Justice from the Inside Out: Contemplative Practices for Correctional Workers

This thought-provoking forum discussion between Caroline Margaret Volstad, J.D., and Lama Justin von Bujdoss (Repa Dorje Odzer) explores the challenges of disrupting suffering through spiritual care within carceral facilities. Caroline and Justin spend this hour contemplating justice (which Justin defines as respect, agency, appreciation of value, and freedom from violence for all beings) in the context of Justin’s work as Staff Chaplain for the New York City Department of Corrections.

As an ordained repa, Justin’s perspective on justice does not always align exactly with the Western understanding of crime and punishment that the United States’ carceral system is built on.

“I am coming from a Buddhist, especially Tantric Buddhist perspective, which functions in a way that’s very different from Abrahamic ideas around justice – not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with those [Abrahamic] systems – but… our justice system is very binary and subject to a lot of structural problems.”

Justin believes that as we grapple with our own moral self-evaluations, we all find ourselves somewhere in-between the two poles of “good” and “bad.” Furthermore, our choices are intertwined with the choices of others in our community, so no one is truly independently chartering their life’s course. People exist in relationship to one another, and we all want to feel that we are “good,” and be perceived as such by those around us. Considering this Buddhist perspective can help us think about justice in more holistic, nuanced ways.

This approach requires that we have compassion for everyone involved in the carceral system, which means refraining from moralistic judgements – not only of incarcerated people, but also correctional officers and other staff. Justin’s experience with the prison system began with providing meditation sessions to incarcerated people on Riker’s Island on a volunteer basis, but he was eventually offered a position with the D.O.C. as a Chaplain for staff. Although he had some “initial anxiety around colluding with a system that may be unjust,” he hesitantly accepted.

“People really opened up to me and I just saw how visceral the experience for both populations – uniformed staff and people in custody was… My immediate concern was providing help and support, bringing light or compassion or heart into this very difficult environment.”

He explains that while proximity to trauma and violence was challenging, he is motivated by his deeply-held belief that individual people have the power to shift their environment. He felt that whether or not he agreed with the carceral system, supporting the human beings involved was “the right thing to do.” 

Justin encourages us to think of people working in corrections with empathy, recognize their humanity, and be careful not to reduce them to symbols of the system. The human impulse to label and categorize can help us make sense of the world around us, but it can also limit our perception of other people. 

“It’s just too easy to create these very hard-edged lines and value judgements about groups, classes.”

Justin is interested in disrupting these categories through care and compassion. He emphasizes that his work is grounded in the present moment – while he doesn’t have the power to create major structural change overnight, he can greatly relieve suffering in any given moment.

And the reality is that prison staff populations do have an immediate need for psychological support. A 2018 study revealed that correctional officers face rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder equivalent to those of veterans of the Afghan and Iraqi wars. In addition to his own spiritual care work, Justin helped establish a holistic wellness center on Riker’s Island, to provide staff with health resources and psychosocial treatment. He is hopeful that this support will have ripple effects on the communities that prison staff live and work in.

Justin also acknowledges that the issue of mass incarceration is linked to a number of other issues outside of the carceral system – including food access, substance abuse problems, physical and mental healthcare, access to education, access to training, intergenerational trauma, and systemic racism. 

So, where do we go from here?

“I think there needs to be more of a contemplative, restorative examination of everything. In a city, it doesn’t have to be New York City it could be any city, any kind of community, how is it that we organize ourselves? How is that organization authentic? Who profits, who has the power, who decides who doesn’t have power? And how can we equitably set up a system that cares for the individual in a way that responsibly addresses suffering?”

Your support matters. Our vision for a more just, compassionate world has never felt more urgent. While we cannot share physical space together, we remain committed to a shared practice of social and spiritual care. We are thankful for the opportunity to create a virtual sanctuary during this time of physical distancing. If you feel called to support our work, we welcome your tax-deductible contribution toward our efforts.

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Lama Justin von Bujdoss is an American Vajrayana Buddhist teacher, writer, and the is a cofounder of Bhumisparsha an experimental Buddhist sangha along with Lama Rod Owens. He is the author of Modern Tantric Buddhism: Authenticity and Embodiment in Dharma Practice published by North Atlantic Books, contributor to Buddhism and Whiteness: Critical Reflections published by Lexington Books. Lama Justin serves as the Executive Director of Chaplaincy and Staff Wellness for NYC Department of Correction where he also serves as Staff Chaplain and has experience as a hospice and hospital chaplain as well. He was ordained as a repa, a lay tantric yogi in the tradition of Milarepa, by His Eminence Gyaltsab Rinpoche. Lama Justin has presented on Buddhist practice at Harvard, Princeton, Yale, University of Chicago, Wellesley, Columbia and has led retreats at a variety of dharma centers and is passionate about helping to create the conditions for authentic embodied tantric Buddhist spiritual practice in the West. More of his work can be seen at: justinvonbujdoss.com and https://bhumisparsha.org.

Caroline Margaret Voldstad is a lawyer and yoga and meditation teacher. Caroline has led classes and workshops in mind-body practices for a variety of audiences at educational and nonprofit institutions. She has also created and led organizations dedicated to promoting yoga and meditative practices at her own educational institutions including The College of the Holy Cross, Harvard Divinity School, and Columbia Law School. At Columbia Law School, she was involved in building the Mindfulness Program while a student and co-led the program’s first off-site weekend retreats at the Garrison Institute in the Spring of 2019 and again in January 2020. She has also offered mindfulness and meditation guidance for youth in various capacities and for populations involved in the criminal justice system. Caroline has participated in a variety of yoga and mindfulness training and attended several silent retreats. She is certified as a 500 hour experienced Yoga Teacher and, most recently, she has completed her foundations training in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. Caroline believes deeply in the power of contemplative practice to shift individual consciousness and create the possibility of a more connected and caring world.

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