Finding Peace In Prison
We’ve heard the term ‘keeping your emotions locked up’ but on Rikers Island any form of expressing feelings is - literally - behind bars. That’s why the Rangjung Prison Dharma Project started bringing meditation practices to Rikers Island Correctional Facility.
Over the past six months, the Rangjung Prison Dharma Project has served around 100 female inmates as well as a community of correctional officers through meditation and contemplative support as a tool for reducing stress and creating self-refection.
Founder, Justin von Bujdoss came to meditation through many years of studying Tibetan Buddhism at monasteries in Northeastern India. Over time, he was asked to open a dharma center in the states and soon founded, New York Tsurphu Goshir Dharma Center . “It became clear when we opened the center that we wanted to do something to engage the community in New York City,” says Justin.
So what does a typical one-hour meditation session look like with inmates? First, the room is set up with a circle of chairs creating a safe space for a 7-minute meditation then discussion, led by Justin and a few volunteers, of what kind of thoughts/emotions are coming to the surface. “We do sending and receiving exercises - inhaling negative problems and exhaling love and kindness,” he explains.
"Coming to meditation is the only way that I can deal with the anxiety that I feel as I wait for sentencing," said one inmate, who wished to remain anonymous as the other inmates did.
Many of the female inmates have drug and prostitution charges and suffer from mental illness. The program’s goal is to prepare the inmates for risky situations when they are released that may land them back in prison. “We don't have the ability to take away someone’s suffering, but we do have the ability to have them see their patterns and the traps they put themselves in,” Justin explains.
Most of the inmates seem to have a visceral response to practicing meditation at Rikers. "Since I've been here, I've been separated from my family and my baby boy. I am reminded every day about what I did that put me here and took me away from what I should be doing: taking care of my son. Meditation helps me see how I'm feeling and see some of the ways I made mistakes through my reactions," explained another inmate.
Darren Ornitz volunteers twice a week at Rikers and has seen varying levels of interest amongst participants over the past several months since the program has changed from mandatory to voluntary.
“Meditation is about getting familiar with our minds,” Darren explains. “It allows us to loosen the solidity of our conceptual thinking and in doing so we are able to develop a mind that is more spacious, less judgmental and less impulsively reactive.” He believes this is what helps the inmates relate to their extreme amounts of uncertainty and somewhat hostile environment with more patience, equanimity, and compassion.
"This is a very stressful place. No one wants to be here. But we are. Meditation makes me feel peaceful. I feel that even here, in jail, I can really feel who I am," explained another inmate.
Another group of people dealing with an enormous amount of uncertainty at Rikers are the correctional officers.There are constant feelings of fear and anxiety because they show up at work and could very well be attacked.
On site meditation has now become mandatory for the correctional officers. “There is a lot of room for learning how to be mindful of what’s arising within you as an officer,” says Justin, “and not automatically reacting in a violent response on others.”
When it comes to contraband, luckily, chimes and gongs are not considered weapons. However, Justin and his team of volunteers continue to remind those in confinement that the most lethal arsenal of self-destruction is: the mind.
For more information on The Rangjung Prison Dharma Project, or to get involved, email email@example.com.
--Ashley Rose Howard
--drawing by inmate