Originally published by SF Weekly Dec 20, 2000
County Jail No. 3 is a hellhole. Can an ancient, intense form of meditation improve life for the inmates?
By Joel P. Engardio
San Francisco sheriff Michael Hennessey launches into his best James Cagney imitation as he enters County Jail No. 3, the imposing, Depression-era structure that sits crumbling on a bluff above the hills of San Bruno. "Warden, we're taking this place over!" Hennessey growls through the side of his mouth, channeling the staccato voice of the famous actor in the classic prison-break film White Heat. "That's what this place feels like -- an old movie."
The San Bruno jail is one of the most outdated in the nation, a not-so-quaint reminder of what prisons were like before correctional facility design became a science. The sheriff says he worries about the safety and sanity of both the inmates at No. 3 and the deputies who watch them. The deafening clamor of the prisoners' incessant shouting, chants, and banging on metal bars rushes through the jail as if it were a wind tunnel. The prison's architecture -- long, narrow tiers of cells attached to a central, six-story hollow rotunda -- makes it impossible for guards to monitor all activity. Since inmates are sometimes free to roam their tiers (as mandated by law), idle prisoners have ample opportunity to cavort with gangs, make weapons, sexually and physically assault each other, engage in drug use -- even commit suicide -- without anyone noticing.
Built in 1934, the jail is woefully low-tech and falling apart. The sheriff likes to introduce the jail's senior engineer as "the man in charge of bailing wire and duct tape." Hennessey roams No. 3 holding a ring of giant skeleton keys, which often get stuck as he tries to open doors to pass between tiers. "There's nothing electronic or push-button about the place," he says. "I'm embarrassed we actually house people here. It's a real shithole." Walking past one cell, he notices that deputies have duct-taped a clear plastic bag over a toilet to collect the back flow of urine and feces.
Hennessey knows the miserable conditions of No. 3 conspire to create anxiety, low morale, and a less than rehabilitative environment. "In running jails, you want order," he says. "Getting the prisoners to feel calm contributes to that order, which helps enssure safety."
A state-of-the-art prison to be constructed on the San Bruno grounds is at least three years away, so Sheriff Hennessey has a plan to improve conditions at old No. 3 in the meantime: meditation. He is following the example of another notoriously dilapidated prison, Tihar Jail in northern India, where chaos ruled among 10,000 hard-core criminals held in near-medieval conditions -- that is, until they learned Vipassana. The ancient form of meditation (pronounced Va-PAH-shana), which requires 10 days of total silence in isolation, transformed the jail's volatile atmosphere. Tihar's warden traveled to San Francisco from New Delhi last year to meet with Hennessey and bear witness to Vipassana's success. The sheriff was impressed.
"The show of self-control and discipline at Tihar was intense, and we're talking about really murderous and horrible criminals -- more so than we ever see at No. 3," he says. "If Vipassana could do that in India, then I figured it might help my inmates find a respite from the horrible conditions they have to live in here. They, too, could have a break from the chaos. Even if only in their minds."
While Sheriff Hennessey sees Vipassana as a promising way to achieve a calmer jail setting, researchers wonder if it could have a more lasting effect when inmates are released back into society. The National Institutes of Health has funded a study to find out whether Vipassana can help inmates curb their drug and alcohol addictions and become less inclined to return to a life of crime. The NIH will begin next month by focusing on a small, minimum-security facility near Seattle -- the first jail outside of India to adopt the Vipassana technique. Since that jail started the Vipassana program three years ago, the anecdotal evidence of its success has been encouraging. Now San Francisco's medium-security No. 3 jail will become the second -- and by far the largest -- in North America to experiment with Vipassana when it begins teaching inmates early next year. The sheriff's department plans to do its own internal study on the technique's effectiveness.
But Vipassana is not a simple undertaking. Getting prisoners to sit for the rigorous mind exercise and remain silent for 10 days isn't an easy task. Nor is diverting enough resources to comply with the program's strict requirements: quiet housing and meditation space secluded from the general prison population, vegetarian food service, and training in Vipassana for enough guards and jail personnel to administer the course without compromising security protocols. Still, Hennessey is determined to make it happen -- and he's certain that Vipassana isn't just something only a liberal sheriff in a New Age town would dare try.
"We have a tough jail system, and our prisoners are as tough as anyone else's. If Vipassana works here, I'd hope other cities would be open to such innovation, too," he says. "I personally believe in the value of meditation and self-reflection. If anything, it goes back to the original concept of prisons as penitentiaries -- where criminals were put in isolation to contemplate their actions and show penance for their sins. I don't know what's magical about the 10 days of Vipassana, but it's not always important to know why something works, as long as the jail gets quieter and the inmates become better people."
