RAINBOW WARRIOR: ‘The Dhamma Brothers’, A Dramatic Story Of Human Potential And Transformation (Flashback)

Source – dhammabrothers.com

“…In the nameless, faceless anonymity of prison life, where daily life is organized around social control and punishment, Vipassana has offered an alternative social identity based on brotherhood and spiritual development”:

(The Dhamma Brothers: A Dramatic Story Of Human Potential And Transformation)

Donaldson Correctional Facility is situated in the Alabama countryside southwest of Birmingham. 1,500 men, considered the state’s most dangerous prisoners, live behind high security towers and a double row of barbed and electrical wire fences.

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Within this dark environment, a spark was ignited. A growing network of men had been gathering to meditate on a regular basis. Intrigued by this, Jenny Phillips, cultural anthropologist and psychotherapist, first visited Donaldson Correctional Facility in the fall of 1999. She planned to observe the meditation classes facilitated by inmates and to interview the inmate meditators about their lives as prisoners.As she met with the men, one by one in the privacy of an office, she was drawn in by their openness and willingness to talk freely about themselves. High levels of apprehension, distraction and danger characterize their lives as prisoners. Even though many of these men will never be released from prison, they were thirsty for meaningful social and emotional change. What she heard there was difficult to forget. It left her wondering if it were possible to live with a sense of inner peace and freedom within this harsh prison environment.

Rick Smith, Dhamma Brother
“In silence, the mind naturally turns within
to observe its own nature.”
– Rick Smith, Dhamma Brother

As a meditator herself, Jenny knew that meditation directly addresses the issue of personal suffering, and offers a simple yet powerful means for obtaining relief. But were these ancient ideas, as described in the teachings of the Buddha 2600 years ago, now relevant? Could the framework of this approach to suffering be translated into some basic principles of treatment that would be applicable to 21st century North American prisoners? Were these prisoners, many of them survivors of personal trauma, even capable of withstanding the emotionally and physically demanding experience of a Vipassana program requiring over 100 hours of silent meditation?

The Dhamma Brothers tells a dramatic story of human potential and transformation as it closely follows and documents the stories of a group of prisoners as they enter into this arduous program. It will challenge assumptions about the very nature of prisons as places of punishment rather than rehabilitation. Despite the difficulty in obtaining permission to film inside a prison, the Alabama Department of Corrections allowed a film crew to document, not only the Vipassana program, but many other scenes and settings revealing the daily lives of prisoners and staff.

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Before the Vipassana retreat, the men openly express fear and trepidation, wondering what they will find when they look deeply within and face the consequences of past actions and trauma. They are shown packing their scant belongings and preparing for the journey inside, a very short walk down the prison corridor but a sea change in their lives as prisoners. We observe the transformation of the prison gym, a frequent site for violent battles among inmates, into a monastery, a separate, restricted place in which the inmate students can eat, sleep, and meditate in total seclusion from the rest of prison society.

Grady Bankheand and Meditators

The Vipassana teachers, Bruce and Jonathan, prepare to live and meditate with the inmates. Teachers and inmates, men from culturally different worlds, are locked together in a dramatically revealing process. This is, most likely, the first time non-inmates have ever lived among inmates inside a prison.

Seated on meditation mats on a red rug donated by the Warden, wrapped in navy blue blankets, the men sit still in silence as they journey inside. Their days are punctuated by a strict daily routine of eating, sleeping and meditating.

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After the Vipassana retreat, the men tell their tales of pain and self-discovery. The spiritual warriors of Donaldson Correctional Facility discuss their collective experiences and vow to try to maintain their nascent sense of solidarity. In the nameless, faceless anonymity of prison life, where daily life is organized around social control and punishment, Vipassana has offered an alternative social identity based on brotherhood and spiritual development.

