State of Grace: How Buddhist Teachings Transformed a Maximum Security Prison in Alabama

Matt Mazur
Edward Johnson at Donaldson Correctional Facility near Birmingham, Alabama, in Jenny Phillips’ film THE DHAMMA BROTHERS.

In her new documentary, Jenny Phillips frames the daily, shackled grind of prisoners' lives with social injustices, but also investigates what it is like to be a prisoner doing hard time in the South choosing to practice guided Buddhist meditation techniques.

"The stories of The Dhamma Brothers ring with the truth and power of their experiences, and offer the hope for renewal and rehabilitation within a dismal and punishment-oriented correctional system. It gives you hope for the human race."

-- Sister Helen Prejean, author, Dead Man Walking

Alabama is like another world in many respects. There are distinct racial, political, economic, and religious battles being waged on a daily basis in the streets it seems.

It is a quietly reserved place, nearly covered in a jungle of jade kudzu vines, where more than 80 percent of the population votes Republican (and that's just in the Presidential elections!), and 92 percent believe, in various capacities, in some form of Christianity -- the state is, after all, smack dab in the middle of the Bible belt.

Tensions run high in many neighborhoods, and believe it or not, there are still bad feelings haunting the state that seem to be leftover from the Civil Rights battles that were waged there more than 50 years ago. The proliferation of flying Confederate flags, bumper stickers and license plates is only the insidious tip of that particular iceberg. Although the state famously decried segregation, there is still a painfully obvious disparity between the black, Latino and white populations and between those with money and those without.

Like any state with modern problems that revolve around race and class, there are obviously both good and bad things about Alabama, but overall, I found that there is not a lot of joy to spare. No offense to the good, hard-working folks who live there, but I have lived there too, and having taken in its moribund charms, I have no desire to ever go back for fear I might be gay-bashed by a white supremacist while trying to enjoy my succulent barbeque.

So, why on earth would anthropologist/psychotherapists/filmmaker Jenny Phillips dare to step inside of the Donaldson Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison that houses some of the worst offenders and castaways of this society?

In her new documentary, The Dhamma Brothers, Phillips frames the daily, shackled grind of the prisoners' lives with these social injustices, but also investigates, with a fresh, clear perspective, what it is like to be a prisoner doing hard time in the South choosing to practice guided Buddhist meditation techniques.

Deep within this facility's walls, an unlikely group of inmates (some on death row) are challenging all of the stereotypes and misconceptions about the South, about prisoners, about masculinity, and about the modern spirituality of the incarcerated. They, in fact, were transcending these trappings by practicing Vipassana, an intense, silent, ten-day crash course induction into a sacred world many of the inmates had likely never even heard of until Donaldson became the first prison in the United States to give it a try.

In a region where anything other than Christianity is predictably labeled "witchcraft" (as one woman interviewed called Buddhism -- "I don't believe it will help at all"), Dr. Ron Cavanaugh, Director of Treatment for the Alabama Department of Corrections, decided to throw caution to the wind and try something revolutionary and unprecedented. In short, mainly, because there wasn't anything to lose.

"We had to plan for several years," said director Phillips. "Bringing together into one setting an ancient Eastern meditation practice and an Alabama maximum security prison required much flexibility and trust building. Being from the North was initially a drawback, and one that required that we all first demonstrate our trustworthiness and responsibility to lead prisoners through this program."

Prisoners at Donaldson Correctional Facility near Birmingham, Alabama, meditate in their cells -- Wayne Finch (top bunk), Edward Johnson (bottom bunk, left), Charles Ice (bottom bunk, right) -- in Jenny Phillips' film The Dhamma Brothers

Practiced in prisons in countries like India with great success, Vipassana is an ancient, rigorous practice based on the Dhamma, the Buddha's teachings. In one of the most conservative, right-wing Christian, dangerous corners of the South, it was about to make its stateside debut. Prison officials called the program "intimidating", but were interested in experimenting mainly because of the benefits implied for them.

The 36 participants at Donaldson had already, in a sense, given their lives to the system in committing their crimes, many of them serving congruent life sentences without hope of parole. It could also be said that they gave their lives a second time, to affect social change and bring basic humanity for prisoners back into the equation.

Phillips, who has worked in prisons in Massachusetts for many years, cleverly brings up the age old questions of how prisoners should actually be treated, while exploring their right to religious freedom. Are they simply the property of the (allegedly) financially-strapped state, who should be locked away and forgotten about? Or should more value be placed on these lives so many people are so keen to throw away, as they may one day end up back in our society?

Called "a breeding ground for violence" by a prison official, who nonchalantly added "someone being stabbed or killed is a common occurrence", Donaldson is where men are sent when the end of the line is nearing. These are repeat offenders. These are some of the most hardened men in Alabama's penitentiaries, where the popular opinion seems to be 'leave them there to rot', rather than rehabilitate.

Drugs, gambling, and prostitution of other inmates are a mere sampling of the infractions taking place within the walls of the prison, and former warden Stephen Bolland, when interviewed by Phillips, likened what goes on inside Donaldson to what happens in any major city plagued by organized crime, as if it was both uncontrollable and to be expected.

The filmmaker presents a balanced account of the program, the men's lives and personal stories, as well as the injustices visited upon the men in a corrupt system. Phillips' interesting depiction of masculinity in the Deep South is a celebratory change of pace. Crying is not something the men are ashamed of, and being in tune with their emotions is OK.

Silhouette of prisoners practicing Vipassana meditation in Jenny Phillips' THE DHAMMA BROTHERS.

