Meditation In Maximum Maximum Security

A prison in Alabama is turning to an ancient tradition to quell violence and help inmates cope with life behind bars. It’s called Vipassana meditation. The new film Dhamma Brothers chronicles the experience of several men who took part in the 10-day silent mediation retreat at Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer, Alabama. Host Michel Martin talks with the producer, writer and director Jenny Phillips and with Grady Bankhead, one of the men featured in the film who is serving life without parole at Donaldson.

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(Soundbite of music)

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Back in 2002, the Donaldson Correctional Facility, a maximum security facility in Bessemer, Alabama, offered inmates the opportunity to participate in a 10-day exercise involving 100 hours of silent meditation. Its called the Vipassana. Now it sounds simple and perhaps easy being silent for 10 days. But for many participants it was anything but. In fact, it was a profound and deeply emotional experience.

Mr. GRADY BANKHEAD: Its like stepping into the abyss, you know, to go to Vipassana. When youre in here youre just not anybody. Youre already someone thats harmed humanity. Youve already done something, so you wonder, what is it I haven't dealt with?

MARTIN: The new film The Dhamma Brothers follows a group of men at Donaldson who participated in the retreat and were transformed by the experience. The film begins airing today on PBS stations throughout the country.

I'm joined by the director of the film, Jenny Phillips. Shes with us from Somerville, Massachusetts. And joining us is Grady Bankhead. Hes one of the men featured in the documentary. Hes serving a sentence of life without parole and participated in the Vipassana meditation program.

I should mention that the warden of Donaldson had planned to be with us. He tells us he had an emergency and could not participate in our conversation today. But thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Ms. JENNY PHILLIPS (Producer, writer and director): Its wonderful to be here with you.

Mr. BANKHEAD: Thank you for having me. Its a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: So Jenny, let me start with you. Briefly, what does it mean to be a Dhamma brother and where does the tradition of Vipassana meditation come from?

Ms. PHILLIPS: To be a Dhamma brother means to be a part of the Vipassana program which was brought into Donaldson Correctional Facility. The men have, since 2002, referred to themselves as the Dhamma brothers. They're followers of an ancient tradition that goes back to the original Buddha 2,600 years ago. And Dhamma means seeing things as they really are. Vipassana is a set of ancient techniques and practices and skills which allow you to see yourself and to see the world as it really is.

MARTIN: We had hoped to have the warden with us because he was going to tell us why he now, he was not the person running the prison at the time that the program was introduced. But he has since brought it back. So I wanted so Jenny, since hes not here I'd liked to ask you why were the leaders of the prison at that time interested in bringing this program to the prison?

Ms. PHILLIPS: I think probably like most prisons, but particularly Donaldson, I think there was a sense of hopelessness and thered been a lot of violence. The prison was understaffed, nobody wanted to work there. And I think the administration, security, treatment staff and prisoners, everybody was looking for solutions.

MARTIN: So, Grady, tell us how you first learned about the Vipassana retreat and why did you want to participate?

Mr. BANKHEAD: I was already working in one of the programs here the alcohol and drug treatment program and we had some meditation courses during those. They wasnt Vipassana meditation courses but meditation was involved in them. And when I first heard about Vipassana, one of the guys here said that they had talked to somebody about it and they were going to bring the course here and it went a lot deeper and helped with anger. And I had some real anger issues -anger and abandonment. I had some I had a lot of things that I needed to deal with and I wanted, of course, the best tools to get it done and I thought Vipassana might be it.

MARTIN: Ill point out that the film makes it clear that a lot of the people who have gone through the program are dealing with some serious issues. And you mentioned that you had a lot of anger. I'm going to play just a short clip from the interview with you where you talk a little bit about what brought you to that place. Here it is.

(Soundbite of PBS documentary, The Dhamma Brothers)

Mr. BANKHEAD: I've been locked up 16 years eight and a half years on death row in that five by eight cell. And every morning I'd have to get up and live with the fact that I have isolated myself from everybody that I loved, isolated everybody I love from me and pretty much wrecked their lives. I have small children and they had to grow up in this community where their father has done this horrific act. You know, they had to go to school with kids that - your father is a murderer.

MARTIN: So, Grady, going back to that, and you too tell the story of both, you know, what you think was working on you and also what you did the actual act itself and you dont shy away from any of that. What is it that you thought you were seeking in participating in the Vipassana program?

Mr. BANKHEAD: In order for me to get to a place where I could forgive myself for what I had done, I just couldnt find it in every program, anger to forgiveness, stress management. The thing that I was concerned about, it wasnt the things that I knew about; I know how to face those. Its the things that were causing something in me that I couldnt get to my subconscious and I didnt know how to deal with that. I had no answers. There was no solution. And when they came with the Vipassana and talked about it, it was something to connect my subconscious with my actual awakened body, then that made sense to me.

