Dharma Zephyr’s Prison Sangha has been meeting for over four years, led at various times by DZ members Jeff Froschauer, Christy Tews, Steve Swartz and Mark Breedon.
The prison sangha is always looking for donations of dharma books and magazines. If you have any to donate, please contact Jeff through the contact form on this website.
Here are the leaders’ thoughts on the prison sangha.
On Tuesday evenings at 5:55 PM, Christy Tews, Steve Swartz and I gather at the bottom of One Tower of Carson City’s Nevada State Prison (NSP). We sign in, leave car keys, cell phones and driver’s licenses and are given visitor’s badges. Anything we bring with us is searched for contraband; then we proceed through the metal detector. Our walk into the prison takes us through two loudly clanking sally-port doors to NSP’s visiting room where we arrange chairs in a circle. We sit and talk Dhamma while we wait for the incarcerated members of our NSP Sangha to arrive through other clanking secure doors.
The NSP Sangha is the brainchild of NSP’s Warden, Gregory Smith. Warden Smith and I have been colleagues and friends for many years and he has taken an interest in my Buddhist path. One day during one of our many casual conversations I told him how beneficial I thought meditation would be for the inmates in Nevada’s Department of Corrections. Greg surprised me by suggesting that I start a group at NSP.
I was intrigued by the idea. I’d been attending DZIMC’s Monday night Sangha regularly for less than a year yet in my heart I knew I did a much better job of telling my friends how beneficial meditation was than actually meditating. Don’t get me wrong, I meditated. A few days a week I’d sit on a cushion for 15 to 30 minutes and every few seconds wonder how much time was left in my sit. I’d make plans on how to improve my “meditation room” and I’d wonder what I’d have for breakfast that morning. Once in a while my thoughts would be interrupted by a simple realization – I’m breathing! Then I’d remember that I should also try and pay attention to that. I wondered how well I might be able to lead a Sangha.
Thank goodness for Christy and her love of the Dhamma. I introduced the idea of a prison meditation group at our Monday night Sangha and asked for volunteers. She immediately offered to join me. After the logistics were worked out with NSP’s administration, we had a place and a time. All prison volunteers are required to attend a ½ day training; pass a background check and pass a tuberculosis test. Christy and later Steve were approved to volunteer after negotiating this process.
NSP Sangha gathered for the first time in June of 2010, and it’s been a wonderful experience. The inmates who attend have changed over the months, though a couple of guys have been with us from day one. Six inmates have attended steadily over the last few months. Some have mentioned they are “lifers” others haven’t mentioned their sentences. Few have volunteered information about their crime/s. Other guys come and go. One of our earliest attendees was recently released from prison after serving 15 years.
Christy is our learned leader, Steve is the quiet, reflective type who offers excellent food for thought when he speaks to the group, and I’m the talker who likes to be involved in the discussions. Our inmates seem to follow similar patterns. We have a talker like me, some profound thinkers like Steve and a couple of guys with quite a bit of knowledge from a life lived, at least in part, quite mindfully, like Christy.
Once we settle into our chairs and have said our hellos, we sit for 30 minutes, sometimes with a guided mediation. We follow that with discussion, often prompted by something one of the inmates commented on the week before. The discussions are always stimulating. In fact, almost every week we end our group with a rushed Metta meditation – it’s a common occurrence to hear the visiting room doors being cycled open and closed as the control officer reminds us we’ve run out of time.
On a personal note, I am grateful for this path I am on. I’ve been blessed to have been led to the Buddha’s teachings and to the doorsteps of DZIMC’s Sangha. And I am so very grateful to the men who come sit with us on Tuesday nights. Seeing men who I know have lived hard lives in a hard environment and have memories of acting in some very unwholesome ways, close their eyes and offer loving-kindness to themselves, to us and to all beings, is quite humbling. And when they talk we get to experience the wisdom that their hard lives have gathered. The wheel of the Dhamma is at work at NSP. Christy, Steve and I may be the volunteers for the NSP Prison Sangha, but I promise you we get as much out of our Tuesday night Sangha as any of the inmates do.
For many years I’ve felt moved to offer the Dharma in a prison setting – and also fearful of doing so by myself, especially among a group of male prisoners. When Jeff offered the opportunity to join him I was grateful. I am a curious sort – I always want to know what other’s lives are like. Life in prison is impossible for me to imagine, and this would be the closest approach I might make. Watching Dhamma Brothers, a documentary about a Sangha in an Alabama prison, brought me up against the biggest reality for these men. Grady Whitehead says, “This is my home. I will live here for the rest of my life. I want to make it the best home I possibly can.” Many of our NSP Sangha will live here for the rest of their lives. The Dhamma has been a wonderful gift in my life. I am honored to be able to offer it to others who might use it to make their home the best it can be.
Many years ago I read a story in the book Non-violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. He recounted how he was leading a class at a prison. He said that after a session one of the inmates approached him and said that if he had understood before, that feelings were transitory, and had he been able to resist acting on them, he would not have “had to kill his best friend”. This statement hit me like a thunderbolt. I immediately recognized that this guy had just directly experienced something that, had he known sooner, would have had a profound impact on his own and on many others peoples lives. In my experience, this realization is one of the first things that people get when they sit and try to watch their breath. I decided that day, that I would look for opportunities, to share meditation, especially to adolescents and prison inmates.
When I discovered that Christy and Jeff had started a Prison Sangha I contacted them and took the Prison Volunteer Training.
Once a week we empty our pockets, make sure we are not wearing blue and sign away many of our normal rights and privileges. This act of giving and trust is not lost on the inmates. They thank us for seeing them as human beings and giving of our time. The prison administration recognizes that volunteers remind inmates of their humanity – making prison just a little bit safer. I hope that by sharing with them that suffering will be reduced in the world. I thank them for sharing their unique perspectives with me and helping me intensify my practice. This is a win/win/win deal for me. It is well worth the time and the risk.
first started attending the DZIMC Prison Sangha about a year and a half ago. From my very first encounter, I felt immediately connected to a world I had never even remotely experienced. I found myself understanding that this was a sangha where I might actually help to make a difference in the lives of men who wanted to find a new direction for their lives.. We never ask them what led to their incarceration, the sangha allows them to see their own humanity without the stigma of labels. We offer meditation instruction, dharma lessons, and our own personal experiences with the Buddhist path. Personally I feel I have gained a greater capacity for equanimity through my interactions with these men that I didn’t have before which has had a profound effect on my own practice. I am grateful to have the opportunity to be a member of this sangha.