossed occasional bashful smiles sideways while explaining how he came to the study of Vajrayana Buddhism, which he took up seriously in 2001 at Pelican Bay. But Walton, now 24, has been locked up since he was 16 for gang-related murder and attempted murder. Serving a sentence of 38 years to life, he won’t even see a parole review until 2032.
He became a committed Buddhist at Pelican Bay in 2002 through a procedure called “taking refuge,” which involves choosing to take shelter in the protection and guidance of the Buddha, dharma (teachings of the Buddha) and sangha. It’s been a life-changing decision for the former Fresno gang member, who now says this about violence: “As a Buddhist, it’s something I avoid.” He practices seriously, performing three hours of meditation, chanting and prostrations daily. The once “hyper kid” who still has “problems with being jumpy” also said he’s found some peace.
Most of the men in the C Yard sangha are new to Buddhism, and Walton is eager for the other inmates to catch up as he continues to deepen his own study.
“Some of the most dedicated students are prisoners,” said Jinpa, who has given “refuge” to 10 inmates over the past few years. “They realize at this point in their lives that life is really precious. Through this practice, they can get their hearts back and wake up to who they are and why they’re on the planet.”
“There’s an honesty in the prison situation that cuts through delusion,” Hobart said. “Prisoners have no way to escape from themselves. Everything is stripped away. They have no power, no responsibility. They’re forced to create a life.”
The volunteers—who in their outside lives are financial executives, arborists, small-business owners, counselors, technical and public-relations specialists, and graphic designers—know their efforts are small. They reach only about 50 men in three groups at Folsom and Sacramento prisons. Even smaller on the grand scale: According to the most recent U.S. Bureau of Justice figures, federal and state prisons and local jails held nearly 2.2 million prisoners at the end of 2004. Given the small reach and the difficulties involved, why do it?
“It’s important to get out into the community and not just sit in our protected temples,” Jinpa said. “[Prisoners] have the same existential questions that we all do: how to get along with people, how to figure out what’s going on in our lives, how to get in touch with our hearts.
“The hard part is not getting frustrated and giving up,” Jinpa said. “Prison is the end of the blame game—it’s the failure of society. The whole system needs our loving kindness.”
The volunteers all say they’ve learned a lot from the prisoners. Without exception, they’re humbled and inspired by the men’s commitment.
“It’s a constant source of inspiration,” said Cynthia Embree-Lavoie, controller of a human-services agency and a two-year volunteer. “Sometimes when I get lazy, I think of the men trying to find a way to meditate in an environment that’s really not conducive to it.
“Also, I’ve learned a humility in a way,” she said. “I can only begin to imagine what their lives are like in prison and before that.”
When the prisoners ask Asahi, who studied as a monk in Japan before being ordained, for advice on staying focused amid the pandemonium of prison life, he tells the men, “Consider that you’re not living in prison. Consider that you’re living in a monastery.
“In the monastery, if you want to sleep, you can’t. If you want good food, you can’t have it. It’s the same in prison. You don’t have a choice,” he said, giggling lightheartedly in a way that’s characteristic of monks. “The men all laugh. [But] later they come up to me and say, ‘Hey, I’m in a monastery.’
“It’s totally up to the individual. Depending on how you set your mind, your life changes. You create peace from within. You create happiness from within. Even with physical limitations, you can free your mind.”