The stories of the men at Donaldson Correctional Facility are those of the unseen, unheard, and underserved. This film shines a spotlight upon society’s outcasts and untouchables as we witness them on their Odyssean journey into their misery to emerge with a sense of peace and purpose.

view the trailer

Benjamin “OB” Oryang, Dhamma Brother
“Well, it is over. But the vibrations are still here. The memories of those last 10 days on the mat, the experiential wisdom which was gained, and all the prospects of peace which were found here, that is always going to linger.”
– Benjamin “OB” Oryang, Dhamma Brother

The story of the Dhamma Brothers of Donaldson Correctional Facility continues to unfold today as the Vipassana program establishes deep roots and manifests a gradual change from within the prison walls. Four years after the shutdown of the program at Donaldson, Dr. Ron Cavanaugh brought it back in 2006.

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Warden Hetzel has observed the benefits to both the Dhamma Brothers, whose numbers are growing, as well as to the other prisoners and the staff. Impressed by this, the Warden requested that the Vipassana program be made available to the entire prison population. To meet this request, the Vipassana program is being offered more frequently and to larger groups by the Vipassana Prison Trust.

A Dhamma Brothers cellblock is soon going to be established. Corrections officers have been offered paid leave and transportation to take a Vipassana program. Eight corrections officers have already decided to take the program.

Academic research findings support behavioral observations that show the positive influence of the Vipassana program. Preliminary findings from pre- and post-tests and 1 year follow up measures administered to both Vipassana and matched control participants include the following findings for the Vipassana participants;

•  Increase in mindfulness & emotional intelligence

•  Improved physiological & psychological well-being

•  Decrease in anger and distress

•  A 20% reduction in institutional infractions & segregation time

All of this signifies a shift within the prison culture from one of violence and despair toward one of hope and positive change.

Edward Johnson, Dhamma Brother
“On the third day of meditation, I began to feel calm.
And then and there, for the first time in my life, I was really ready to deal with me. A lot of guys was afraid to deal with
Big Ed. And now I was ready to take him on, right there on that meditation mat.”
– Edward Johnson, Dhamma Brother
“Vipassana is what all the other treatment programs are
hoping for. It actually works, and has a demonstrable effect
on the inmates and a positive effect on the staff.”
– Dr. Ron Cavanaugh,
Director of Treatment for the Alabama Department of Corrections
“Vipassana is what all the other treatment programs are
hoping for. It actually works, and has a demonstrable effect
on the inmates and a positive effect on the staff.”
– Dr. Ron Cavanaugh,

Prisoners at the Donaldson Correctional Facility

Mission Statement

To create a national conversation and a call to action about the need for effective prison treatment programs through a national public television broadcast, widespread theatrical, grassroots and educational screenings, and distribution to prisons of The Dhamma Brothers documentary film. Both film and companion book, Letters From the Dhamma Brothers, open hearts and minds to the possibility that prisons can become places for effective rehabilitation, ensuring safer prisons and safer streets.

Brief Synopsis

An overcrowded, violent maximum-security prison, the end of the line in Alabama’s prison system, is dramatically changed by the influence of an ancient meditation program. Behind high security towers and a double row of barbed wire and electrical fence live over 1,500 prisoners, many of whom will never again know life in the outside world. But for some of these men, a spark is ignited when it becomes the first maximum-security prison in North America to hold an extended Vipassana retreat, an emotionally and physically demanding program of silent meditation lasting ten days and requiring 100 hours of meditation.

The Dhamma Brothers tells a dramatic tale of human potential and transformation as it closely follows and documents the stories of the prison inmates at Donaldson Correctional Facility as they enter into this arduous and intensive program. This film has the power to dismantle stereotypes about men behind prison bars.

view the trailer

Omar Rahman, Dhamma Brother
“For the first time, I could observe my pain and grief. I felt a tear fall. Then something broke, and I couldn’t stop sobbing.
I found myself in a terrain where I had always wanted to be, but never had a map. I found myself in the inner landscape, and now I had some direction.”
– Omar Rahman, Dhamma Brother

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