The Dhamma Brothers
directed by Andrew Kukura, Jenny Phillips, Anne Marie Stein
To any inmate on death row, time must seem like an awful weight to bear. Any effort to learn how to more readily control one’s relationship with time must be considered beneficial to anyone but particularly prisoners.
Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessamer, Alabama is one of the most brutal maximum security prisons in America. As mentioned in this film stabbings are a routine occurrence and murders happen regularly as well. In this documentary a group of prisoners gather together to undergo a 10-day program that originated with Gautama Buddha called Vipassana that is, as one prisoner puts it, more difficult than his time on Death Row.
The film provides back stories for several of the inmates and we learn of their crimes while being inundated with images of them as children in order to impress upon us the fact that these are actual human beings who once had lives as well. It’s manipulative but it serves the purpose of the film. A big part of the process of Vipassana is to delve deeply into oneself and extract exceedingly difficult truths that are then held in the mind and dealt with in a practical, pragmatic manner. Of the prisoners interviewed for the film, several of them seem to have developed a deep sensitivity toward the victims of their crimes. One prisoner whose daughter is murdered during filming said that he had to love the murderer because he is a human being. It’s a startling statement that suggests a legitimate transformation has occurred. It isn’t clear if Vipassana contributed to this equanimity but it’s highly likely considering the nature of the meditation and the extent to which it is practiced.
Initially several officials at the prison question the efficacy of the program. They are unsure if a Buddhist treatment is appropriate in a state where most of the citizens are Christians. Gradually they come around and see it for what it is: a timeless method for gaining insight into one’s spirit and mind. In this world of systematized behavior where time can become for the unwitting a grievous enemy, Vipassana seems to offer an alternative to merely sitting around and allowing the same old thoughts to torment you into a stupor. Instead, it gives its practitioners an opportunity to clear their head for many hours at a time and focus only on the breathing. It is stated in the film that the sessions used to be six months in length and were eventually whittled down to ten days. Seven days was attempted but this proved to not be enough time to reap the full benefit of the treatment so it was increased back up to ten.
There is an infinite sadness to the prison and the weight of the bars is oppressive on the viewer and one cannot imagine how much more so this is true for those who call this place home. Yet, within those walls, within the hearts and minds of a few men, there is hope. Most have resigned themselves to never leaving prison and very few who have gone through the program have been released back out into the world. Subsequently it’s difficult to gage just how successful the treatment is in helping prisoners learn skills that can be adapted to life on the outside where temptations are legion. It remains an experimental series of techniques that have proven to teach some inmates who took it most seriously how to relax amidst the cacophonous reality of life behind bars. Many inmates continue to meditate and adopt it into their daily routine. It is a method to achieve a state of grace in an environment that promotes brutality, pain and infinite suffering.
Upon the session that was initially filmed, one of two things happened that inevitably led to the demise of the program for three years. The chaplain of the prison complained to the commissioner and he either stated that he was losing his congregation or that Vipassana must be terminated because it is promoting a religion other than Christianity. Regardless of the reasoning, the program was shut down and it wasn’t until a change in administration that it was reinstated.
It seems relatively clear that prisons are filled with individuals who have not learned to access the core of their hurt, anger and frustration. One prisoner in the program said essentially that he can exercise his body with weights and running but nobody has taught him how to exercise his mind. This program, as difficult and challenging as it is, gives the inmates a sense of accomplishment as they realize they have done something that is exceedingly difficult. The film suggests that this is perhaps the first time in their entire lives that some of these men have felt this way. It’s a difficult feeling to manage regarding these men. On one hand they are rapists, murderers and thieves. Yet, as an advocate suggests, a man should not be judged by a single act but by his entire life. This is a difficult sell to those who would see such men locked away for an eternity in order to protect property and potential other victims from meeting the same fate. Still, they are human beings who deserve to live with dignity and be treated as humanely as possible. They deserve to laugh, to experience joy, to be able to show their emotions openly amidst each other. Unfortunately, the unwritten code of prisons forbades any sign of open affection as homophobia is one of the essential terrors that plague these men.
It is strange to contemplate the simple idea that a person can have their life stripped away due to a single foolish act. That there are single moments that can change the course of our lives forces us to think about what causes a person to make such a clearly fateful decision. Most of these men have faced that quandary and have made the incorrect decision. This film suggests that the trigger that is pulled within the souls of these men whenever they get agitated can be stilled through the practice of Vipassana. They can learn to put the safety on this weapon that has so betrayed them in the past. They can also learn to slow down their internal clock while remaining oblivious to actual time. Indeed, they learn to divorce themselves from emotional reactions to every situation including the situation of time. They do not get disappointed, agitated, hurt, depressed, or scared. In other words their minds and bodies are in synch and they are not imprisoned within a prison by their emotional reaction to their environment.
It would make for an intriguing study to follow a group of these men once they escape their bondage and return to society. Recidivism rates are extraordinarily high at Donaldson and it would be most difficult for any man, no matter how strong, to avoid slipping back into his old way of life. If it could be proven that Vipassana can reduce these rates it would make sense that many more prisons would then feel comfortable implementing the program. It is possible that this treatment could be the single most effective factor toward rehabilitation that has ever been attempted with this country’s prisons. I imagine we are a long way off from this potentiality but the fact that it exists should at least give us pause. Unfortunately, many prison administrations aren’t in the business of rehabilitation. They focus almost exclusively on meting out punishment. The emotional and spiritual lives of prisoners under there care are immaterial and they see no purpose in attempting to teach the prisoners how to better deal with their emotions. This approach is majority and subsequently the prison system has done nothing less than create men who do not know themselves and do not understand the source of their motives. Subsequently when they are released they immediately commit another crime and return into the system. They have no clue how to face their emotions and fear and terror often guide them toward criminal acts.
Overall, Vipassana suggests that men can be treated and released back into the wild. This film shows that it is possible to calm the raging sea that exists in the lives of many either locked away or roaming free. In the film the prisoners adapted their lives to include the pursuit of tranquility through meditation. It is possible that such behavior if it were to become widespread might truly revolutionize the prison experience and lead to a decrease in inter-inmate violence while making society safer when prisoners are released. This film clearly suggests that Vipassana works in the short term to clear the minds of troubled men who take part in the program. Although it hasn’t been proven whether or not prisoners effectively return to society because of the treatment, there is certainly hope that this might be the case. If so it would prove to be a most useful tool for decreasing criminal activity and improving the lives of those who have the deck stacked against them whenever they finally do leave the prison system.