In a windowless room lighted by fluorescent bulbs, eight men in matching navy blue outfits are silently sitting in a circle, waiting for me to speak.
Glancing around nervously, I begin. “Take a deep breath, and let your eyes close,” I tell them, doing the same myself after a moment. “Notice how you’re holding yourself; is your spine straight but relaxed, your shoulders loose, your face soft?”
I take a peek: Everyone’s eyes are closed. Sitting in hard plastic chairs, some concentrate intensely; others slouch. But they all look serious.
“Now begin to focus on your breathing,” I continue. “Simply observe the sensations: the in and out of air in your nostrils, the rising and falling of your chest.
Thoughts will arise, and that’s okay. Just let them go and return to your breath.” The words come more easily than I’d anticipated, and suddenly I feel sure I’m in the right place. ¶ It’s my first day as a volunteer meditation teacher in the D.C. Department of Corrections’ Residential Substance Abuse Treatment unit. Before arriving, I had been on edge: Would the guys accept anything I had to say? Would I feel safe? It’s a detention center holding men convicted of serious crimes, after all, part of a corrections complex that spreads out against the Anacostia River in Southeast and includes the D.C. jail. But the program is a voluntary one for nonviolent
offenders with substance abuse problems. Mostly felons, they’ve been convicted of crimes like theft or selling drugs, and have elected to take advantage of the program’s many courses in topics such as anger management and relapse prevention. Still, many inmates have mental health issues and have been through the correctional system several times.
Luckily, I’m not by myself; teaching with me is Craig Ehrlich, a longtime meditator from Gaithersburg who has worked with the group for a few months. Before class, he meets me at the building entrance and we proceed upstairs, making our way through three sets of locked gates and a remotely controlled elevator. With its cold cinder block walls and labyrinthine passages, the place is intimidating, but Ehrlich doesn’t seem uneasy, so I’m not, either.
The only moment that gives me pause is when we get to the substance abuse unit. The electronic door slides open to a raucous common area, and suddenly a roomful of men, maybe 25 in all, is baldly checking me out. No one’s smiling, and the only guard is sitting at a desk across the room. Swallowing hard, I glance around, not sure where to look. Finally, I follow Ehrlich to the meditation room.
Ranging in age from 25 to 45, the inmates in our group are African American, and many go by nicknames: King, Deacon, Action, Zio. The majority were referred by the RSAT’s program manager, and Ehrlich says most were initially skeptical. But now, a few months in, the class is notable for its lack of tension; just about everyone opens up fairly quickly about his feelings. And each man says he wants to change.
On my first day, Ehrlich does most of the talking, which is a relief; I’m feeling tightly wound, unsure of how to relate to the group. He kicks off the class by asking King, whose tattoos read “loyalty” and “King” in ornate script on his arms, to describe meditation for the newer guys. King — a.k.a. Cappuccino, a.k.a. Harvey Washington — is, with several months in the group, its longest-standing member.
“Meditation is about learning to observe yourself,” King explains. “You focus on your breathing, or on something else like your body or the sounds around you, and you get out of the cycle of being caught up in your thoughts. It helps you see things more clearly — you get to know yourself better.”
Ehrlich thanks him, then asks me to lead the short meditation. Afterward, the inmates discuss their responses.
Deacon, who’s bouncy and cheerful, says he pictured himself back in his neighborhood; that got him thinking about the weekend and what he’d be doing if he were out.
“I want to do a good job,” I write in my journal that night. “I need to learn more.”
Zio, a young guy with a mournful expression, is depressed. “I started to feel guilty while I was meditating, because it’s my girl’s birthday, and I’m going to miss it,” he said. He adds that he’s an alcoholic and is looking for a different way of dealing with his problems.
“So what are you going to do when you’re feeling triggered to get back into alcohol and drugs?” Ehrlich asks Zio, then opens it up to the others. They look at him blankly. “You get better and better at pausing between action and reaction,” Ehrlich answers himself. “We call it the ‘sacred pause’ — it helps you to not just dive right back into your habitual responses.”
“That’s my problem,” Action says. “Sometimes I fly off the handle too quickly.” Others nod. And several mention that impulse control is something they want to work on.
Perfect, I think.
The only person who doesn’t appear invested is Louraca, a new addition to the class and its only transgender member. Though born male, Louraca’s plucked eyebrows, flowery gestures and lilting giggle convey a feminine vibe. When it comes to opening up about her feelings, though, she reveals little. “I felt like I was dreaming” is all she says after the meditation. “It felt good.”
