Spreading Mindfulness, Kindness, and Resilience in Prison

By Doug Carnine

We typically think of those in caring professions like health care workers, teachers, and social justice organizers engaging in contemplative practices to cultivate their resilience. A quite different perspective is to consider how those who are being cared for can contribute to the resilience of their caregivers. Through nearly 10 years of teaching mindfulness in prison, and mentoring prisoners in my capacity as a Buddhist lay minister, I have seen how men in maximum security prison were able to support not only their own resilience, but also that of their guards, nurses, and other prison staff, through the practice of meditation, mindfulness, and deliberate kindness.

Therapist and mindfulness teacher Linda Graham, the author of Bouncing Back, stated in an interview that “the brain becomes more resilient any time we steadily cultivate the positive, pro-social emotions like gratitude, kindness, compassion, serenity.” In my correspondence with prisoners like Roy Tester—who is serving a life sentence for murder in the notorious Tucker Unit maximum security prison in Arkansas—I have seen this to be true.

Along with other prisoners, Roy and I formed what we called a mindful-kindness partnership, using mindfulness meditation to weaken unkind habits and replace them with kinder ones. In learning how to be more mindfully kind with one another—and with prison guards and workers—these men also hoped to build resilience in themselves. These acts of kindness could be as simple as smiling and offering a friendly word to a guard, repairing a pair of shoes for another prisoner, reading aloud to an illiterate neighbor, or sending care packages of food and supplies to prisoners without the means to buy their own goods from the commissary.

The results of enacting mindfulness in prison were remarkable. Not only did Roy and the other men in our partnership say they found the physical and mental hardship of prison easier to bear, they also reported a change in many of the prison workers around them. Not surprisingly, when prisoners treat their guards and nurses in kind ways, it is easier for those caregivers to respond with pro-social emotions like kindness, compassion, and gratitude. Many guards, nurses, and other staff began treating them with more kindness and respect.

And yet, kindness and resilience are often held hostage by the poisonous atmosphere of prison. Roy told me about one guard who was assaulted and nearly blinded by an inmate. The attack was especially shocking, since the young man responsible was generally known to be likable and friendly. “This is a madhouse, bro, where death or disfigurement and violence are only a heartbeat away,” Roy wrote. “What better place for me to spread loving-kindness?”

In order to make a difference in those around him, Roy learned, it was critical that acts of kindness be genuine. “The guards I’ve seen change for the better aren’t the sharpest as far as education goes, but they can read people real good,” he wrote. He found that he was able to win over even skeptical, hardened guards when they saw he was real and sincere. It wasn’t always easy. On one occasion, a group of guards ransacked his cell in search of contraband, deliberately smashing his radio, only to realize too late that they were in the wrong room. Instead of reacting with anger or lodging a complaint, Roy accepted their apology. “I just stayed calm and exercised patience,” he wrote later. “You have to show them by being a Buddha in all your thoughts and actions. I might be the only encounter with Buddha’s teachings that someone has in his life, so I need to properly represent Buddha with my character, behavior, and actions. I must be mindful that hate is only overcome with love, not more hate or anger.”

In writing Roy, I would sometimes wonder how guards and nurses responded to his kindness. I found out when Linda and I flew from Oregon to Arkansas to visit Roy, who was suffering from health problems. While we were talking to him in the visiting area though 4-inch thick bulletproof glass, a burly, tough-looking sergeant poked his head into the room. He politely interrupted our conversation to ask if we could please encourage Roy to eat more, so he would stop losing weight.

Later, Roy wrote to me about a prison nurse he had befriended, who quit her job in protest when higher-ups refused to provide him with adequate pain medication. On another occasion, he told me about four guards who came to visit him when he was being treated in the prison infirmary. “They stayed late just to talk with me,” he wrote. “Yeah, there is compassion in this compound of anger and hate.”

Although he feared it could result in retaliation from the medical staff at Tucker, Roy’s pain and worsening disability eventually became so great that he asked me to go over their heads and contact the Arkansas Department of Corrections Medical Services Office to approve additional care. Linda and I began calling the office of the medical director for the prison system. After calling several times, we heard back from her executive assistant saying the director would look into Roy’s case. A week later, we heard from Roy that the Tucker medical department had ordered new pain medication and a CT scan for him. He was ecstatic.

Linda and I assumed that our efforts were to thank for the change, but the next day I received a letter from Roy that gave the rest of the story. It turns out, a nurse who thought highly of Roy had intervened, writing a request that he be seen for a second opinion and making sure her request stayed at the top of the doctor’s stack of paperwork. In the end, we realized that more than our intervention, Roy’s loving-kindness and respect toward his fellow inmates and the prison staff had made the real difference.

Maybe the greatest kindness Roy shows to the prison staff is through his example. He described an encounter with a guard who had approached his cell while he was in meditation—something he practiced more and more as a means of coping with his chronic pain. With his eyes still closed, Roy became aware she was standing at his door when he smelled her perfume.

“She said, ‘Tester, is you breathing when you do that meditation because I can’t tell if you breathing.’ ‘Yeah, Sarge, I’m breathing but just real shallow. The deeper I get the less breathing I do.’ Then she asked, ‘How many times a week you do it?’ I told her every day, at least twice a day, sometimes three and four times a day, and at least twenty minutes at a time, but usually a half hour or more. I told her the longer I meditate, the deeper I get.

“She said, ‘Well, shit, then what?’ I said I try to get deep enough so I am you and you are me and we’re no longer two but one energy, one with everyone and everything. She laughed and said, ‘Okay, okay, that’s enough Buddha for me for today.’”

It is truly within the reach of anyone to create an environment in which kindness and resilience can flourish. Even the most powerless among us—prisoners—have the ability to live mindfully and treat others with kindness and respect. In doing so, they are able to improve life and build resilience not just for themselves, but for other inmates, guards, and in fact everyone in their community.

Doug Carnine is a Buddhist lay minister and the author of Saint Badass: Personal Transcendence in Tucker Max Hell and How Love Wins: The Power of Mindful Kindness.

Photo courtesy of Christian Bardenhorst on Unsplash

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