The art of Vipassana had been lost in India for 2,000 years when New Delhi's Tihar Jail was at its brutal worst during the latter half of the 20th century. Today's teachers of Vipassana claim that Gautama Buddha discovered the meditation technique in India 500 years before the birth of Christ. But its practice faded after the seventh century. As India embraced Hinduism, Buddhism migrated east, marrying Taoism in China and Shinto in Japan, and landing in its original form in Burma along the way. It was only there that a small, devout band of monks kept Buddha's Vipassana alive through the generations -- until a Burmese businessman, searching for a cure to his stressful life and the migraines that came with it, visited the monastery in the 1950s.
As his headaches disappeared, S.N. Goenka became an ardent believer and practitioner of Vipassana. He moved to India and devoted his life to spreading the meditation practice around the world. Now in his late 70s, Goenka enjoys the same level of reverence from his students as other iconic spiritual teachers, such as the Dalai Lama.
Goenka's boldest attempt to change lives with Vipassana was in Tihar Jail. The prison is the largest in India and has been considered one of the most dangerous in the Third World. The accommodations were abominable: open-air cells in the seasonally frigid northern climate, stone slab beds, standing pools of water acting as bath and toilet. The behavior of inmates -- and guards -- was frightening (as is well documented by human rights groups). There was blackmail and anarchy, torture and killing. Drug cartels, gangs, and assaults were rampant. The inmates ruled themselves in a twisted hierarchy, while the guards played a hand in many of the atrocities.
When Goenka first taught Vipassana to prisoners in the 1970s, he worked at various jails similar to Tihar. At that time, he succeeded only in that none of his students attacked or killed him. (He insisted that no shackles or chains be used in his class, though guards stood by with their guns trained on the meditators.) Unfortunately, the wardens' ongoing corruption limited the effect of Vipassana on India's prison system.
Goenka's jailhouse Vipassana experiment languished for 20 years, until a revolutionary new warden arrived at Tihar, her reform plan backed by the government. Kiran Bedi, the first woman to join the Indian Police Service, rose through the ranks with a no-nonsense resolve and received the Tihar post. Her approach to the mess was to hold the guards accountable for their actions, and to minimize any corruption over which she had control. She began to treat the inmates like human beings -- not caged animals, as earlier wardens had done -- and quickly earned the prisoners' respect. Then she brought back Goenka. With each course, Vipassana appeared to transform the atmosphere of the jail. News reports of the time noted that instead of fighting, inmates planted flowers on the prison grounds. By the mid-1990s, Vipassana was major force at Tihar, being taught to 1,000 inmates at a time.
An Israeli-produced film, Doing Time Doing Vipassana, chronicled the amazing developments, showing hardened criminals weeping in the arms of their teachers -- and even their prison guards -- upon their exit from 10 days of silent meditation. PBS broadcast the documentary in the United States. It was also a hit in theaters, winning the Golden Spire Award at the 1998 San Francisco International Film Festival. Vipassana followers who made pilgrimages to India to study under Goenka began setting up civilian Vipassana retreats in the U.S. -- near Yosemite, in Texas, the Pacific Northwest, and New England -- teaching the technique to capacity crowds. One innovative jail -- the North Rehabilitation Facility near Seattle -- began offering Vipassana to its inmates. As the craze spread, researchers began to wonder whether the technique was indeed revolutionary, or just a rehash of earlier meditation methods.
Alan Marlatt, professor of psychology and director of the Addictive Behavior Research Center at the University of Washington, uses meditation in treating patients. Beyond its relaxing effect, he finds that meditation's emphasis on focusing the mind can be especially helpful in keeping addictive tendencies in check. Marlatt personally tried Transcendental Meditation in the 1970s, when the technique gained popular Western appeal. In the 1980s he studied TM's effects on curbing alcohol abuse among college students, with promising results. Now he is eager to develop that thesis further with the NIH-funded Vipassana study at the North Rehabilitation Facility. Since government data shows prison populations are among the most likely to suffer addictions, the Seattle-area jail is a good testing ground. Marlatt has completed his own Vipassana course and believes it has the potential to be more effective than TM in reducing addiction relapse and criminal recidivism.
TM and Vipassana differ most in intensity. While TM usually involves 20-minute sessions with no set requirements, Vipassana demands a vow of silence for 10 consecutive days, during which practitioners meditate for 12 hours a day. After the course, they are supposed to practice Vipassana for an hour each morning and evening. TM uses a verbal mantra hummed repeatedly as a focus aid; in Vipassana, for the first three days the meditators silently concentrate on breathing, after which all attention turns to bodily sensations. TM brings a surface relaxation, but Vipassana is a much deeper journey into the mind, one that those who've taken the trip say is often tumultuous and draining.
