Rev. Diane Wilde is a lay-ordained Buddhist minister, a founding member of Sacramento Insight Meditation Center, and founder of the Buddhist Pathways Prison Project. The following excerpts are taken from her original article in Parabola (Spring 2019). For more stories of peace in prison look for Still, in the City available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Indiebound.

A large number of inmates who come to Buddhist services in California’s northern prisons are products of the street life in the city of Los Angeles. They are frequently members of various gangs. Unfortunately, the intense rivalries and the politics in the gang lifestyle often intensify in the claustrophobic confines of prison. Instead of gangs “owning” various areas of the city of Los Angeles, they now “own” areas of the prison yard. Gang members self-segregate in this small prison city. Leaving gang lifestyle is notoriously difficult. Men who disavow their gang associates risk losing their lives. As men make that decision to abandon the gang moniker, they are quickly moved into administrative segregation; they will serve the remainder of their sentences under some sort of protective custody.

At Buddhist services, for the past five years, we have been slowly accepting rival gang members into our community. Habits are not easily abandoned and the men are initially wary of being in such close proximity with the “enemy.” As inmates begin to understand the suffering they have caused themselves and others, they also develop the wisdom that clinging to a view of “us and them” will only cause more harm and unhappiness. It is an endless cycle of suffering. We encourage that the oral code of the city gang life be replaced with the Buddhist training in “sila,” or ethical behavior… For many, this investigation of virtue becomes their primary mindfulness practice.

Sitting meditation in prison can be a challenge for many inmates. The reasons are many: the liberal dispersing of psychotropic drugs, the ever-present noise of clanging cell doors, the almost constant vociferous yelling and screaming, blaring music and TVs, the continue interruptions for “count” and being led to and from jobs and programs. And probably the biggest impediment to a regular meditation practice is the risk of practicing a behavior that other inmates and custody may find suspicious.

Karma is also a topic that is much discussed in prison sanghas. We teach that karma is nothing more than cause and effect. The Buddha said it succinctly: “Karma is intention … in thought, word, and deed.”

At our service, we usually do a session of “mindful movement,” once everyone has arrived. This is sometimes led by an inmate yogi, or an experienced volunteer. After twenty-five minutes of movement, we sit in meditation for thirty minutes. We have found that when the body is relaxed through movement, the mind tends to relax as well and the benefits of meditation are much more easily realized. After the meditation, we “check in” as a group. Sometimes the volunteer leader may have a question that each answers after introducing themselves. One of my favorites is, “Tell us about an act of kindness you committed this week.” Committing kindness in prison is, needless to say, frowned upon by both inmates and staff. It is a sign of weakness. Yet in our Buddhist sangha, we ask our members to take on this act of bravery and to notice how extending kindness resonates both in the mind and body.

[Following a day-long retreat] our teacher brought the group back together at our meditation area and encouraged the inmates to talk about their experience of the day. I asked the men this question, “What was the most difficult part of the day for you?” These men said the most difficult part of the day was “leaving.” I didn’t understand and asked for clarification. They answered, “The most difficult part of the day was leaving the retreat.” For seven hours they were safe, authentic, and at peace. Gang affiliation, race … none of it mattered. They saw possibilities for themselves. Even in that grimy, gray gym with armed guards … they were free.