Prison and prayer

By R. L.

A man with head bowed in prayer.
Photo by Connor Tarter

R. L. is a baker in the prison and teaches others how to bake. Several other men teach cooking as well. He cherishes this job as it gives him the opportunity to be out of the cell and offer something to others. Here are excerpts from two letters about an incident for which he was sent to solitary confinement, where people are locked inside a cell 24/7, being allowed outdoors perhaps twice a week. Some of these cells have only a small frosted window, so even seeing the sky or sun is impossible. Needless to say, life in such a situation is more than difficult.

August 2005

A tool where I work—a potato peeler, if you can imagine it—was discovered missing. No one knows if it was lost or stolen, and at first everyone thought saying it was gone was a drill or a test by the authorities. However, after thoroughly searching the premises and not finding it, it was decided to temporarily confine all fourteen of the people who work in the cooking class, pending the outcome of a thirty-day investigation. So I have been in segregation status the past three weeks and will likely remain until next Friday. At that time, we will all either be released without charges (and without work assignments); disciplinary charges can be made against any or all of us, or the investigation can be continued for an additional thirty days. It is difficult to guess what will happen. This is a fairly serious incident that has resulted in the prison being locked down for four days and entirely searched.

Honestly, I do not believe the tool was stolen. No one in the program is foolish enough to do something like that. Everyone realizes the consequences would be extreme. The tool hadn’t been signed out by anyone for two weeks before it was found missing, so I believe it accidentally got thrown away with the trash and went unnoticed for two weeks. This has occurred before.

If, however, it can be proven that someone actually stole it, I’m sure that person will be in serious trouble. I am not too much worried about it, because I didn’t have anything to do with it being missing; I do not steal. Of course, not doing something isn’t always a guarantee of not being punished. By next Friday we should all have a better idea of what is happening.

One month later

The investigation has concluded and I have been released from segregation without any charges. Actually, all fourteen of us were released—twelve were released August 5, and another person and I were held until August 11, a day before the expiration of the thirty-day period. So everything has returned to “normal” pretty much, and I am thankful to be out of the miserable situation.

A man with head bowed in prayer.

Prayer can have a powerful positive effect on the outcome of a situation. (Photo by Connor Tarter)

I am attributing the positive outcome of this terribly serious situation to the power of prayer. I believe this is yet another confirmation of prayers being answered, and not simply something as mundane as mere coincidence. You may be wondering why I believe this; you may simply think that my individual ordeal came to a positive end for other reasons. But you see, until I began my study and practice of Buddhism, I never prayed and very little in the way of anything positive ever occurred in my life, even by chance. More than that, my prayers are seldom general. They are very specific. Also, in prison an individual doesn’t necessarily have to be guilty of any wrongdoing to be punished. An employee’s allegation, often without evidence or other substantiation, is sufficient to warrant punishment. This particular situation was viewed as an extremely serious matter. Besides I flat out believe that the manner in which everything was resolved was in answer to my humble prayers to Shakyamuni Buddha, White Tara, and Chenrezig, along with tens of thousands of mantra recitations.

I’m sure you are aware, without me providing all the sordid details, that prison is a super-harsh environment where horribly disgusting things occur. Prisons contain some of the worst human beings in society, individuals capable of the most hideous acts. And, like anywhere else, there are those that are “weak” and those that are “strong.” Predators prey on the weak, the young, and the naïve, always with devastating consequences. Some people in prison extort and pressure those who are weaker, taking their money, food, personal belongings, anything they want. Men rape men, force them into submission, force them to prostitute themselves, force them to commit all manner of unnatural acts. Some people scheme, plot, and plan every kind of crime you can imagine. Incarcerated people are threatened, pressured, extorted, beaten, brutalized, molested, and occasionally killed. They are tortured physically and psychologically, degraded, and dehumanized—all by other people in prison. The reasons these things happen are myriad and because that’s the way prisons have always been. A lot of terrible people have been thrown together in close confinement, in circumstances far worse than they had in the outside world, so they adapt and become even more dangerous, predatory, and inhuman. This state’s prison system has become considerably better in recent years, the past six to eight years, because a serious effort was launched and is on-going, to eliminate street gang activities and control many other troublesome areas of prison life. But prison is prison, and there will always be terrible things happening inside. Prisons are a reflection of society. They are the microcosm of the world at large.