Another major difference between the two techniques is their origin. TM is steeped in a Hindu tradition, while Vipassana originated with Buddha. "Both are spiritual disciplines, but Buddhism is kind of a psychology, while Hinduism has more of a devotional aspect," Marlatt explains. "In TM, there is no need for insight; you benefit from good karma that is supposedly bestowed upon you. But with Vipassana, change comes about by no accident. You better yourself."
Marlatt and others believe Vipassana could work for prisoners because it connects feelings with actions -- and teaches how to feel without acting. As students of the technique explain, it brings users in tune with the body, so that they learn to feel, interpret, and, most importantly, detach from the sensations that signal undesired behavior. The intense meditation draws even the slightest bodily sensations to the forefront: muscle twitches, pricks and tingles of the skin, even subtle rises or drops in body temperature and blood pressure. Users think about wanting to drink, smoke, or get angry, then learn the sensations associated with those urges -- and how to let them pass. As teachers explain it: If you feel an itch, don't scratch; if your leg cramps, let the pain wax and wane rather than readjusting your position. Students observe their discomfort and understand how it compares to other sensations.
Psychologist George Parks, who is coordinating the NIH study with Marlatt and who also completed a 10-day course, says he was attracted to Vipassana because it relies less on the notion of faith -- or signs from the heavens -- to succeed. "There are more magical forms of Buddhism in Tibet and elsewhere, but the vein that Vipassana comes from -- the original version of Buddhism -- is very scientific and empirical. You won't hear Vipassana teachers like Goenka claim that enlightenment comes from things like the tail of a comet."
But Vipassana does have its quirks, including a strict moral code that shuns both sex outside of a committed relationship and any consumption of alcohol. During the 10-day meditation periods (and the month-long sessions that advanced, civilian students take), sex is forbidden altogether -- as is talking, lying, stealing, killing (even insects), and intoxication. While inmates aren't supposed to be having sex or using drugs in prison, it still happens, just not under Vipassana.
As for integrating the code into life after the course, Parks says that depends on how far a meditator wants to take Vipassana. Goenka and his appointed teachers emphasize Vipassana's practical ability to help handle addiction or manage anger -- without always mentioning that they consider the meditation to have a much grander purpose. "When it comes to spiritual ideas, it is easy to scare people away," Marlatt says. "So there is a bit of a Trojan horse here. The practical side of Vipassana is what you see first. And once you've tried it, you'll want to be drawn in deeper to the path of enlightenment. You can make Vipassana your life. And some do."
Without Vipassana, world peace is not possible. At least that's what the most ardent followers say, those who have trained under Goenka in India. They believe the meditation technique is the answer to all of humankind's ills. Among those listed on the California Vipassana Meditation Center's Web site: poverty, war, disease, terrorism, environmental devastation, and the decline of moral values. The site continues: "Is there a way out of these seemingly insolvable problems? The answer is unequivocally, yes. ... Vipassana meditation is such a way."
Lucia Meijer, the director of the Seattle-area jail that first tried Vipassana in the U.S., laughs as she reviews the tall order. "I can't speak to the global aspirations of Vipassana. I am not a New Age devotee; I do not run with the wolves," she says. "I'm just trying to assist one person at a time in this jail with their addictions, dysfunction, and agony so they can become law-abiding individuals and not re-offend. Ultimately, I would hope that means less trouble for the rest of us."
Since Meijer's facility specializes in rehabilitation (as opposed to other jails, which focus more on incarceration), she has tried a number of innovative programs over the years. "As someone responsible for returning offenders in a more wholesome state than they went in, you want them to shape up morally, develop self-discipline, and change their habitual thinking and behavior patterns," she says. "Vipassana fits the bill."
But that endorsement comes after three years of inmate involvement with the meditation. Meijer was skeptical at first, when a staff member who practiced Vipassana suggested her jail try it. "There were lots of concerns," she says. "For one, this comes out of another culture; people might fear it is a cult. Here we are isolating people for 10 days -- no one can see them, [and] they aren't allowed to talk. I can imagine someone rightfully wondering, "Oh my God, what are you doing to them?'"
No matter how inspiring the reports of Vipassana's success in Indian jails, Meijer's eventual enthusiasm was tempered by unavoidable legal, safety, and logistical matters. "The difference in India is that a warden has a far more free hand to impose their will. They don't have the ACLU, labor unions, or the press to contend with," she says. "We need to pay careful attention to inmate rights. No incentives or coercion. No blurring of professional boundaries. I just cringe when I see that film showing prisoners falling into the arms of their guards in India. You never, ever want to see that happen in any American prison."
