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The Dhamma Brothers gives inside scoop on prison meditation programs
Locked up and chilling out

While the prisons must make certain logistical arrangements, the classes themselves are offered at no charge through the nonprofit Vipassana Prison Trust.
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Jenny Phillips didn't set out to become a documentary filmmaker. Phillips, who lives in Concord, Mass., was trained as a psychotherapist and cultural anthropologist. She has three graduate degrees under her belt.

"I had no background in filmmaking," she concedes. "I made [the film] because the story grabbed me and wouldn't let me go. The truth of these men's lives, their stories and their journeys inside themselves needed to be told."

Phillips' film, The Dhamma Brothers (available on DVD from the distributor, Bullfrog Films), is about the vipassana meditation course at W.E. Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer, Ala.

Vipassana is an unusually demanding style of meditation, taught over a 10-day period. Participants take a vow of silence, meditate for 10 hours per day, and abstain from certain vices. Says Grady Bankhead, a convicted killer featured in the film, "I spent eight and a half years on death row, and this was harder."

While researching her subject, Phillips traveled to Madison to interview Richard Davidson, the UW's guru of meditation study. Although material from that interview didn't make it into the film itself (Phillips chose instead to remain mostly inside the prison's walls), it can be found in the DVD extras.

"There's so much misunderstanding of meditation," reflects Phillips. "I'm glad that Richie is teaching the scientific world and the public. There's something profound that happens [in meditation]."

As it makes the rounds at film festivals and community screenings, Phillips' film, made with co-directors Anne Marie Stein and Andrew Kukura, is spreading interest in prison vipassana programs.

Such courses can be controversial. "A lot of naysayers think we're robbing public resources and giving it to a population that doesn't deserve it. But the prisoners are not being coddled, sitting around eating chocolate and enjoying themselves. They're working hard. It's a win-win: It doesn't cost much, and the benefits are tremendous."

Indeed, while the prisons must make certain logistical arrangements, the classes themselves are offered at no charge through the nonprofit Vipassana Prison Trust.

Ultimately, Phillips argues, programs like vipassana are in the public's best interest.

"It's a public safety issue," she says. "Prisons are going to be much safer places [if these courses are taught]. Vipassana offers a sense of hope and possibility, and staffs are safer in these prisons. A large majority of prisoners - 97% or so - will be living next door or down the street from us [after their release]. We had better find ways to help them when they readjust."

Work is already under way to potentially expand meditation offerings in Wisconsin prisons and jails. Rev. Jerry Hancock of the Madison-based Prison Ministry Project ("Holy Redeemer," 1/2/09) is now setting up meetings between advocates of this approach, including Davidson, and prison officials.

"We hope to build on the presentation of The Dhamma Brothers film and what the Prison Ministry Project has been doing with a meditation program at the maximum security prison in Portage for three years," Hancock says.

Currently, Hancock's group offers prisoners once-a-week meditation. "That's been really successful, and we'd like to be able to expand that program and do more in-depth training for inmates on meditation," he says.

While the idea is still in the exploratory stage, Hancock is excited that Davidson has taken an interest in prison meditation and welcomes the scientific credibility the eminent researcher's name carries. He calls it "a great way of moving this project forward."

Dimitri Topitzes, an assistant professor of social work at UW-Milwaukee, thinks meditation might benefit other groups, including at-risk and offending adolescents. To date, no vipassana program has been offered at a facility for juvenile offenders.

"If there were, the program would likely be modified, and the intensity would be modulated," says Topitzes. "It wouldn't necessarily be a 10-day retreat."

In fact, youth have perhaps more to gain than adults. Not only do they have their whole lives ahead of them, their brains are still developing.

"If they can learn these skills [of emotional regulation] while their adolescent brains are still developing," says Topitzes, "that bodes well for their development through emerging adulthood."

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