Introducing the meditation exercise felt natural, but that’s only part of the class; for the rest of the 90-minute session, the group engages in a discussion that ranges from how to manage powerful emotions to addiction issues to Buddhist concepts of suffering. Almost wholly self-taught, I worry that I won’t be able to address the more complex issues.
“I want to do a good job,” I write in my journal that night. “I need to learn more.”
What we teach at the RSAT is mindfulness meditation: noticing thoughts, emotions and sensations that arise without judging them — a deceptively difficult practice. In recent years, scientists have shown that meditation switches on genes linked to immune functioning, increases gray matter in the brain, rewires neural pathways — not to mention boosts happiness, lowers stress, improves concentration and leads to increased compassion.
When I started meditating 20 years ago, I proselytized to everyone I knew. A few years later, I heard that a friend of a friend taught meditation to prisoners. No one, I reasoned, needs meditation more than people in jail.
“For me, it’s a great way to keep my practice clarified and to share with these people what mindfulness meditation has done for me.”
Craig Ehrlich, instructor
But I’d almost forgotten about it by the time I came across Ehrlich, who helps to administer classes in regional detention centers. Called Insight on the Inside, the program is an offshoot of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, a loose group that has operated for 15 years and offers dozens of mindfulness courses every week.
IOI launched in 2009 and currently reaches 150 inmates weekly. The program is still expanding, and meditation classes are held in institutions in Alexandria, Arlington, Montgomery County and the District. Started in 2012, courses at the D.C. Department of Corrections now have the most participants; classes take place in the RSAT unit and in the men’s, women’s and juveniles’ sections.
IOI’s volunteer teachers number about 20. They range in age from mid-30s to late 60s, and the majority are white and middle class: lawyers, artists, scientists, teachers, corporate employees. Everyone’s a seasoned meditator but not necessarily a pro.
“For me, it’s a great way to keep my practice clarified and to share with these people what mindfulness meditation has done for me,” says Ehrlich, echoing many other volunteers. “I really want to share the truth that change is possible.” Formerly a field service engineer with Kodak, Ehrlich, 60, now divides his time between teaching tai chi and working as IOI’s co-facilitator.
For their part, D.C. DOC staff members have been remarkably supportive of the classes. “I think the program is great, because some people don’t know how to articulate their issues,” says Linda Greene, the DOC’s volunteer services coordinator. “They’re able to open up and talk — talk about anger, progress, making plans for moving forward in a calm manner — and that’s what’s key. No one can help you if you can’t talk about your issues.”
It’s several weeks after that first class, and the inmates looking me over don’t seem as menacing, I realize — just interested. I don’t know what anyone’s in prison for, and that allows me to talk as I would with anyone.
But the moods inevitably vary from class to class. Deacon, who had initially struck me as easygoing, is irritable today: The sound of the fan is bugging him, and he says he can’t relax. Finally he admits, “I’m thinking about what’s going to happen when I get out, whether I’m going to be able to find a job.”
Action is crabby. Zio teases him by kicking his chair, and a hard look comes over Action’s face. “Quit it, I told you,” he says with a glare.
Meanwhile, King, who has mentioned that he likes fashion, hands me a sheaf of photos depicting his life on the outside. There’s King in neat khakis and a polo shirt in front of a big house; King leaning on a shiny car in white pants and shoes; King wearing bling and looking sharp in a leather jacket. The difference is startling.
Another surprise is Louraca. In today’s class, she’s talking about how another inmate refused to pay her the $3 he owed her. “I was so mad,” she says. “I went back to my cell and couldn’t stop thinking about it.” Within the past few weeks, Louraca has shaken off her aloofness, frequently asking questions and even leading discussions. There’s a warmth and an openness now as she talks about her struggles to manage her emotions.
Near the end, I introduce a long meditation. As usual, we all close our eyes first, something that used to unnerve me. Sitting with my eyes closed in a roomful of convicted criminals, with no guard or even a camera keeping watch? It could be dangerous. But now I do it readily, having faith that the men are with me and showing that I trust them.
“Imagine you’re on your back looking at a blue sky, with clouds that come and go,” I begin. “Those clouds are like your thoughts: insubstantial, almost like dreams. Some days they’re barely there; other days there’s a thick cover. But the blue sky — the sense of presence and peace — is always there.”
When it’s over, King says, “You should talk more,” and a couple of the other guys nod. My eyebrows go up. “I like women’s voices more than men’s,” he explains. “Here, it’s all men.”
After class, Ehrlich stops me. “Do you want to lead the next class?” he asks.
