A few weeks into the fall of 2013, I decided to start a meditation group in the beautiful Sierra foothills of Placer County, California. In a way, we were surrounded by national forests, but those of us meditating could not interact with the natural beauty. We were prisoners of the Auburn Jail.
Although self-help programs are commonplace in jails and prison, meditation groups are rare in my experience.
At the time, I was in an open-dorm housing unit with 54 convicts, and I was one of only three Black people in the unit. What led me to meditation in jail was Ruth Fishel’s book, “The Journey Within: A Spiritual Path to Recovery.” In July 2013, I retrieved the book from the top shelf of a book rack in the dayroom of my unit. A few pages in, she convinced me to try the practice.
I began to meditate during regular unsettling rides to and from court. The 6 a.m. trips — only 20 minutes long — were humiliating, noisy, cramped and nerve-wracking. I was either shackled around my waist with a belly chain and handcuffs, cuffed to the person next to me, or part of a chained group of 10 people. Anxiety and fear always hung in the air during these rides.
But by meditating, I managed to remain at peace amid the chaos.
Not long after that, I read another book, “Dharma in Hell” by Fleet Maul, whose writing inspired me to create a meditation group. Maul writes about people “thirsting for truth and a path to freedom” — and it was for similarly minded prisoners in my unit that I started the group.
At first, I was reluctant to start a meditation group in jail despite having benefited from the practice myself. I didn’t want to be perceived as weak and vulnerable. But I cooled my ego and started this healthy practice in an unlikely place, knowing it could help alleviate pain and suffering in others.
I tentatively approached several men about attending. To my surprise, they all committed to weekly meetings. Each had some limited knowledge and experience with meditation, but they had never practiced it in jail. So I facilitated the group for several meetings.
Over the weeks, there were, at times, upwards of four courageous men who sat with me in an area of our dorm and meditated. Before and after a meeting, we talked about the benefits of our practice. Each of us shared a common theme of relaxation and peace in the face of our circumstances.
With more confidence and experience under our belts, I suggested to a sergeant, who was responsible for bringing programming to the jail, the idea of a meditation group. She wondered whether her superiors would buy into it.
“I have numbers,” I told her emphatically. “People will attend.”
A few weeks later, she informed me that her supervisors greenlighted a meditation group for the jail. Then she asked me if I knew someone who would come to teach the practice. I did not.
A month or so went by. Then one day I heard the deputy announce, “Meditation group in the classroom.” I was both elated and disappointed. The announcement was for the unit next door to mine — they got it first.
The meditation chaplain taught meditation and some yoga poses weekly for about two hours during four consecutive Mondays.
A month later, the chaplain began to teach my unit — perhaps fatefully, for there had just been a riot in my unit. I remember the sergeant saying that she should have brought the chaplain to my unit first.
I was transferred to prison in April 2015. When I left, I was pleased to know that the meditation chaplain was still bringing “truth and a path to freedom” to the jail — more than a year after he first arrived.
Today, I continue to practice meditation and bring others into the meditative fold. Johnny Chavez is one such practitioner. He used to think that meditation was “for White people or older people who are trying to find their inner selves.” But now he credits his improved communication skills and contact with God to be the result of meditation.
Erik Pearson, who has been meditating for about five years, said he “found breathing exercises to be the best form of meditation.” “I see meditation as a solo journey for mental tranquility,” he said. “It should be taken seriously by [anyone] who is beginning their spiritual path to tranquility.”
Correction: Because of an editing error, the original first sentence of this story incorrectly referred to a meditation program that began “a few weeks into the fall of 2014.” The correct year is 2013. The story has been corrected.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.