Staring at Death, and Finding Their Bliss
The inmates’ letters started to arrive at Jenny Phillips’s home in Concord, Mass., during the summer of 2002. For five years they’ve kept coming — 200 at last count, written by 14 men serving time in the Donaldson Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison with a death-row capacity for 24 inmates outside Birmingham, Ala.
“Jenny, you have become a driving force of inspiration in my life,” read one typical note, from Edward Johnson, now serving a life sentence for aiding and abetting a triple homicide.
Ms. Phillips, a cultural anthropologist, psychotherapist and now documentary filmmaker, cemented this bond during the filming of “The Dhamma Brothers,” a documentary she began in 2002 chronicling a 10-day meditation retreat in Donaldson. She interviewed the 36 participating prisoners (called “the dhamma brothers” after the Dhamma, or dharma, the term for the collective teachings of the Buddha) for hours, discussing their childhoods, their crimes, their struggles to get through each day in lockup and the Sisyphean challenge of trying personal transformation inside an often-hopeless prison culture.
One result is an emotional documentary about the benefits of meditation for a most unlikely set of candidates. But until a year ago, the film was shaping up as a different story than the uplifting one it has become.
The impetus for the film came in 1999. Ms. Phillips, who had volunteered in Massachusetts prisons and conducted research on prison culture, heard that some inmates were informally practicing meditation inside Donaldson. After trading letters with the meditation group’s leader and traveling to the prison to meet the men, Ms. Phillips, herself a meditator, wondered if a more formal and intensive program could further help the men’s stress levels. (Similar programs have long been proven successful in some prisons in India.) Ms. Phillips approached two meditation teachers, Bruce Stewart and Jonathan Crowley, to lead a Vipassana meditation course — a 10-day meditation program held in complete silence — at Donaldson.
As Buddhism inches toward the pop culture mainstream, practitioners are taking its tenets of mindfulness, acceptance and compassion to populations in need of spiritual guidance, namely prisons and centers for troubled youths.
Prisoners have been practicing meditation on their own through outreach programs for years. The Prison-Ashram Project began in 1973 and in 1989 the Prison Dharma Network was founded, an umbrella organization now encompassing over 100 prison volunteer groups from different Buddhist traditions. Donaldson’s 10-day course would mark the first time that an intensive retreat would be held in such a high-security prison in the United States, Ms. Phillips said.
Along with her crew, Ms. Phillips documented the process: cushions and sleeping mats were laid down in a Donaldson gym, where the participating prisoners meditated in complete isolation. Convicts serving life sentences for gruesome crimes focused on their breath, much like the Buddha taught more than 2,500 years ago.
“No one thought these guys could tolerate a 10-day meditation course,” Ms. Phillips said in a phone interview. But the prisoners did more than tolerate it.
“We were finding that after this 10-day course, inmates were better able to control their anger and better able to conduct themselves,” said Dr. Ron Cavanaugh, director of treatment at the Alabama Department of Corrections, who worked with Ms. Phillips to bring Vipassana meditation to Donaldson. “The initial group had about a 20 percent reduction in their disciplinary histories.” After the course ended and the film crew returned to Massachusetts, the Dhamma brothers continued meditating daily, with a longer sitting once a week.
But months later, in July 2002, they received word that they would no longer be allowed to sit, and Ms. Phillips would no longer be allowed to film.
“The chaplain had reservations about inmates turning into Buddhists and losing his congregation,” Dr. Cavanaugh said. “He called the commissioner; the commissioner called the warden and told the warden to shut down the program.”
The Dhamma brothers were now only a community in spirit. “I felt responsible,” Ms. Phillips said.
“Perhaps in my greediness of making a film,” she added, “I had hurt these people. When you’re in such a state of deprivation anyway, and you’re deprived of things that are so helpful to you — it was absolutely devastating.”
For the next four years Ms. Phillips corresponded by mail with the Dhamma brothers. “I didn’t think we’d ever get back in again,” she said.
While Ms. Phillips and Mr. Cavanaugh continued to hope that the Vipassana courses could return to Donaldson and the Dhamma brothers, Ms. Phillips and her team — the editor and co-director Andy Kukura of Boston’s Northern Lights Productions and another director, Anne Marie Stein — resigned themselves to making a film that would be “a downer,” Mr. Kukura said.
But in December 2005 Ms. Phillips received a call from Dr. Cavanaugh informing her that the administration had changed at Donaldson, the meditation program had been reinstalled and the film crew could come back.
“It was the perfect way to resolve the film,” she said. “It would’ve been a film of failure — failure to do something meaningful in the prison.”
Now her crew and the Dhamma brothers hope for more festival support (it’s already winning awards on the circuit, including a tie for best documentary at the Wood Hole Film Festival) and, eventually, a commercial audience for the movie. “Letters from the Dhamma Brothers,” an accompanying book of the letters the inmates sent to Ms. Phillips and the Vipassana teachers, is scheduled for publication in early 2008 by Pariyatti Press.
“It appears that it was a miracle that this happened in the Deep South in one of the worst prisons in the country in the first place,” Mr. Stewart, the Vipassana teacher, said. “It also seems like a miracle that we’re back. But it’s just cause and effect. If the men hadn’t had this keen desire for self-improvement, I don’t think this would’ve happened.”