Morgan Leyenberger had been meditating for a decade and leading a nonprofit organization, Compassion Works for All, that brings meditation and other resources to prison inmates in Arkansas. But it wasn’t until she was watching the execution of a man with whom she had spent the past two days that she truly understood the “karmic impact” of mass incarceration.
In the summer of 2017, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson had scheduled eight executions over eleven days (four were ultimately carried out). This controversial decision was made in order to use up the state’s supply of Midazolam—a sedative and one of three drugs used for a lethal cocktail—before it expired. (Many drug manufacturers will not sell their products to states for executions.) In the days leading up to the execution, Leyenberger was asked to serve as spiritual advisor to one of the men, Jack Jones. Jones, 52, was sentenced to death in 1996 for raping and murdering a woman named Mary Phillips at the accounting office where she worked, and for the attempted murder of her 11-year-old daughter, Lacey. In prison he studied Buddhism and physics, according to his handwritten last words, and made “every effort” to leave prison a better person.
During the two days he spent with Leyenberger, Jones passed the time by carefully pasting into a scrapbook photographs of his adult daughter, who had been placed for adoption and with whom he had reconnected in recent years through letters. He shared coffee, snacks, and conversation with his cellblock neighbor, Marcel Williams, who would be executed just hours after Jones, and listened to a taped message from his dharma teacher, who was unable to meet Jones in person before the planned execution.
“I felt the way we were intertwined,” Leyenberger said of her experience of watching Jones speak his last words and be put to death. “Going down to where the executions happened and seeing the people who were watching in the room, the families that had been impacted, the person who had committed these harms, the executioner, the correction officers. . . . This was a state decision. Everyone in Arkansas had some sort of stake in that.”
Leyenberger says her experience with Jones changed the way she views advocacy work and bolstered her belief that we all “hold some element of responsibility” in our government’s policies. She’s currently working on a campaign called End Solitary that has the long-term goal of ending solitary confinement in Arkansas. DecARcerate, the grassroots coalition supporting the project, is also urging the state not to follow through on a plan to build 400 new isolation cells in response to a spike in violence and unrest that followed the 2017 executions.
“People are usually held in isolation for anywhere from 30 days to decades. We know that this is not good for human brains and human development, yet this is the best way we’ve come up with to deal with people if they do something that we don’t like while they’re in prison,” Leyenberger said.
In the early 1990s, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama called upon 50 of his Western students to turn their attention toward prison reform. One of them was Lama Anna Cox, who in 1993 founded Compassion Works for All in response. Today, prisoners in all 50 states and a number of other countries receive the organization’s newsletter, Dharma Friends. With just two full-time staffers (including Leyenberger) and a committed group of volunteers, the organization teaches meditation in prisons throughout the state and answers 200 letters a month—often serving as “human Googles” for inmates who don’t have Internet access.
Many prisons in Arkansas are situated far from urban areas, and committing to a 90-minute meditation session actually requires about five hours of time, including transit and security procedures. Leyenberger is passionate about bringing as many volunteers into correctional facilities as she can—even if it’s a one-time commitment—to “be exposed to this other world.”
“Prison issues are becoming more popular. They’re kind of sexy right now,” Leyenberger said. “But if you can volunteer for five hours, that gives you an incredible opportunity to look into this very different world, and if that starts your own dharma practice, or gets you to the state capitol or a march, that’s really great.”
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