Mindfulness in mental health and prison settings
Mindfulness in mental health and prison settings

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Mindfulness in mental health and prison settings

3.1 Experiencing meditation in prison

Described image
Figure 4 Fleet Maull

This is an excerpt from an interview with Fleet Maull (2005), who you read about in ‘Mindfulness’. Here he talks about his journey from being sentenced to 30 years in prison, to applying the meditation practices he’d previously learned in order to get through the experience, and eventually founding the Prison Dharma Network.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Fleet Maull: waking up in prison
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Transcript: Fleet Maull: waking up in prison

As I was standing there getting sentenced, my knees literally buckled and my lawyer kind of held me up … When I went back to this county jail where I was being held, and awaiting a transfer to a federal prison and so forth. That's really when the reality of what I'd done to myself, what I'd done to my son, in particular, how I'd let down my family, my community, my spiritual teacher. It just hit me - a ton of bricks.
I finally had to face the truth of the incredible series of selfish decisions I'd been making for years. Justifying it in all kinds of ways. Thinking I was basically a good person. Thinking I love my son.
All of which on some level was true, but it certainly wasn't playing out in my actions. So I had to face that. And so that's really what began to transform things for me. I became radically dedicated to extricate all the negativity out of my life, and do something positive with this experience.
I was scared to death. I was in this county jail, hearing all the horror stories about prison. Unable to sleep, having nightmares all night long about prison rapes, just all the fears one might imagine, having anticipating going to a high security prison for thirty years.
I was devastated, but I knew that it was sort of like that moment when I was finally cornered, and I knew, I had to take everything I had received and apply it, just in a sense of surviving.
And I just started focusing on meditation and practicing it as much as I possibly could. I had no sense that I would even survive my prison time. Once I got there, I had even less surety that I would survive my prison time. But I wanted to leave my son some better legacy than just his dad went to prison, or even that his dad died in prison.
Well I worked in a number of ways. To begin with it was choiceless. My [inaudible] teacher, Chyogam Rinpoche, it was as if he was sitting right there on my shoulder. And here was an incredible man. So, I'm skeptical by nature. I was always kind of watching him like a hawk. As far as I could tell, 24/7, he was dedicated to nothing but the service of humanity. I had that example and there was no question that I was going to figure out some way to show up and serve and contribute in this world in which I found myself.
In this particular place, you started off in these 28 man dorms, on an upper bunk, and it was just bedlam, especially in the evenings. Just a crazy environment. But I would sit up on the top bunk and try to practice late at night. Then I discovered another alternative. At the entrance to these dormitories, there was like a broom closet. In there, were the trash cans and the brooms and the mops and everything. So I would go in there and clean it up. It was usually not too clean. I'd clean it up. Set the stuff outside so people had access to it, take a folding chair in there, and sit in there and do my practice.
And even through the summer months when it was just sweltering, I'd just sit in there and sweat, it was like sitting in a sauna. I began doing that, and people saw me doing that. There was a little window in the door, and sometimes they'd look in and they'd think I was you know "What's that crazy person doing?" In prison, interestingly enough, even if people don't understand what you're doing, if they recognize you're really disciplined and dedicated to it, they tend to respect it.
Also, I almost immediately got a meditation group going in the prison chapel. It wasn't easy, because when I first went down there and inquired, they said "No way. Prisoners don't start nothing around here." I found a way to just keep showing up down there, and I found there was a space that was open. I said, "Well, can I just sit here?"
They kind of looked at me like they couldn't figure out a reason to say no. So they said "Yes, but if anybody comes, you will have to leave." Anyway, I just started regularly going down. I got a few more guys to join me, and then I got the outer Shambhala community to name us as a Dharma study group, and the chapel started getting mail for this Dharma study group. We just kind of morphed into becoming an official group.
And the way men would just see things about my life, or they'd see me practicing up in that broom closet or up on my top bunk, and they'd kind of get curious. Like "What are you doing?" So I said "Well, come down and check it out." So that's one way that the meditation group attracted people. Over the years, it was a very transitional place, because there was a thousand medical patients, 600 medical, 400 psychiatric, and about 300, what they call general population, or work cadre inmates like myself.
Now, today what I know about from the work we do, about your typical prison meditation group, and there are hundreds and hundreds of these groups all over the country, that the typical structure is you do some practice, you have some open dialogue, and you do some kind of conscious movements - some yoga, some stretching, some qigong, something like that. And in the dialogue process part, people do surface a lot of the struggle and turmoil that they're dealing with. This may be because there's often an outside voice there, an outside facilitator to listen. When I go into groups today, that is often what's coming up.
But in the group that I led and facilitated all those years there was a little bit of that, but it mostly focused on learning the practice, and watching videos to get more teachings about the practice, and talking about the meditation instruction itself.
End transcript: Fleet Maull: waking up in prison
Fleet Maull: waking up in prison
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Activity 3 How can meditation practice help prisoners?

Having heard the excerpt from Fleet Maull’s interview, use the box below to make a list of ways in which meditation or mindfulness practice can be helpful to people in prison.

Also, jot down any criticisms you have of the focus on mindfulness and/or meditation practices in prison.

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From Maull’s interview you might have noticed the following things that he, and other prisoners, got out of their meditation practice:

  • something to fill, or structure, their time in prison
  • a sense of meaning or purpose: something worthwhile to do with the time, making sure something good comes from a bad situation
  • an air of being dedicated and disciplined, which elicits respect from other prisoners and staff
  • an ethical code to follow, around being of service to others, with role models in the form of teachers or facilitators
  • an antidote to the guilt or shame they feel about the crimes they committed
  • a sense of belonging with the other prisoners who are part of the meditation, mindfulness or Dharma group
  • a place to talk openly and honestly about their struggles, and to receive support.

Reflecting more critically about the use of mindfulness or meditation programmes in prison, you might have considered the following points about their shortcomings:

  • Adding mindfulness or meditation programmes into the existing criminal justice system doesn’t address some of the serious problems with this system, such as class and race injustices around who is incarcerated .
  • It does little to address the questions over whether imprisonment is effective at rehabilitating people, and whether it is appropriate treatment for people who are, themselves, often the victims of serious abuse. If one of the key aims of mindfulness is cultivating kindness and compassion, what are the implications of trying to do this within a system which is, itself, often cruel? For example, Maull’s interview highlights that there is a high risk of further physical or sexual abuse in the prison system, and that staff often treat prisoners as inferior human beings.
  • Many people in prisons may already have existing spiritual practices, faiths and beliefs. Should mindfulness be offered as an alternative to these, or would it be more appropriate to explore what is available in each group’s or individual’s own cultural background, encouraging them to develop that?

These points relate to some of the wider criticisms of the mindfulness movement, which we will explore shortly. Critics have argued that it is problematic to bring mindfulness practices into settings such as workplaces, schools and prisons as a kind of add-on, without challenging the often unethical ways in which these settings operate. For example, people are frequently unequally valued within hierarchical structures, often bullied or otherwise abused, and treated as objects to produce outcomes and reach targets rather than as full human beings.

Critics have also pointed to the cultural issues with this westernised, secularised version of Buddhism being offered to everyone regardless of the rich spiritual traditions and practices they may already be engaged with – many of which include similar ideas to mindfulness.


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