RIVERDALE, Georgia (CNN) -- In his darkest moment, Kenneth Brown lost it all. His wife and kids, the housebroken dog, the vacation home on Cape Cod all vanished when he was sent to prison for an arson in 1996.
Trapped in his gloomy cell and serving a 20-year sentence that felt like an eternity, Brown, then 49, found himself stretched out on the floor. He was silent. His eyes were shut. His body did not move.
Brown, a man raised as a Baptist and taught to praise the Lord and fear the devil, was meditating.
"I try to focus on the space between two thoughts, because it prevents me from getting lost," said Brown, who discovered meditation, yoga and Buddhist teachings three months into his sentence.
"This helped me stay on track and get me through prison," he said.
Eastern religions encompassing meditation techniques have captivated hippies, 20-somethings and celebrities like actor Richard Gere. But since the 1960s, the art of meditation also has found a growing number of unlikely followers behind prison bars.
The inmates say meditation -- an ancient practice that develops mental awareness and fosters relaxation -- is teaching them how to cope in prison.
"Mostly, the people in Buddhist community are going into the prisons, providing programs, and word of mouth gets from one inmate to another," explained Gary Friedman, communications chairman for the American Correctional Chaplains Association. "It's a break from all the hustle and noise of the prison environment."
There is no group tracking the number of inmates converting to Buddhism or engaging in meditation practices. But programs and workshops educating inmates about meditation and yoga are sprouting up across the country.
Meditation can help the convicts find calmness in a prison culture ripe with violence and chaos. The practice provides them a chance to reflect on their crimes, wrestle through feelings of guilt and transform themselves during their rehabilitative journey, Buddhist experts say.
In the past five years, books like the "Prison Chaplaincy Guidelines for Zen Buddhism" and "Razor-Wire Dharma: A Buddhist Life in Prison" have emerged.
"This is transformative justice, as opposed to punitive," said Fleet Maull, founder of the Prison Dharma Network, one of the largest support networks helping inmates learn meditation and Buddhist teachings.
Since its inception in 1989, Prison Dharma Network has grown from one person -- Maull -- teaching Buddhist principles to more than 75 member organizations corresponding with 2,500 individuals, many of them inmates.
For the past seven years, Maull's group has taught a weekly meditation class in Boulder County Jail in Colorado.
Some inmates follow Zen Buddhism, a practice that originated in China, and meet weekly to focus their minds. Others practice Vipassana, a Buddhist practice founded in India, which consists of completing hundreds of hours of meditation in a short period of time.
Buddhism has gained momentum in the United States over the past 25 years, becoming the third most popular religion in America behind Christianity and Judaism, according to the 2008 report from the the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. About 1.7 million Americans call themselves Buddhists, and many of them are converts, the study said. According to the American Religious Identification Survey in 2008, there were 1.2 million self-identified Buddhists.
Some inmates, like Brown, may not label themselves official Buddhists, but they meditate, practice yoga and followBuddhist principles on truth, responsibility and suffering.
Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?
Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.
If you would like to be involved please go to our website and become a member.
Friday, October 09, 2009