An ancient Eastern practice is taking root in the unlikeliest of places: the highest security prison in Alabama. And officials say it's transforming hardened criminals.

NPR's Debbie Elliott takes us inside.


DEBBIE ELLIOTT: William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility outside Birmingham is a tough place, where Alabama's most violent and mentally unstable prisoners go - many to stay.

Unidentified Male #1: I've been down 30 years, down for capital murder.

INSKEEP: Capital murder, life without parole now. First I got sentenced to death.

Unidentified Male #3: Capital murder, life without, I've done 25 years.

ELLIOTT: Donaldson has death row cells, and about a third of the approximately 1500 prisoners are lifers with no chance of parole. The prison is named for an officer killed here in 1990. The lockup has a history of inmate stabbings, deaths and suicides and is the target of lawsuits.

Unidentified Male #4: (Unintelligible)

ELLIOTT: In the isolation blocks, food trays are slid through a narrow metal box built into the cell doors so the inmates can't hurt the officer feeding them.

That's a sharp contrast from the scene inside the prison gym. About two dozen inmates in white pressed uniforms roam freely, working together to clear bed pads from the concrete floor.

Unidentified Male #5: All tape took off the floor, carpets rolled, and then we'll start stacking pillows.

ELLIOTT: They just emerged from a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation course.

JOHNNY MACK YOUNG: Vipassana means seeing things as they are.

ELLIOTT: Johnny Mack Young kneels on a blue mat, resting back on a small wooden stool. This is the position he keeps for up to 10 hours a day during the program.

MACK YOUNG: 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.

ELLIOTT: Isolated in the gym, the inmates wake up at 4 AM and meditate on and off until 9:00 in the evening. They eat a strict vegetarian diet. They can't smoke or drink coffee. And there is absolutely no conversation, only an internal examination of how the body is reacting.

MACK YOUNG: You'll start feeling little stuff moving all around on your body. Some guys can't handle it. Some guys scream.

ELLIOTT: It's a rude awakening for some prisoners, say Vipassana teacher, Carl Franz.

CARL FRANZ: 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.

ELLIOTT: For convicted murderer, Johnny Mack Young, that stuff includes his childhood role in the accidental death of his baby sister, the fact he never mourned his mother's death and his crime - a drug-related murder.

MACK YOUNG: So that's one of the things that tortures me. As you can tell while (unintelligible) kind of breaking me up. But we learn this stuff. We learn it too late in life. We learn after we make these mistakes, after we do these things that we shouldn't do.

ELLIOTT: Now at 61, and likely in the last home he'll know, Young says he just tries to have the highest quality life he can.

MACK YOUNG: It changed my life. Prior to taking the meditation course, I stayed (unintelligible), I kept trying to escape. I stayed in fights with police, inmates.

ELLIOTT: That's typical behavior for a inmate with his defenses up, in denial about his crime and blaming others, says Dr. Ron Cavanaugh, treatment director for the Alabama Department of Corrections.

Cavanaugh says the meditation practice chips away at those defenses.

RON CAVANAUGH: They have nobody to talk to. There's nobody confronting them, so there's nobody that that they can deny stuff with, there's nobody they can project everything with. And so all these things come up.

ELLIOTT: Cavanaugh says inmates who go through the course have a 20 percent reduction in disciplinary action. But it hasn't been an easy sell in Alabama, a state known for harsh punishment policies like chain gangs and hitching posts.

The Vipassana technique, though secular, is based on the teachings of Buddha. Soon after it started at Donaldson about a decade ago, the prison system's chaplains expressed concern that it might not be in keeping with Christian values and the state put an end to the program.

But warden Gary Hetzel brought it back after noticing dramatic changes.

INSKEEP: I could see a significant decrease in behavioral problems, acting out. And the inmates that participated in those previous Vipassana programs seemed to be much calmer, much at peace.

ELLIOTT: He's also found they come out ready to help other inmates by volunteering in the prison's hospice unit or leading self-help courses at the prison chapel.

Hetzel says he's convinced the program is not religious and he's encouraged staff members to take a mediation course to dispel misperceptions.

Baptist preacher Bill Lindsay is the chaplain at Donaldson.


I've been around here almost 30 years. I'm at what I call a bush college out on a pine thicket praying and the Holy Ghost (unintelligible) taught me.

ELLIOTT: He baptizes saved inmates in an old GE refrigerator. Lindsay is still skeptical, but now tries to give Vipassana the benefit of the doubt.

LINDSAY: It's kind of strange, something different. But they do a pretty good job on it.

ELLIOTT: They say it's working.

LINDSAY: I don't want to knock it. Yeah, it's working. And that's the main thing. You know if you dislike this program, you can't judge it, but if you get just one, what is a life worth, see, in this business? So if you can get just one, who knows?

ELLIOTT: To date, 430 inmates have gone through the Vipassana meditation program, the only one of its kind in North America. There's a waiting list for the quarterly sessions at Donaldson, and the state wants to expand the offering to its women's prison.

Filmmaker Jenny Phillips made a documentary called "The Dhamma Brothers" about the Alabama program and its unlikely marriage of an ancient meditation practice and an end-of-the-line prison.

JENNY PHILLIPS: They seem to clash. They're clashing cultures, and yet when you bring them together, they fit.

ELLIOTT: Sixty year old convicted murderer, Grady Bankhead, says he's walking evidence of that fit.

GRADY BANKHEAD: Before I went to a Vipassana meditation, this isn't what Grady Bankhead sounded like. I was probably the angriest man in this prison.

ELLIOTT: Now he's recruiting other inmates to take the difficult course. Bankhead says, quote, "We have to have some kind of balance back in our lives from the horrible things that we've done."

Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

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