Like a bird, he resides on limitless air
And flies an invisible course.
He wishes for nothing.
His food is knowledge.
He lives upon emptiness.
He has broken free.

—The Buddha, Diamond Sutra

For a decade, I held tightly to the idea that serious in-depth Zen practice in prison was not only possible but also important—even necessary. But eight years in Sing Sing Prison, and correspondence with thousands of prisoners across the country, has gradually convinced me that the work of prison dharma groups is seriously flawed because of the often misguided and limited aims of prison dharma volunteers. It was a hard lesson. Buddhism is concerned with the emancipation of all beings, not just Buddhist ones. Is this the present function of prison dharma programs?


Doing the work of dharma in prisons, one discovers how the prisons themselves function. At every step, you are shown precisely how to relate to the prison bureaucracy. The administration makes clear that the role played by the volunteer is to maximize administrative control and power. You are told that prisoners are always manipulative, always complaining without cause, and must be ignored by the volunteer except for the specific function fulfilled by the volunteer. Basically, it all boils down to, “Don’t trust the prisoners, they are all liars. Administrators and guards can do no wrong.”

It’s easy to run a meditation group in a prison when one is oblivious to the day-to-day horrors actually taking place. Prisoners are desperate for any outside contact whatsoever, and they’ll do whatever they can to foster such contacts, including hiding the conditions they tolerate, for fear of alienating an outside volunteer. Civilian volunteers learn through experience the deliberately divisive social order that drives the prison: a volunteer is either a “cop” or “fellow prisoner.” It is only after volunteers reveal themselves as empathetic and trustworthy that they begin to hear about oppressive conditions.

The inside of a prison chapel is usually all that volunteers ever see of the prison environment. They do not have to go back to the cellblock or deal with the brutality of prison life. Their lives are privileged beyond comprehension when compared with the lives of those inside. Volunteers are free—with their status, they can walk out of the prison at any time. They do not have the daily worries about being taunted, psychologically or physically abused, raped, beaten, gassed, or stabbed. Prisons are intensely hostile, racist environments and volunteers are often either unaware or in denial of these facts. If the volunteer cannot grasp this reality, the ability to be of genuine service is lost.

Over the years, I began to learn of prisoners who were mistreated, beaten, held in isolation, set up, denied medical care, and even killed by medical neglect. These things were happening in hundreds of prisons all across the country. In some cases, prisoners were able to gain some relief; in most cases, they were not, and in some, they forfeited their lives. More and more I find myself being presented with prison-related issues dealing with human rights, medical neglect, brutality, and institutional indifference. What I hear about are problems that affect all prisoners, their families and friends, and even guards and prison administrators. Few people on the outside know the degree of unnecessary suffering and brutality perpetuated in American prisons. The implications are staggering when we begin to grasp what is really taking place in the name of “justice.” Coercion, repression, and brutality do not heal people. Placing damaged people in our prisons only causes further damage. This makes no sense.


We might acknowledge that there are many levels of motivation for doing prison dharma work, not all of them wholesome. At first glance, we may appear to have very good intentions, yet there are other unconscious motivations that we often don’t see, among these: the validation of one’s own practice through “teaching” it to others, the exercise of entitlement in reaching out to prisoners as “lower beings” who need to be brought to a “higher level,” and the opportunity to play Teacher in a closed environment to a literally captive audience. Subtle racism and classism may be operating in our interactions with prisoners, and these are extremely difficult to see within ourselves. For those who work as dharma teachers in prisons, accepting and fostering a “beginner’s mind” free of a neurotic sense of superiority is a primary and often overlooked challenge.

Working in prisons—practicing prison dharma—is not a one-way proposition. We come to instruct in meditation practice, but prisoners are equally our teachers. The unfounded notion that we dharma practitioners, as outsiders and free, law-abiding citizens, are “offering” dharma to imprisoned people who are somehow lacking is a pattern of arrogance hard to recognize. To accept prisoners as equals might be painful; doing so demands that we recognize the validity of the perceptions of people who have perhaps committed the most heinous and brutal crimes. The fact that we might have something to learn from imprisoned people can be difficult to accept. We may prefer to wear blinders.

Furthermore, I perceive that the work of prison dharma cannot begin and end with bringing sitting practice to prisoners. Yes, a couple of hours of quiet zazen, or Zen-style sitting meditation, is a relief, an escape from cellblock chaos for a prisoner, and that is important work. But it is also incumbent upon us to ask questions about the structure of the prison system itself. To ignore the conditions in which we work is to risk complicity with an unjust system. From my own time working in Sing Sing, visiting other prisons, and death rows, I’ve come to conclude that I cannot do the work of facilitating dharma practice in prisons without also working to change the system. I was invited into to Sing Sing to provide meditation instruction and I left, eight years later, an advocate of radical prison reform. My intention now is nothing less than to make that happen; however I can. I perceive that more dharma practitioners could be working with this paradigm in mind. It may require more than we ever expected to give; it may put us in an uncomfortable relationship with the authorities who ultimately allow our work in prisons. But if we subscribe at all to the Bodhisattva vow to save “all beings,” how can we do anything less? If we know that a man or woman is being subject to medical neglect, has been severely beaten, is being used as sexual chattel in a prison, what is our obligation as practitioners of Buddha dharma?


Coercion occurs at all levels in the prison, and prison administrators tend to coerce volunteers into becoming part of the system. In meetings with me, prison officials have expressed their desire to incorporate zazen practice to keep prisoners calm and make it easier to maintain control. Well, of course meditation practice can produce prisoners who are calm, disciplined, resistant to anger, tolerant of mistreatment, compliant, and easier to control. To a prison administrator, this is a good thing; it fits the “power over” agenda. In fact, dharma teachers may even find themselves packaging programs as part of this agenda, just to get them approved! The day after I witnessed the 1996 execution of Jusan Frankie Parker, the warden of the Arkansas Death House Facility sincerely thanked me, “. . . for helping to keep Jusan calm and making our job that much easier.” I was taken aback at his intimation; I protested that my presence was for Jusan’s benefit, and in no way to ease the pain of those taking his life. Yet in reality, from his perspective, I did indeed make their “job” of murder easier. In a roundabout way, he was asking for acknowledgement, or perhaps forgiveness, for “just doing his job.”

Have we been coerced to peddle prison dharma as a practice of benevolence and compliance? Or can we entertain the possibility of prison dharma practice imparting empowerment to prisoners and actively addressing the oppressive prison environment? Might Zen training serve as a basis for prisoners organizing to bring about systemic change from within?


We may have lofty ideas about making prisons into ashrams or zendos in which people can effectively make use of their time while incarcerated, but as long as prisons are places of brutality, these are pipe dreams with little basis. The reality of prisons today in America argues against this thinking.

So what is our task as volunteers? What is prison dharma really about? An aboriginal woman activist once said:

If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time.
But if you have come because your liberation is tied up with mine,
then let us work together.

Get Daily Dharma in your email

Start your day with a fresh perspective

a photo of a Buddhist meditating
Explore timeless teachings through modern methods.

With Stephen Batchelor, Sharon Salzberg, Andrew Olendzki, and more

See Our Courses

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.