Inmates find freedom behind bars

Orlando Florida Sentinel

When they close their eyes, the razor wire is gone. The silence at first seems eerie, uncomfortable. But before long, the video playing in their minds begins to roll.

One inmate sees her daughter, carefree on horseback. Happy thoughts give another a smile. Some women can hardly sit, feeling things they haven't felt in years.

The stories that unfold inside their quiet reverie carry regret, sadness, hope and, most cherished, healing. It's Day 5 of the first five-day silent meditation retreat for female inmates at the Lowell Correctional Institution near Ocala, the state's largest prison for women, with about 2,600 inmates.

The 25 or so participants make discoveries when they simply close their eyes and sit quietly.

"If a crisis comes along, I can let it go on by me, and I don't have to be involved," said inmate Pamela Hartley, 50, of Augusta, Ga., about how the program has helped her. She is serving time on a second-degree murder charge and is not due for release until 2016.

The power of silence is remarkable, said K.C. Walpole, head of the Gateless Gate Zen Center in Gainesville, who runs the retreat. He has taught meditation for 12 years in Massachusetts and, more recently, in 10 jails and prisons in Florida.

The program has potential to reduce recidivism, produce calmer inmates and help the women escape from the toughest prison of all -- the one in their minds, Walpole said.

In Massachusetts, soon-to-be-published studies show the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR, program -- its official name -- also has helped manage pain and alleviate depression. It has been taught to more than 1,500 inmates and 100 staff of the Massachusetts Department of Corrections.

The program teaches the concept of "mindfulness," which simply is sitting still, being quiet and observing thoughts, feelings and experiences in the present.

Participants are taught to live in the moment and to "make space" between thoughts and impulsive actions or judgments.

Inmates say they become aware that the past cannot be changed, the future is yet to come and feelings and emotions in the present can be controlled.

"This teaches them how to direct their energies to positive things," said Lowell, Fla., assistant warden Ellen Link.

"We hope some of these alternative, sort of out-of-the-mainstream programs can help some of them."

After years in prison, the dreams of "when I get out" flood inmates' minds, said Carla V. Wagner, who was released from prison in 2006 and learned meditation from Walpole when he visited as a chaplain. "When I am free" becomes a mantra and key to future happiness, they believe.

This program makes inmates focus on the present.

"Meditation is about attaining a clear mind so that your own answers become visible, through stillness," said Wagner, 24, who was jailed as a 17-year-old high-school graduate for killing a 16-year-old in-line skater while driving under the influence.

After five years in prison, she returned last July to her home country, Panama, where she is studying Italian at Latin University and awaiting word about entry into the American University of Rome.

Lowell officials are hoping for similar results from more inmates.

During their five-day "retreat," held in the prison's large visitors' room, the women alternated 25 minutes of silent sitting meditation with 10 minutes of silent walking meditation for 9 hours a day. About 50 participated in the eight weeks of classes and about 25 in the retreat. Some said they discovered an escape from the stresses of prison. But translating that into life after prison is what really matters, officials say.

Inmate Ann Cochran, 42, of Daytona Beach, who has a long rap sheet and is serving time on a prostitution charge, gave a concrete example of how the program helped her make better choices. She cited a recent example of another inmate waking up in the middle of the night and angrily yelling that some of her clothes were missing.

In the past, Cochran might have argued or yelled at her to be quiet. This time, she said, she remained calm, explaining how the inmate could get clothes reissued and coaching her, using mindfulness concepts. The inmate calmed down.

"I see now I can help other people learn the things I've learned," she said.

Prison officials say the feedback from inmates has been great, but only time will tell if they can sustain their meditation practice and what they have learned. But they plan to continue the prison program.

"I think if this was required, it would be a better place," said Melanie Webber, 34, of Panama City, who will be released soon after serving time on a drug charge. "I think you'd see the number of recurring prison offenders go down."

The program gets neither government nor religious funding. Although it encourages inmates to follow personal spiritual paths -- one inmate wore meditation mala beads from her Buddhist tradition, while a Christian read her "Life Recovery Bible" -- the program is entirely secular.

The most recent string of classes and the retreat were taught by six unpaid volunteers who underwent intensive training through the University of Massachusetts Medical School Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society.

Said Walpole: "I know that each one [volunteer] pays a big price in time and money, and the truth is, I don't know how long they can keep the commitment up. Each day is a new challenge for each of them."

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