An ancient Eastern practice is taking root in the unlikeliest of places: Alabama’s highest security prison, reports NPR. Alabama’s most violent and mentally unstable prisoners are in the William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility outside Birmingham. The prison has 24 death row cells, and a third of the 1,500 prisoners are lifers with no chance of parole. The lockup has a history of inmate stabbings, deaths and suicides and is the target of lawsuits. The prison is named for an officer killed here in 1990.
For the past 10 days, the gym has been transformed into a peaceful Vipassana meditation hall. “Vipassana means seeing things as they are,” says inmate Johnny Mack Young. He kneels on a blue mat, resting back on a small wooden stool–the position he keeps for up to 10 hours a day during the intense silent-meditation course. “Isolated in the gym, the inmates wake up at 4 a.m. and meditate on and off until 9 p.m. They eat a strict vegetarian diet. They can’t smoke or drink coffee. There is absolutely no conversation, only an internal examination of how the body is reacting. Ron Cavanaugh, treatment director for the Alabama Department of Corrections, says many inmates put their defenses up, denying responsibility for their crimes and blaming others. The meditation chips away at those defense mechanisms. “They have nobody to talk to,” Cavanaugh says. “So there’s nobody that they can deny stuff with or project everything with.” Inmates who go through the course have a 20 percent reduction in disciplinary action. It hasn’t been an easy sell in Alabama, a state known for harsh punishment policies like chain gangs and hitching posts.