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Hard Labor 

County Jail No. 3 is a hellhole. Can an ancient, intense form of meditation improve life for the inmates?

Wednesday, Dec 20 2000
San Francisco sheriff Michael Hennessey launches into his best James Cagney imitation as he enters County Jail No. 3, the imposing, Depression-era structure that sits crumbling on a bluff above the hills of San Bruno. "Warden, we're taking this place over!" Hennessey growls through the side of his mouth, channeling the staccato voice of the famous actor in the classic prison-break film White Heat. "That's what this place feels like -- an old movie."

The San Bruno jail is one of the most outdated in the nation, a not-so-quaint reminder of what prisons were like before correctional facility design became a science. The sheriff says he worries about the safety and sanity of both the inmates at No. 3 and the deputies who watch them. The deafening clamor of the prisoners' incessant shouting, chants, and banging on metal bars rushes through the jail as if it were a wind tunnel. The prison's architecture -- long, narrow tiers of cells attached to a central, six-story hollow rotunda -- makes it impossible for guards to monitor all activity. Since inmates are sometimes free to roam their tiers (as mandated by law), idle prisoners have ample opportunity to cavort with gangs, make weapons, sexually and physically assault each other, engage in drug use -- even commit suicide -- without anyone noticing.

Built in 1934, the jail is woefully low-tech and falling apart. The sheriff likes to introduce the jail's senior engineer as "the man in charge of bailing wire and duct tape." Hennessey roams No. 3 holding a ring of giant skeleton keys, which often get stuck as he tries to open doors to pass between tiers. "There's nothing electronic or push-button about the place," he says. "I'm embarrassed we actually house people here. It's a real shithole." Walking past one cell, he notices that deputies have duct-taped a clear plastic bag over a toilet to collect the back flow of urine and feces.

Hennessey knows the miserable conditions of No. 3 conspire to create anxiety, low morale, and a less than rehabilitative environment. "In running jails, you want order," he says. "Getting the prisoners to feel calm contributes to that order, which helps enssure safety."

A state-of-the-art prison to be constructed on the San Bruno grounds is at least three years away, so Sheriff Hennessey has a plan to improve conditions at old No. 3 in the meantime: meditation. He is following the example of another notoriously dilapidated prison, Tihar Jail in northern India, where chaos ruled among 10,000 hard-core criminals held in near-medieval conditions -- that is, until they learned Vipassana. The ancient form of meditation (pronounced Va-PAH-shana), which requires 10 days of total silence in isolation, transformed the jail's volatile atmosphere. Tihar's warden traveled to San Francisco from New Delhi last year to meet with Hennessey and bear witness to Vipassana's success. The sheriff was impressed.

"The show of self-control and discipline at Tihar was intense, and we're talking about really murderous and horrible criminals -- more so than we ever see at No. 3," he says. "If Vipassana could do that in India, then I figured it might help my inmates find a respite from the horrible conditions they have to live in here. They, too, could have a break from the chaos. Even if only in their minds."

While Sheriff Hennessey sees Vipassana as a promising way to achieve a calmer jail setting, researchers wonder if it could have a more lasting effect when inmates are released back into society. The National Institutes of Health has funded a study to find out whether Vipassana can help inmates curb their drug and alcohol addictions and become less inclined to return to a life of crime. The NIH will begin next month by focusing on a small, minimum-security facility near Seattle -- the first jail outside of India to adopt the Vipassana technique. Since that jail started the Vipassana program three years ago, the anecdotal evidence of its success has been encouraging. Now San Francisco's medium-security No. 3 jail will become the second -- and by far the largest -- in North America to experiment with Vipassana when it begins teaching inmates early next year. The sheriff's department plans to do its own internal study on the technique's effectiveness.

But Vipassana is not a simple undertaking. Getting prisoners to sit for the rigorous mind exercise and remain silent for 10 days isn't an easy task. Nor is diverting enough resources to comply with the program's strict requirements: quiet housing and meditation space secluded from the general prison population, vegetarian food service, and training in Vipassana for enough guards and jail personnel to administer the course without compromising security protocols. Still, Hennessey is determined to make it happen -- and he's certain that Vipassana isn't just something only a liberal sheriff in a New Age town would dare try.

"We have a tough jail system, and our prisoners are as tough as anyone else's. If Vipassana works here, I'd hope other cities would be open to such innovation, too," he says. "I personally believe in the value of meditation and self-reflection. If anything, it goes back to the original concept of prisons as penitentiaries -- where criminals were put in isolation to contemplate their actions and show penance for their sins. I don't know what's magical about the 10 days of Vipassana, but it's not always important to know why something works, as long as the jail gets quieter and the inmates become better people."

The art of Vipassana had been lost in India for 2,000 years when New Delhi's Tihar Jail was at its brutal worst during the latter half of the 20th century. Today's teachers of Vipassana claim that Gautama Buddha discovered the meditation technique in India 500 years before the birth of Christ. But its practice faded after the seventh century. As India embraced Hinduism, Buddhism migrated east, marrying Taoism in China and Shinto in Japan, and landing in its original form in Burma along the way. It was only there that a small, devout band of monks kept Buddha's Vipassana alive through the generations -- until a Burmese businessman, searching for a cure to his stressful life and the migraines that came with it, visited the monastery in the 1950s.

About The Author

Joel P. Engardio


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