Black Spirituality Religion : The Dhamma Brothers


Well-Known Member
Feb 28, 2009

Mission Statement

To create a national conversation and a call to action about the need for effective prison treatment programs through a national public television broadcast, widespread theatrical, grassroots and educational screenings, and distribution to prisons of The Dhamma Brothers documentary film. Both film and companion book, Letters From the Dhamma Brothers, open hearts and minds to the possibility that prisons can become places for effective rehabilitation, ensuring safer prisons and safer streets.

Brief Synopsis

An overcrowded, violent maximum-security prison, the end of the line in Alabama's prison system, is dramatically changed by the influence of an ancient meditation program. Behind high security towers and a double row of barbed wire and electrical fence live over 1,500 prisoners, many of whom will never again know life in the outside world. But for some of these men, a spark is ignited when it becomes the first maximum-security prison in North America to hold an extended Vipassana retreat, an emotionally and physically demanding program of silent meditation lasting ten days and requiring 100 hours of meditation.

The Dhamma Brothers tells a dramatic tale of human potential and transformation as it closely follows and documents the stories of the prison inmates at Donaldson Correctional Facility as they enter into this arduous and intensive program. This film has the power to dismantle stereotypes about men behind prison bars.


Well-Known Member
Feb 28, 2009
At End-Of-The Line Prison, An Unlikely Escape
February 08, 2011
Behind a double electric fence and layers of locked doorways, Alabama's most violent and mentally unstable prisoners are incarcerated in the William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility outside Birmingham. Many of them are here to stay. The prison has 24 death-row cells, and about a third of the approximately 1,500 prisoners are lifers with no chance of parole.
"You're dealing with the worst offenses that have been committed by humans in the state of Alabama," says Gary Hetzel, the warden at Donaldson.
...'Seeing Things As They Are'
That's a sharp contrast from the scene inside the prison gym, where about two dozen inmates in white pressed uniforms roam freely, working together to clear bed pads from the concrete floor.
Enlarge image

Convicted murderer Johnny Mack Young in the meditation stance he keeps for nearly 10 hours a day during the 10-day silent meditation course. Officials say the meditation program is reducing violence at Alabama's highest security lockup. "It changed my life," Young says.
Debbie Elliott/NPR
For the past 10 days, the gym has been transformed into a peaceful Vipassana meditation hall.
"Vipassana means seeing things as they are," says inmate Johnny Mack Young, as he kneels on a blue mat, resting back on a small wooden stool. This is the position he keeps for up to 10 hours a day during the intense silent-meditation course.
"For the first three days, the only thing we do is sit and focus on our breath," Young says. "This is to still the mind and get the mind sharp."
Isolated in the gym, the inmates wake up at 4 a.m. and meditate on and off until 9 p.m. They eat a strict vegetarian diet. They can't smoke or drink coffee. And there is absolutely no conversation — only an internal examination of how the body is reacting.
"You'll start feeling little stuff moving all around on your body," Young says. "Some guys can't handle this; some guys scream."
It's a rude awakening for some prisoners, Vipassana teacher Carl Franz says.
"Everyone's mind is kind of Pandora's box, and when you have 33 rather serious convicts facing their past and their own minds, their memories, their regrets, rough childhood, whatever, their crimes, lots of stuff comes up," Franz says.
For Young, a convicted murderer, that stuff includes his childhood role in the accidental death of his baby sister, the fact that he never mourned his mother's death and his crime — a drug-related murder.
"That's one of the things that tortures me," Young says. "We learn this stuff. We learn it too late in life."
Now, age 61 and likely in the last home he'll know, Young says he just tries to have the highest quality of life he can. He says that prior to taking the meditation course, he was in trouble a lot, fighting and trying to escape.
The Vipassana technique, though secular, is based on the teachings of Buddha. Soon after it started at Donaldson about a decade ago, the prison system's chaplains expressed concern that it might not be in keeping with Christian values. The state put an end to the program.
But Hetzel, the warden, saw the dramatic results and brought it back.
"I could see a significant decrease in behavioral problems, acting out," Hetzel says. "The inmates that participated in those previous Vipassana programs seemed to be much calmer, much at peace."
He also has found that they come out ready to help other inmates by volunteering in the prison's hospice unit or leading self-help courses at the prison chapel.
Hetzel says he's convinced the program is not religious, and he has encouraged staff members to take a mediation course to dispel misperceptions.
Donaldson Chaplain Bill Lindsay says he is still skeptical, but he now tries to give Vipassana the benefit of the doubt.
"It's kind of strange — something different," he says.
But he acknowledges that it seems to work.
"That's the main thing," he says. "What is a life worth, see, in this business? So if you can get just one, who knows?"
Clashing Cultures
Enlarge image

Rick Smith (left) and Grady Bankhead, who participated in the meditation program, are serving sentences of life without parole for capital murder. "We have to have some kind of balance back in our lives from the horrible things that we've done," Bankhead says.
Debbie Elliott/NPR
To date, 430 inmates have gone through the Donaldson Vipassana meditation program, the only one of its kind in North America. There's a waiting list for the quarterly sessions, and the state wants to expand the offering to its women's prison.
Filmmaker Jenny Phillips made a documentary called The Dhamma Brothers about the Alabama program and its unlikely marriage of an ancient meditation practice and an end-of-the-line prison.
.....complete here:


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