William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility near Birmingham is home to Alabama’s most violent prisoners. In fact a third of this prison population will most likely call it home for the rest of their lives. To call it a challenging place to live is an understatement. It is named for an officer killed there in 1990.
However, there is a peace in many as Donaldson is the only prison in the United States that offers Vipassana Meditation. Of the 1500 inmates here, 430 have completed the program involving a 10-day silent meditation, and there is a waiting list for each session.
“Vipassana means seeing things as they are,” says inmate Johnny Mack Young. He goes on to describe the experience.
For the first three days, the only thing we do is sit and focus on our breath. This is to still the mind and get the mind sharp. You’ll start feeling little stuff moving all around on your body. Some guys can’t handle this; some guys scream.”
Carl Franz, Vipassana teacher, helps explain.
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.”
As a result of going through this process Young says now he simply tries to have the highest quality life he can. “It changed my life.” (Read the full article from NPR here.)
What does meditation in a Birmingham prison have to do with Yoga in Sacramento?
If focusing on breath and bringing the mind to stillness can help an inmate be non-reactive in a tumultuous environment, perhaps it can help you and I do the same.
After all, some of the prisons we experience exist only in our minds.