They filed through the gymnasium doors in regulation blue and gray sweatshirts, rubbing their eyes, some curious but all of them tired. A cellmate had kept most of them up all night by yelling and banging on the walls. At the doors, the young men slapped on name tags and grabbed their complementary granola bars. “It’s a great day to be in prison,” one of them said as he filed past the makeshift check-in desks to find his seat. Although Prison Dharma Network (PDN) holds a shorter, smaller weekly class on Thursday evenings at the Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center in Golden, Colorado, today’s program would be a bit different. The fifty males—all fifteen to twenty years old—who were about to go through the half-day PDN program on this Monday in late March, had been hand-selected by Lookout staff as those most likely to benefit from today’s workshop.
PDN has been connecting inmates with the dharma through correspondence, book mailings, and dharma pen pals since it was founded in 1989. PDN has also been working to build a well-resourced, national prison dharma movement through its website, publishing projects, regional training programs, jail and prison programs; and by networking with other prison dharma projects. Its membership now includes over fifteen hundred individuals and over seventy meditation-based prison projects. Its most recent and now flagship initiative is the Path of Freedom program, a blend of Buddhist mindfulness practice and cognitive behavioral therapy, which PDN volunteers are introducing at facilities like Lookout Mountain.
Fleet Maull, a Buddhist who founded PDN while serving time in federal prison, stood in a large circle of folding chairs at one end of the drab wooden gym floor, encouraging everyone to find a seat. He spoke with trenchant insight into their situation, letting them know he was not there to patronize.
“I’m an ex-con. I spent fourteen years in a federal prison,” he said. “At the time, my best thinking got me in there. And I’m a pretty smart guy.” The group chuckled, and Maull cracked a smile himself before bringing up an important but difficult topic for him: his son, who was nine years old when Maull went to prison. “That was the most devastating thing,” he said. “There are guys in here who have parents in jail. The impact on kids is horrible.”
Maull said that his son, “who works hard but still hasn’t figured out what he’s doing in life,” had been assaulted in Peru less than a month before and had been in a coma for a week. He told the group that his life partner had cancer and recently entered a hospice program. (Maull’s life partner, Denise Lucile Thornton, died on September 3, 2008.) He said the practices and techniques PDN volunteers would teach them that day could help to change their habits and ways of thinking, so that they could not only stay out of prison but also deal with the kinds of difficult situations they’d inevitably encounter in everyday life on the outside, like the ones he was facing. Then he asked the men to close their eyes for a moment.
Maull explained he was going to tell them a couple of things, and he wanted them to pay attention to their first thoughts. “There is absolutely nothing wrong with anyone in here,” he began. He told them they all had basic goodness and a sacred, divine nature. He told them whatever their faith, they were not missing anything. He closed by saying, “All of us in here care deeply about you and your life, and what you’ll be able to do with it going forward.”
“All of us in here care about you and your life, and what you’ll be able to do with it going forward.”
A young man raised his hand.
“What you said about how you care about us,” he said, “I thought it was all bullshit.”
“I don’t blame you for having those thoughts,” Maull said, unflinching. “They were conditioned into you since you were kids. They’re your core beliefs. They came from our parents, peers, teachers. We can change that. We learned to live from a place of fear and mistrust, and with that we developed self destructive, addictive behaviors. These practices you’re about to learn can help you see and trust your own goodness and see the world as a good place.”
Then the young men were broken into smaller groups and began their work with the PDN volunteers, whose stories about how they came to be part of PDN are interesting in their own right.
John Ehrhart, for instance, led a station focused on attentive speaking and listening, giving each member the chance to speak about a moment when they felt they were most alive. Ehrhart, who makes a living in Boulder as a land surveyor, went through the yearlong Peacemaker Training just over three years ago to be able to teach with PDN. He had learned about the program while pursuing his master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology at Naropa University.
Maull teaches as an adjunct faculty member at Naropa, and his ties to the University date back to the days of the double life that would eventually land him in federal prison. He became a Buddhist while studying at Naropa University in 1978 under its founder, the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Maull studied at Naropa for most of the year, then traveled to South America for a few months, where he earned enough money trafficking cocaine to allow him to continue living modestly back in Boulder the rest of the year. The paradoxical nature of his former existence as both a Buddhist and drug smuggler is not lost on Maull, who has written of how his value system was shaped by the zeitgeist of the 1960s.
Maull was arrested in 1985 under the Reagan “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign. He was charged with engaging in a continuous criminal enterprise, otherwise known as the “kingpin statute,” which carried a minimum sentence of ten years and a maximum of life. Maull got thirty years, a bad deal by most accounts. Though Maull doesn’t deny that he smuggled drugs, he does say that he was in no way a kingpin.
When Maull entered a maximum security federal prison in Springfield, Missouri, he was already known throughout the Shambhala Buddhist community because of his travels to centers across the U.S. An article he published in Shambhala Sun about celebrating Shambhala Day in prison helped put his name out there even more. Maull said that within one to two years of being in prison he began receiving letters from prisoners interested in learning meditation. He wanted to help them, and since he worked in the education department at the Springfield prison, helping fellow inmates learn to read, earn their GEDs, and take college courses, he had access to a copy machine.
“I’d put together copies of some articles out of Shambhala Sun or Tricycle or out of books,” Maull said, “and I’d mail them out to the prisoners. I’d actually find myself in a state of bliss while I was doing that. I realized how impactful this would be to the prisoners. When you’re a prisoner, even junk mail feels good, much less a package like this with the dharma.”
