A few months ago I was asked to lead a Buddhism/12 Step workshop in Solano State Prison, in Vacaville, California. I was invited by Tom Gorham the clinical director of Options Recovery Services (www.optionsrecovery.org)in Berkeley, a street-level non-profit, where I first taught meditation to addicts almost ten years ago. Tom is helping run a program to train clean and sober inmates to mentor and counsel other addicts inside, and potentially outside. The ultimate goal is for them to become certified counselors by the California Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors (CAADAC). I was intrigued by the opportunity, and drove an hour north to the prison on a sunny day in late March.
As I drove the freeway, I thought about the prisoners. Just the simple act of driving was something they couldn’t do. I was once in jail overnight and it was the most frightening event of my life. The horror of loss of freedom came home to me that night. Like our health, our physical freedom is something we tend to take for granted, but when it’s threatened, we realize how wonderful it is.
Besides contemplating their existence in prison, I felt some trepidation about meeting these prisoners. Who were these men? What would they think about a Buddhist? How would they respond to meditation?
Tom met me at the entrance to the prison, got me signed in and led me to the building where I was going to be teaching. We walked past hundred of prisoners hanging out in the yard, and everything seemed calm and peaceful. But I couldn’t help noticing the guards in the towers watching our every move—and, of course, that of the prisoners. I tried to walk with mindfulness, to observe the whole scene and to feel my reaction to it all and to the situation itself. I wasn’t terribly relaxed.
We had to go through another gate to get to our building. The prisoners I’d be dealing with were privileged. They had passed through various hoops to get here, and almost all of them were active members of 12 Step programs, sobriety being a pre-requisite for the program. As we got to the building, more blue-jean-suited prisoners milled around, but here there was a definite change, a marked friendliness, people greeting me with nods and smiles. I began to relax.
Inside everyone gathered in a typical institutional setting, folding chairs, fluorescent lights, and grey linoleum floors. Tom introduced me, and I looked around at this group of men, ranging from their early twenties to well into their sixties. Tom had told me that some of them were lifers, while others hoped to get out and be drug and alcohol counselors some day. The majority were black; several were Hispanic; a couple were White or Asian.
Looking at their open, eager faces I felt a huge rush of respect: these guys were living in the most oppressive conditions you can live in in our country, but instead of rebelling, complaining, blaming, or giving up, they were trying to do something positive with their lives.
“You guys are a huge inspiration to me,” I said. “You exemplify the Twelfth Step: ‘Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to help other alcoholics. . . ‘ You get it. You’ve realized that happiness doesn’t come by satisfying your own personal desires, but by helping others.” It was awe-inspiring to think of the transformation some of these guys had made.
As I spoke the heads nodded, the smiles broke out. I began to talk about my own experience with drugs and alcohol. Then I told them about mindfulness and we began to meditate. Again, I felt some trepidation. Were they going to get it? Were they going to think I was just some flaky white-guy trying to spread some exotic Eastern religion? As soon as the meditation finished and they started asking questions, my fears lifted. They had the same questions that any group of beginners has; they were excited and engaged and just wanted to know more. In fact, there was a graciousness and politeness that surpassed my typical crowd. And their gratitude was palpable.
Quickly I was reminded of other teaching encounters, with the homeless at the Berkeley Ecumenical Chaplaincy; with people in treatment in Harlem; and with the addicts I worked with at Options. Each time I went in with pre-conceptions about who these people were, that somehow they were different from me, a different color, a different class, different educational background, and each time I learned that they were just like me. The men at Solano State Prison were smart, engaged, aware. Many of them were well-read and spiritually sophisticated. They were hungry for my teachings, and I felt honored and grateful to be able to give something to them. I also knew that what separated us was not any personal qualities, but rather the privilege I’d been raised in and the lack of privilege most of them had experienced. I committed many of the same crimes as them, I imagine. And the one time I was caught, my skin-color and my family kept me from bearing any serious consequences.
Today I received an invitation to the “Offender Mentor Certification Program Graduation.” I’m told that more than three-quarters of them passed their exams. I’m proud to have been a small part of their education. I feel lucky. Very lucky.