Intrigued, Meijer took a Vipassana course herself. "I needed a vacation anyway," she says. "I figured it would be about relaxation and rainbows, but there's more to it than just sitting and meditating. Little did I know how much hard work it would be. A lot comes up. You're busy peeling away layers and facing yourself. At the end of the day, you're exhausted."
Meijer personally welcomed the benefits of Vipassana, and persuaded her husband and two adult children to take courses. She felt confident this would be a positive experience for her inmates, yet she still had to field concerns about whether it was an appropriate program for a public institution. "The people who teach Vipassana are adamant that it is nonsectarian. But it can be argued that it looks like a religion," she says. "Rather than fight about it, for those who insist it is a religion, I say, "Fine.' The bottom line is that there have always been lots of religious activities in jails. We have Bible studies; we observe Ramadan. As long as it is voluntary, we do our best to support it. No one has to do Vipassana if they don't want to."
Vipassana's spread to the U.S. isn't as spontaneous as it seems. The technique's champion, S.N. Goenka, has attempted to build a global Vipassana movement. So far he has appointed more than 800 teachers, all of whom have completed lengthy stays in India under his tutelage. They are charged with growing the practice as they run a network of 80 volunteer-run Vipassana centers around the world, where meditation-minded people can learn Buddha's original technique on a donation basis.
Courses at the California retreat near Yosemite at North Fork are always packed. "We think as many people as possible should take this course. It works," says Harry Snyder of Marin, a lawyer, consumer advocate, and Goenka-sanctioned teacher at Yosemite. Snyder stands by Vipassana's grand claims for improving humankind. "How can we have world peace if there is no peace within ourselves?" he asks.
As for the moral code Vipassana advocates, Snyder says those lifestyle adjustments begin to make more sense as one cultivates the meditation. "After a while, you learn that peace of mind is much more enjoyable than excitement. In the real world, we are taught to be excited and we hold that as a great goal," he says. "Once you experience peacefulness, you realize there is more happiness in a balanced sense of feeling." If such a desire for peacefulness could be transmitted to jail inmates, for example, the resulting calm could transform a bedlam like No. 3.
But as Lucia Meijer of the Seattle-area jail pointed out, some worry that Vipassana is a cult. Snyder is quick to explain that Goenka is not a god. Though people respect him for preserving Vipassana, they don't worship him. "Goenka has great charisma and is a wise trainer, but he is not Vipassana," Snyder says. "His students revere him very much, and consider him the person who helped them change their lives. As long as we have Goenka, we will ask his insight. But when he's no longer here, Vipassana will be just as strong."
In addition, Goenka leads no centralized organization. Each Vipassana retreat is a separate nonprofit trust run by an unpaid board of directors. Goenka appoints the teachers, and the teachers control the boards. A volunteer staff of advanced students of Vipassana operate the centers, which provide free food and lodging to meditators. Donations finance everything.
Snyder has been instrumental in the lobbying efforts to bring Vipassana to U.S. jails. "Outside the regular population, this is a logical place where a lot of people are suffering," he says. "Goenka took it up as a challenge: If this really works, prove it with hardened criminals."
But Snyder hedges his bets. "This is not a miracle course," he says. "You can't cure a lifetime of bad stuff with a 10-day course. You can learn what's happening inside you that motivates you to do harmful things. And you can take inspiration from that to begin the process of change."
Wearing an orange jumpsuit with the initials "NRF" emblazoned on the back in tall letters, Michael Lathrop sits cross-legged, eyes closed, quietly meditating on a blue mat. Half a dozen men in the same outfit share the floor with Lathrop in the Vipassana room at the North Rehabilitation Facility near Seattle.
This isn't the first time the 31-year-old crack cocaine addict has turned to meditation to calm his urges to get high. Lathrop had tried Vipassana once before when he discovered it during his fourth stay at NRF. But after his release, he was back in jail in just three months -- he'd gone back on crack and began stealing to support his habit. It was his typical cycle as a chronic re-offender. Yet Lathrop is convinced that Vipassana works, even though his initial success was short-lived. Of all the treatments he has tried over the years, it was the only one that made him feel in control. If he hadn't let his meditation schedule slip, he believes, he wouldn't currently be in jail. Now, he is determined to stick with Vipassana. "It takes me to a place of serenity. Vipassana is a better rush than crack," he says. "Well, my body doesn't always think so. But my mind does now."
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."
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.)
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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