Inner Freedom

Celebrating the November Buddhafest at the Special Corrections Center (SCC) at McNeil Island prison in Washington were (from left to right) SCC resident, Jeff Hadashi Miles (seated), SCC resident, Kobai Scott Whitney,Koro Kaisan Miles, Dan Ryan, and Lenny Reed.

The Prison Dharma’s Evolution

On November 17 five Buddhist teachers and volunteers arrived at Steilacoom, Washington, showed their IDs to a corrections officer and stepped on the ferry to McNeil Island, where the Special Commitment Center (SCC) still operates under the State of Washington Department of Social & Health Services (DSHS). The larger Department of Corrections (DOC) facility on the island has been closed due to budget cuts. That facility was originally built by the federal government and served for decades as the Northwest’s version of Alcatraz. Later, it was turned over to the State of Washington and served as a prison in the DOC system, housing more than 1500 men.

Inmates at the SCC, we were later told to call them “residents,” live out their lives in one of those strange legal black holes that the American justice system has been so good at inventing since 9-11.

It was their Buddha Day. Under Washington Department of Corrections policy, each inmate gets to choose a religion—or none—and each religious group inside gets to choose one day a year when they can invite family and outside religious guests to help them celebrate their faith.

This annual holiday is a big deal for inmates because it involves special food, the ability to wear civilian clothes and the pleasures of time spent with family and friends.

Chaplain Greg Duncan, who serves as our chaperone and guide, worked for the DOC facility as well as DSHS, and is about to retire after long service in both agencies. He points out the many deer, squirrels and raccoons which roam the contours of the island on this late afternoon. “They’re all very tame and used to humans. The men often leave food scraps for them outside the fence,” though this is against the rules, he hastens to add. “Every so often, the Department of Ecology will bring new deer on to the island so the herd doesn’t get too inbred.”

The three men in the first facility are very nervous that everything work out smoothly and are effusively thankful that we have come. There had been one of the usual bureaucratic snafus and the dinner, which had been ordered as vegetarian, arrived as spaghetti with meat sauce, which was the “mainline” meal. After the meal, we meditated and shared a bit about “What Buddhism Means to Me.”

Our visit to the facility was just a small piece in the mosaic of Buddhist activities in Northwest jails and prisons. Early pioneers, like Aryadaka Dharmachayi and Ven. Santidhammo in Washington, Rowan Conrad in Montana and Karuna Thompson in the Oregon system are now being succeeded by a new generation. As this history unfolds, progress toward full acceptance of Buddhism as a faith tradition has blossomed in the Northwest. (By contrast, California’s Department of Corrections has yet to recognize Buddhism as a valid religion. Dharma volunteers in many institutions there must still be accompanied inside by a chaplain of a “mainstream” faith.)

There are several opportunities for volunteers in Northwest institutions, both male and female. Rev. Genko Kathy Blackman, a Zen priest and teacher, can direct interested Mahasangha members to the appropriate contacts. She can be reached at [email protected].

At this time the Federal Detention Center at Sea-Tac, Washington is looking for either a contract chaplain or volunteer to lead Buddhist meditation once a week. To qualify to bid on a contract, applicant should be ordained or otherwise endorsed to teach. Contract chaplains generally come in between 1 and 4 pm on weekdays. The Buddhist contract chaplain would be expected to visit 2 - 3 units each week, staying 45 minutes to an hour at each unit. Volunteer time commitment would be similar but ordination is not a requirement. Please contact Chaplain Ellis at Sea-Tac FDC, 206-870-5771 (direct line) or [email protected] for details.

Guidance on how sanghas can start up prison work, and some of the pitfalls involved, can be found in Sitting Inside: Buddhist Practice in American Prisons which is available on the “Prison Dharma Press” link on the Prison Dharma Network website, or from Amazon.

Contributor: Kobai Scott Whitney.
Photo: Rev. Greg Duncan.