I mentioned all this because I want you to understand and appreciate how, even more than anywhere else, it is virtually impossible to have a genuine friendship with anyone in prison. People in prison often remind themselves that it is okay to have acquaintances and associates, but never friends. Having friends in prison requires you to trust; it makes you vulnerable, and to other imprisoned people it can indicate softness—it is a weakness that can be exploited. Aside from everything else going on in prison, there is obviously a great deal of testosterone and macho posturing flying around. So basically, it’s a matter of being constantly vigilant, guarding against giving the wrong impression. It’s necessary to wear a mask at all times.

Approximately three years ago, I encountered a troubled young man. He is of fairly small stature, somewhat naïve, someone that could be easily intimidated and manipulated, and who had already experienced a horrible ordeal at the hands of a predatory person. He was twenty-eight years old at the time and would probably experience additional problems with predators. In spite of the nature of his offense, and having already served a number of years in prison, he remained a relatively innocent, good-natured, kind, and thoughtful person. He is atypical. I liked him enough at the time that I took a genuine interest in him, and we would regularly talk about all sorts of things. Since then, and without any intention of it happening, a bond of friendship has grown between us. Quite to my surprise, I might add, because I’ve been careful to avoid things like that over the years, for all the reasons I’ve explained above. Things like friendships in prison complicate life. They make doing time much harder—friends die, they leave, they disappoint, their problems become yours, etc.

But this person was different, and in retrospect I suppose I had become different too. We do not have many things in common—he is without any spiritual life, but does not criticize mine. He reads sci-fi and fantasy books, while I read only religious texts. He plays soccer and I lift weights. However, we both enjoy football, and our personal beliefs in many areas coincide. His company, wit, and innocence are a welcome relief from an otherwise terribly oppressive atmosphere. Initially I thought to be a buffer between him and anyone that would attempt to prey on him. I’ve seen far too much of that garbage during my years inside and I’m sick of it. Thankfully he’s been alright since. Perhaps nothing would ever have happened to him again anyway, but in an environment like this, the odds aren’t in his favor. He has become like a son to me, and most everyone knows it.

This rather lengthy and convoluted explanation is related to my belief in the power of prayer. He was one of the fourteen incarcerated people held under investigation and one of the twelve released earlier than I, so I was concerned about his placement and especially who he would be housed with. Although I didn’t specifically pray for it, I believe my prayers asking that he be protected from any harm are what prevented him from being housed with anyone else for five days, and is the reason that once I was released I was once again housed with him. This series of events is not mere coincidence, and is virtually unheard of here. So I can only attribute this to the power of prayer. It is the only way all of this could have occurred as it did. I am just happy that everything has worked out satisfactorily.

It was extraordinarily difficult, much more so than anywhere else, for me to keep my bodhisattva vows while in segregation for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I was there for something I didn’t do and had no knowledge about. I wanted to be angry, but was not. I was concerned, but not worried. But the thing that made it most difficult to keep my vows was the way other people in segregation treat each other.

Segregation is a place filed with rage, with amazing anger and hatred. People yell and scream constantly, 24-7, nonstop. There is no respect or consideration for the next person. I have never encountered—even at my age and after all these years inside—the kind of vile, filthy language, racial slurs, and utter contempt for other human beings as I did during my twenty-nine days in there. It was very sad. There is no contact between incarcerated people in segregation that would allow physical fighting, so instead, they spit at each other, or throw feces or urine on each other. Some of these people are obviously mentally unstable, which either contributed to their placement in segregation or developed as a result of serving many years in segregation. It was difficult to listen to the screaming, the whining, and the arguing of unstable people kept in cages. There are, I believe, a great many atrocities being committed—there is an abundance of inhumanity.

It is difficult to be aware of all this, to be in the midst of it all, and not be overcome with rage. But my practice never faltered. I never allowed anger to raise its ugly head. I never allowed myself to have an ill thought or word for anyone, and generated compassion for all sentient beings. I held fast to the Buddhadharma—it was my life-preserver in a sea of hatred and misery—and applied all your teachings and advice. The mind is an incredibly wonderful thing once you begin to understand and learn how to control it. So I have to conclude that I am beginning to make progress, and my faith in the Buddha’s teachings has become unshakable.

There is a certain satisfaction (without pride or ego) in knowing that I have altered my life significantly, and that it will have a profound impact on any future rebirths I may experience—lives that will allow me to continue studying and practicing the Dharma and eventually attain enlightenment. Much of what I have been able to accomplish, and what I have become as a person, I owe to you. I am eternally grateful. Thank you from the bottom of my heart!

Incarcerated people

Many incarcerated people from all over the United States correspond with Venerable Thubten Chodron and monastics from Sravasti Abbey. They offer great insights into how they are applying the Dharma and striving to be of benefit to themselves and others in even the most difficult of situations.