Orlando Sentinel: Quiet Time – Prison Meditation

Orlando Sentinel

Date: Friday, April 6, 2007             Edition: FINAL
Source: Kumari Kelly, Sentinel Staff Writer

At a meditation retreat, female inmates learn how to live in the moment.

OCALA — When they close their eyes, the razor wire is gone. The silence
at first seems eerie, uncomfortable. But before long, the video playing in
their minds’ eyes begins to roll.
One inmate sees her daughter, carefree on horseback. Happy thoughts give
another a smile. Some women can hardly sit, feeling things they haven’t
felt in years.
The stories that unfold inside their quiet reverie carry regret, sadness,
hope and, most cherished, healing. It’s Day 5 of the first five-day silent
meditation retreat for female inmates at the Lowell Correctional
Institution near Ocala, the state’s largest prison for women, with about
2,600 locked up.
The 25 or so participants make discoveries when they simply close their
eyes and sit — quietly.
“If a crisis comes along, I can let it go on by me, and I don’t have to be
involved,” said inmate Pamela Hartley, 50, of Augusta, Ga., about how the
program has helped her. She is serving time on a second-degree murder
charge and is not due for release until 2016.
The power of silence is remarkable, said K.C. Walpole, head of the
Gateless Gate Zen Center in Gainesville, who runs the retreat. He has
taught meditation for 12 years in Massachusetts and more recently in 10
jails and prisons in north-central Florida including Lowell, where he
visits as a chaplain.
The program has potential to reduce recidivism, produce calmer inmates and
help the women escape from the toughest prison of all — the one in their
minds, Walpole said.
Similar programs in other prisons have helped drop the typical recidivism
rate of 40percent to 50 percent to as low as 11 percent in one Texas
In Massachusetts, soon-to-be-published studies show the Mindfulness-Based
Stress Reduction, or MBSR, program — its official name — also has helped
in pain management and alleviating depression. It has been taught to more
than 1,500 inmates and 100 staff — including the Commissioner of Public
Safety and several prison superintendents — of the Massachusetts
Department of Corrections.
The program teaches a simple concept called “mindfulness,” which simply is
sitting still, being quiet and observing thoughts, feelings, experiences
in the present.
Participants are taught to live in the moment and to “make space” between
thoughts and impulsive actions or judgments.
The result, participants say, is they become aware that the past cannot be
changed, the future is yet to come and feelings and emotions in the
present can be controlled.
“This teaches them how to direct their energies to positive things,” said
Lowell assistant warden Ellen Link, who said officials have heard about
Walpole’s success in other prisons.
“We hope some of these alternative, sort of out-of-the-mainstream programs
can help some of them.”
Focusing on the present
After years in prison, the dreams of “when I get out” flood inmates’
minds, said Carla V. Wagner, who was released from prison in 2006 and
learned meditation techniques from Walpole when he visited as a chaplain.
“When I am free” becomes a mantra and key to future happiness, they
This program makes inmates focus on the present.
“Meditation is about attaining a clear mind so that your own answers
become visible, through stillness,” said Wagner, 24, who was jailed as a
17-year-old high-school graduate for killing a 16-year-old in-line skater
while driving under the influence near Miami.
After five years in prison, she returned last July to her home country,
Panama, where she is studying Italian at Latin University and awaiting
word about entry into the American University of Rome.
Lowell officials are hoping for similar results from more inmates.
During their five-day “retreat,” ,held in the prison’s large visitors’
room, the women alternated 25 minutes of silent sitting meditation with 10
minutes of silent walking meditation for 9 hours a day. About 50
participated in the eight weeks of classes and about 25 in the retreat.
Some said they discovered an escape from the stresses of prison. But
translating that into life after prison is what really matters, officials
Inmate Ann Cochran, 42, of Daytona Beach, who has a long rap sheet and is
serving time on a prostitution charge, gave a concrete example of how the
program helped her make better choices. She cited a recent example of
another inmate waking up in the middle of the night and angrily yelling
that some of her clothes were missing.
In the past, Cochran might have argued or yelled at her to be quiet. This
time, she said, she remained calm, explaining how the inmate could get
clothes reissued and coaching her, using mindfulness concepts. The inmate
calmed down.
“I see now I can help other people learn the things I’ve learned,” she
Prison officials say the feedback from inmates has been great, but only
time will tell if they can sustain their meditation practice and what they
have learned. They do, though, plan to continue the program.
“I think if this was required, it would be a better place,” said Melanie
Webber, 34, of Panama City who will be released in a month after serving
time on a drug charge. “I think you’d see the number of recurring prison
offenders go down.”
`A new challenge’
The program gets neither government nor faith-based funding. While it
encourages inmates to follow their personal spiritual paths, it’s entirely
The most recent string of classes and retreat were taught by six
volunteers from Orlando, Clearwater and Gainesville. The unpaid volunteers
first undergo intensive training through the University of Massachusetts
Medical School Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society
to be qualified to teach.
Said Walpole: “I know that each one [volunteer] pays a big price in time
and money, and the truth is, I don’t know how long they can keep the
commitment up. ”

Illustration: DRAWING: (Blue, cloudy skies behind a prison-cell door.)
PHOTO: K.C. Walpole (right), founder of Gateless Gate Zen Meditation
Center, presents Kimberli Jordan with a cake for her 53rd birthday.
Many inmates commit crimes again after their release from prison, although
techniques taught at a meditation program at Lowell Correctional Institute
in Marion County can reduce the so-called recidivism rate. Some reports
show rates dropping 11 percent to 15 percent with such programs.
In a five-year look at inmates after their release, a 2003 study showed
recidivism rates for women increase over time:
Time period after Percentage of released
release inmates who reoffend
6 months 8.4%
12 months 15.2%
18 months 21.1%
24 months 25.7%
36 months 33.3%
48 months 39.1%
60 months 42.8%
SOURCE: Florida Department of Corrections


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