Maull wasn’t allowed to correspond with inmates in other federal prisons, and said that the prison authorities didn’t like the idea that he was corresponding with inmates in state prisons and county jails. “But it was a gray area,” he continued, “and I was getting away with it. I quickly realized that this was much bigger than I was going to be able to address with my correspondence from my prison cell. I decided to try to start an organization to help prisoners interested in Buddhism and meditation.”
In one of the early meditation groups Maull formed, he met a young man from Nepal who connected him with a woman on the outside named Vicki Shaw, who in turn agreed to help. The bulk of the work was done by Maull, who read up on how to start a nonprofit and what paperwork was required, while Shaw helped him to mail the materials. With $1,500 donated from family and friends, he founded the Prison Dharma Network in 1989. The organization, with Shaw’s help, focused on sending prisoners books on the dharma or connecting prisoners with “dharma pen pals”—qualified meditation instructors out in the community.
In 1991, Daniel Barrett, a close friend who was senior vice-president of Shambhala Publications, agreed to take the project on from his office in Boston, using volunteers to answer letters and send books. Though both Barrett and Maull officially directed the program during the following eight years, the logistics of the situation meant that Barrett controlled most of the day-to-day operations. Both agreed that when Maull was released from prison, he would take the program over completely and determine its ultimate path as an organization.
Upon his release in 1999, Maull brought the program to Boulder and hired Kate Crisp as director of PDN. She had attended the very first summer session at Naropa and came from a background of prison activism.
Crisp has brought the program into many different cutting edge venues since then, giving it a robust presence on social networking websites like Facebook and Ning, as well as leading meditation sessions in the 3D virtual world Second Life. But perhaps her most important achievement has been the development of the Path of Freedom workbook— a 132-page guide for at-risk youth that includes expanded information on the kinds of activities PDN volunteers teach the young men at the Lookout Mountain facility. (Though the book is meant for the program’s participants, Crisp is currently at work on a facilitator’s manual.) A perusal of the workbook shows expanded sections on ideas presented at Lookout like “living above the line” (Maull’s take on personal responsibility) or the practice of labeling our thoughts as “thinking” (a wellknown meditation technique Crisp finds effective).
PDN has its hand in many different venues, and has in fact become the industry standard for prison dharma work, as evidenced by its vast resource network and board of spiritual advisors that includes prominent names like Pema Chödrön, Jon Kabat-Zin, and Roshi Bernie Glassman. Although so much is done under one umbrella, Crisp is at ease explaining the different aspects of the organization’s mission. PDN’s Books Behind Bars program delivers several thousand donated books on the dharma to prisoners every year and handles over 100 letters per week from prisoners requesting resources. PDN also provides a comprehensive array of resources and the latest networking and community building tools for the prison dharma movement.
“Path of Freedom is the program where we go into prisons and juvenile facilities and try to deliver directly the best transformational resources for various incarcerated populations,” Crisp said. “And we are working to expand this program nationally.” PDN’s sister organization, the Peacemaker Institute (also directed by Maull and Crisp), has graduated scores of people from its Integral Peacemaker Training program, and they are now recruiting many of these graduates to facilitate the Path of Freedom program in correctional facilities.
Maull and Crisp have created something truly unique with the Path of Freedom program, combining elements of Buddhist mindfulness training, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and the Integral Peacemaker Training program to create something deeper and more effective than the kind of reprogramming typically offered in prisons. CBT psychology says: If you want to change your behavior, change your thinking. It’s very effective and very popular in all sorts of arenas. But Maull believes meditation and mindfulness training provide a necessary component that’s missing.
“If you’re meditating daily, you’re more aware moment to moment,” he said. “You’re catching yourself and seeing how thoughts lead into behaviors. [CBT] teaches very much that same thing, but it doesn’t give you the training to wake up in the midst of that and see, ‘I have a choice here. I see where this is going, and I’m not going there this time.’ Mindfulness is learning to slow down and wake up in the midst of patterns.”
Maull believes that doing this deeper work of self-transformation, one person at a time, is the only way to truly transform the world and heal the tears in the community fabric that are created by crime. He sees transforming the criminal justice system as a means of transforming society as a whole: this is what PDN is all about. “We need to transform the dominant punitive approach to criminal justice and corrections which only creates more crime and violence,” he says. A more progressive approach, Maull explains, is restorative justice, now a worldwide movement that focuses on bringing healing to victims and accountability to offenders. But he says that this still doesn’t go far enough:
The integral transformative justice model we promote through our PDN programs takes that a step further. It does everything restorative justice does, but is also interested in healing the offender who’s done the harm. It’s very much interested in the healing of the victims, families, and the community. But it’s also saying it’s not enough to just tell the offender, ‘You have to be accountable.’ If someone commits a crime, we have to look at where that behavior comes from. What’s their trauma? What’s their pain? What are the personal and social conditions behind this behavior? Accountability is critical to personal transformation, but if we are truly interested in public safety and crime reduction, then we must also look at and deal with the causes and conditions of criminal behavior. ▼
For more information on Prison Dharma Network and its Path of Freedom program, visit prisondharmanetwork.org or contact the PDN staff at:
Prison Dharma Network
P.O. Box 4623, Boulder, CO 80306
To join the new Prison Dharma Network online community of over 400 members, visit prisondharmanetwork.ning.com.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.