The point to these courses is the hope that they’ll give the inmates tools to change their habits and their lives. But are the classes effective?
The best person to answer that is Fleet Maull. Founder of the Providence, R.I.-based Prison Mindfulness Institute, Maull spent 14 years in prison, where, 24 years ago, he began teaching meditation to fellow inmates. These days, his organization provides training and research to more than 185 groups that teach meditation to offenders.
“There are more and more people on the outside who are getting interested in taking meditation programs into prisons and jails,” Maull says. Out of the 2.4 million people incarcerated, he estimates the number of offenders taking meditation at 50,000. Getting an exact figure is difficult; many of the organizations that lead courses are small and don’t keep robust records, he says.
“We have huge amounts of anecdotal evidence” that meditation has the capacity to turn people around.
Fleet Maull, founder, Prison Mindfulness Institute
The answer to whether the courses have long-term effects is tricky. Research has shown a decrease in substance abuse and negative emotions among offenders, and a concomitant increase in self-esteem and well-being. But the most important information doesn’t exist.
“Recidivism data” — that is, numbers showing how many offenders return to jail within three years — “is obviously the gold standard, because that’s the goal,” Maull says. “But it takes time: You have to work with people who are getting out soon, and you have to follow them.” His group is applying for funding to make a long-term study of offenders after they leave prison.
There’s no doubt in Maull’s mind that meditation has the capacity to turn people around. “We have huge amounts of anecdotal evidence,” he says. “We’ve seen people move from lives that are in chaos and out of control to ones where they have a sense of agency; they’re able to be skillful in their relationships and to move forward in their lives.”
A week later, the group’s dynamic has shifted: A handful of new guys has arrived, and Zio and Action have been released.
I’m in charge today. I begin by talking about how meditation isn’t just about relaxation; how, if they stay with it, they’ll eventually get to know and become comfortable with the things they might not like about themselves. Then I lead a long meditation that becomes a visualization, asking them to remember a place where they felt safe and happy.
When it’s over, we talk about the exercise. “I’d thought doing illegal activity was what made me feel good, but that never came up,” King says. “I pictured myself in my bed, just laying there with my stepson, him under my wing” — he gestures to indicate his arm around the boy — “talking. Even though he was maybe 2 years old, we were really talking about things. It was really nice.”
It bothers me that we’ll never know how much of a difference we’re making.
“I thought of being high, and it freaked me out,” Louraca says. This isn’t the first time she’s talked about her urge to get high. “Is that okay?”
I look to Ehrlich, unsure of the answer. “It doesn’t matter what you felt,” he responds. “What matters is how you reacted to it.”
She nods. “I guess it disturbed me, and I decided to close the door on that feeling.”
It’s an honest session, the best kind.
“It’s so important to just be responsive to what the guys need and where they are,” I write in my journal later that evening. That’s a meditation in itself: staying in the moment and responding authentically, rather than trying to make the class what I think it should be.
It bothers me, though, that we’ll never know how much of a difference we’re making. Ehrlich tries to start a weekly class for newly released ex-offenders, but barely anyone comes, and he gives up. In the battle to resist falling back into longtime habits, will they continue meditating once they’re out?
Not long after I lead the session, King and Louraca both leave: He’s sent to federal prison in Pennsylvania, and she is released. In their place is a new crop of men: It’s a conveyor belt.
About a month later, I’m walking down Fifth Street NW to the Safeway, and Louraca is walking toward me. She’s wearing a pink T-shirt, cutoff jeans, spangled flip-flops and heart-shaped sunglasses. “I can’t believe it’s you!” I blurt out with an enormous smile on my face. In that moment, I realize how much I’d grown to care for her.
“How’s it going?” I ask.
“Okay,” she says. “It’s okay being out. Kind of mixed — hard and easy.”
I’m so enthusiastic that it takes me a minute to realize Louraca doesn’t seem particularly happy to see me. In fact, she’s kind of distant, vague and woozy; maybe she’s drunk or high. She doesn’t much resemble the confident class leader I had come to know. Seeing her is a reminder that, as restrictive and stultifying as it is, life on the inside has a certain simplicity. The real world brings with it hard choices.
Louraca was walking with a guy when I first saw her. Looking up the block, I see he’s waiting for her but pretending not to. Which makes me nervous for her for some reason. “Are you keeping out of trouble?” I ask.
“Oh, yeah,” she answers. “I don’t want to go back to that place.”
I nod, she nods, and we shake hands. And then I have to let her go.
Amanda Abrams is a freelance writer living in Washington.
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