Trying new, unusual practices is also not taboo. These men are not portrayed as desperate saints searching for distraction from the long hours of toil, but as human beings searching for meaning in a very limited situation. Most are quick to admit some form of culpability for their crimes, and most are seeking a way to simply face themselves in the mirror each day. "I am continuously caught off guard by the readiness among prisoners to open up and look at themselves," said Phillips. "To address their own misery and the misery they have caused others."

The circumstances of these men's incarcerations extend far beyond their actual crimes. Many point to the economic despair and poverty that permeates the region as a primer for their transgressions, which shares points of intersection with racism, xenophobia, class, and more.

In a smart move, Phillips includes a vignette of man-on-the-street interviews with denizens of the state, who had mostly negative opinions of both the program and of prisoners in general. "They should have mediated before they done whatever they did to get in there", is the wisdom offered by one local intellect, and a sentiment shared by most of the interviewees.

Though the instructors, Jonathan Crowley and Bruce Stewart (of the Vipassana Meditation Center in Shelburne Falls, Massachusettes), had no previous background in corrections, they gamely packed their gear and moved into a cell to live amongst the violent offenders -- another first that Phillips said was tough to make happen. That a camera crew was allowed into the prison in the first place was somewhat of a feat, but to engrain two green spiritual leaders into the fold was even more of a high wire act.

Skeptics included, well, everyone. Prisoners, corrections officers, and the public were worried about the rigorous nature of the program, one calling it "a prison within a prison". Phillips thought that "it would be very hard to fake 11 hours a day of sitting in silence and stillness. If the initial motivations of some were to 'get away from the blocks and waste time', this quickly wore off and the real work began. In my many years of working with prisoners, I have found that an initial reserve and focus on superficial benefits of showing up for a treatment program quickly fades away during the sheer demand of hard work and serious introspection."

The five precepts of Vipassana are: no intoxicants (of any kind), no killing, no stealing, no lying, and no sexual misconduct. In addition, there would be no prayer allowed, which seemed to be more of a problem for the prison administration than for the participants, who seemed eager to learn and to change.

Sequestered away in a gymnasium, away from the general population of inmates, the Dhamma Brothers were sealed in, and once the door was closed, there was no turning back. As Phillips filmed the men walking to the session, their modest possessions in tow, she was able to capture the pride the men had in undertaking something that everyone else had basically written off as an exercise that would allow them to slack off or to manipulate parole boards with. They looked excited to be given a chance to look inward.

Through this deeply spiritual, albeit pragmatic and scientific technique, viewers are shown that most of these men don't neatly fit the stereotypes of prisoners that are so widespread in our culture. They aren't the thuggish monsters we are often led to believe death row inmates are (though there are plenty of those guys in this prison), but to the contrary, they are highly articulate, sensitive people, who through this deep self-realization exercise are finding new ways to cope with the horrors of their pasts.

"I thought my biggest fear was growing old and dying in prison", said Dhamma Brother Rick Smith, serving life without parole for the stabbing of a female store clerk. "In truth, my biggest fear was growing old and not knowing myself."

Johnny Mack Young participates in an extended Vipassana retreat with other prisoners from Donaldson Correctional Facility near Birmingham, Alabama, in Jenny Phillips' film The Dhamma Brothers.

The changes that one goes through doing a stretch of time like he is, the transformation that must happen out of necessity and survival, leave very little room for exploring personal identity. There definitely isn't a lot of time for hope. Phillips offers this with her film and its reassurance that sometimes connections can be made in the most unlikely places.

In 2002, the Dhamma Brothers were forbidden to meditate, despite the positive outcomes of the initial session, seemingly as a result of religious panic. What the men worked so hard for was taken away as quickly as it was given. What more did they need to do to prove that anyone is capable of shaping their own destiny?

In keeping with what they had been taught, the Brothers took this obstacle in stride, without negativity. Phillips worried that she had failed her subjects and that her crew would never be allowed back at the prison, but after four long years, they were allowed back in and the men were once again given the privilege to meditate. "My best memory, which always makes me cry when I see it in the film, was walking back into the prison after four years and seeing the men waiting for us," said the director.

To watch men who had no hope, or thought that everything was over, now connect and become better people in this unfair situation is a profoundly moving experience. When the men are glimpsed by Phillips, feeling comfortable enough to let down their guard long enough to hug one another or simply to flash a genuine smile to the camera, the documentary wildly succeeds in smashing preconceptions with candidly unforgettable, yet wrenching moments of humanness.

Perhaps the most heart-breaking lesson comes from Grady Bankhead, a former death row inmate rescued from execution the day before he was scheduled to die by a defense attorney. Though he claims to have had nothing to do with the actual killing of the man murdered in front of him while he was drunk, he accepts his part in the crime and takes full responsibility for where he was and for what happened, even if it was just a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

During his incarceration, Bankhead learned that his own daughter, who was left fatherless after he was imprisoned for life, was sexually assaulted and murdered as an adult. Rather than directing rage at his daughter's killer, he offers the man empathy, but most importantly, he is able to express what he was not shown, humanity and love.

It is an astonishing moment of clarity for the man, one that proves that Vipassana has worked on at least one Donaldson inmate, and proves there is hope for reshaping and rehabilitating the most hardened offenders. There might be hope hiding in Alabama, after all. "I actually think Alabama is more flexible and open to an out of the box program like Vipassana," said Phillips. "Remember, it happened there and not up North!"

The Dhamma Brothers opens in New York City at Cinema Village on April 11th with subsequent premieres in Boston, Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco and Seattle in the weeks following. For more information on screenings around the country, please visit the film's official website.

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