Elevate Difference

The Dhamma Brothers: East Meets West in the Deep South

What would happen if the American prison system was based on a treatment model versus a punitive model? The administrators at the W. E. Donaldson Correctional Facility wondered what would happen if they introduced the ancient Vipassana meditation techniques to prisoners. The Vipassana program is modeled after a program in India. The administrators hoped that the Vipassana meditation program would have a calming effect on the prison population. Donaldson Correctional Facility is a maximum security prison located in the countryside southwest of Birmingham, Alabama. The facility houses about 1,500 prisoners with sentences ranging from six months to life terms. The administrators decided to offer a Vipassana retreat for prisoners who wanted to participate in the program. Participants would be required sit in silent meditation for ten days. Vipassana is the Theravada Buddhism mediation technique known as Insight meditation. Vipassana requires the mediator focus the concentrated mind on suffering, impermanence, and lack of the enduring self. The program would allow the inmates to deal with their anger and to rise above the prison culture of revenge, hatred, and retaliation.

The program was met with skepticism from prison officials and local residents. Prison officials feared that some inmates would use the program as a way to get out of being in the prison block and they would not really devote themselves fully to the program. There was also resistance to teaching Buddhist meditation techniques to predominately Christian prison population.

I found the documentary to be very interesting and inclusive of the viewpoints of prison administrators, inmates, community members, and teachers. According to the directors of the film, The Dhamma Brothers seeks to tell the story of spiritual development and the formation of a bond of brotherhood among inmates in maximum security facility. The film focuses on a select group of inmates and their search for a sense of peace and redemption.

The inmates who participated in the mediation retreat did take the program seriously and were profoundly changed. The prisoners were able to take the time in the silent retreat to explore the sensations driving their behavior. Many of the participants were able to confront their emotions and learned to forgive themselves as well as other people in their lives. Inmates continued to meet for mediation groups after they graduated from the program, but they had to discontinue meetings due to opposition from the prison chaplain in 2002. Meditation groups were able to resume meetings in 2006 when the prison administration changed. Rick Smith, an inmate serving a life sentence and who participated in the program, summed up his feelings by saying, “I thought my biggest fear was growing old in prison. I realized my biggest fear was growing old and not knowing myself.”

Written by: Rekesha Spellman, July 12th 2009