Sort of like when youre asleep and you dont wake up in the same position when you wake up as you went to bed. Its because your body hurts and your subconscious tells it to move over. Well, its the same thing with anything else that youre doing thats stored in that subconscious. Vipassana gives you the tools to go in and actually, everything in your subconscious comes up. And, of course, most of it wasnt the things that I thought I needed to work on.

I thought it was just the forgiveness that I needed for myself. That was just a very small piece of it. I had a lot of miseries, a lot of really serious anger issues. Abandonment issues that were so deep that I didnt know they existed. I didnt know that they were causing the actions that I was doing every day, my cravings and things that I had going on. It takes time but if you just recognize it and move on past it, it chips away a little bit each time and eventually that misery dissolves. Its gone.

MARTIN: Hmm. If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about a new film The Dhamma Brothers. It chronicles a meditation program at a maximum security prison in Alabama. Its believed to be the first maximum security prison in the country to introduce such a program.

We're here with Grady Bankhead. He's one of the men whose journey is profiled in the film. And we're here with Jenny Phillips, who made the film about the program.

Jenny, you are a devotee of meditation. You teach meditation yourself. I have to assume that thats part of what attracted you to this project. But for people who are not familiar with it, can you describe what is it about that silent experience that is so profound? Can you even describe it?

Ms. PHILLIPS: Well, I think we all live in a world of distraction. And to get below the surface of that distraction you really need a safe place, a protected place and you need teachers to help you develop the skills to go deep within yourself. And then if youre motivated and committed you can take that journey.

But in prison - its quite an amazing thing what happened at Donaldson, because the administration was willing to take a risk to create a safe place, a sanctuary, a refuge where people could go and be cared for and fed nutritious food and watched over and taught these skills. And they could each take their journey within themselves alone but together in a group which became a community of prisoners who were became the Dhamma brothers.

MARTIN: Grady, you came to a place of peace, or at least you were working on a place of peace within yourself as the result of this work that you have done. One of the things I'm curious about is, whats it like now interacting with other people who have not done the work that youve done to find a place of peace within themselves? I wonder if in some ways, it doesnt make you feel more vulnerable.

Mr. BANKHEAD: I dont think I feel vulnerable in any way. I think it gives me a great opportunity to share. I mean the Dhamma brothers, we keep our technique alive. We try to practice it in our every day walk and thats what the Dhamma brothers here at Donaldson are hoping that we're doing, that we're walking the walk, that others see that we're happy and we're peaceful, that we're not locked up in that inner prison that we were before.

Ms. PHILLIPS: I wondered if I could just say something from a clinical perspective about, you know, feeling less safe or more safe after Vipassana. I find that prisoners go from feeling unsafe, constantly at the risk being triggered; they will find themselves needing to defend themselves on a dime in a moment without taking a breath and considering their options. And after Vipassana they feel much more grounded. They dont feel so easily triggered. Maybe Grady can speak to this on a personal level, but I find this creates greater safety not less.

MARTIN: Hmm. Grady, do you want to speak to that?

Mr. BANKHEAD: Well, one of the things - and this is what its all about. I mean Vipassana the word it means seeing things as they really are. Okay, all that's great. All the little terms and all thats wonderful. But what this thing does, it sits you down on a mat nine and a half hours a day for 10 days. You watch the pain come up. Sitting that long anywhere youre going to hurt. You feel the pain coming. You live with the pain. And you watch the pain leave. And it teaches you how to do that.

And if youre actually experiencing it, its not somebody telling you about it, this is the way you can do something. No, youre doing it. Youre living it. And once you have, then, of course, you want it every day. I mean, its more and more. Theres nothing that can happen thats not going to pass in just a few minutes if youll just give it a second. It can't be that bad.

MARTIN: Hmm. Grady Bankhead. He is serving a sentence of life without parole at Donaldson Correctional Facility. Hes featured in a new film The Dhamma Brothers. Its about the meditation program at the prison. The films director, producer and writer Jenny Phillips also joined us from Somerville, Massachusetts.

The Dhamma Brothers begins airing nationally on PBS stations tonight. Youll want to check your local listings for exact times. The companion book, Letters from the Dhamma Brothers is also available now. I want to thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Ms. PHILLIPS: Thank you so much. Great to be here.

Mr. BANKHEAD: Thank you for having me. Could I say thanks also to the support that the Warden Hetzel and the psychologist Dr. Allen has given us in this program here?

MARTIN: Of course.

Mr. BANKHEAD: I mean, because this is a really big thing for our lives. Its life-changing and we're very grateful for it.

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MARTIN: And that's our program for today. Im Michel Martin and youve been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Lets talk more tomorrow.

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