It is Friday afternoon. I am sitting in a visitation room in the Northeastern Regional Correctional Facility, one of two buildings in St. Johnsbury that are the Northeast Correctional Complex. The other building is a work camp, with much looser security. This is a medium security facility. Entry and exit is by a series of doors around a central common area. Into or out of that area, only one door is opened at a time. You wait to get in, and you wait to get out. It is affectionately called the Bricks.
I am a volunteer at the Complex, but have worked mostly at the work camp. A group of us from the St. Johnsbury Shambhala Center have been trained as volunteers and we had a program where we could escort inmates from the work camp to our center to sit or for classes. That program was discontinued two years ago when there was a change of administration at the correctional center. We offered sitting sessions at the camp for a while, but couldn’t get a good time slot when there was a room available. No one came and the program disappeared.
Last week, Chris, the director of volunteers emailed me and told me of an inmate who claimed to be a Buddhist. The inmate was requesting Buddhist artifacts and objects including deity pictures, a prayer wheel, rune cards, four kinds of tea, and a mala. He made his requests as part of his freedom of religion rights. Chris wanted to know: did you need these things to practice Buddhism? I told him that except for the rune cards, all of these things might be used in Buddhist practice at different times. I offered to visit, and he agreed to set it up.
The inmate, Robert, was not housed at the work camp. He was in “restrictive housing” at the Bricks, solitary confinement. I could see him, but not without a glass barrier between us. We had originally arranged the meeting for yesterday, but Chris wrote:
“It seems that we have an inmate that is currently living in the visiting room (he is on a status that makes it so he is unable to have access to a bathroom, as we think he has drugs in a body cavity). I am not sure if he is going to be removed from that cell by this afternoon, is there any way we might be able to reschedule you for tomorrow afternoon? I just don’t want you to show up and be turned away in the event that he is still in the dry cell.”
So here I wait today, wondering what had transpired in that room the day before, thinking about the incredible variety of situations in which people find themselves.
The visitation area is two rooms divided by thick paned, double glazed windows. There are two stalls on each side, facing one another. In the middle of the glass of each stall is a round metal device to speak through. My room is painted puss green, with light puss green accents. The other room is the same green with white accents, better lit and slightly more cheerful I think. There is a solid panel on my left that provides privacy from the adjacent stall, but no such panel on the inmate side. Scratched crudely in the glass on the other side is a large F**K, readable backwards. The chairs are heavy plastic. There are no meditation cushions.
After a few minutes Robert is escorted in. He is about 6’3” with a head shaved about two weeks ago and two days growth of beard. I can tell immediately that he has more energy than he needs. We introduce ourselves and begin chatting. He interrupts me often. He is a student of the late Lama Yeshe, he says, and he presses pages of his book up against the glass for me to see. He never met Lama Yeshe, but he has this book. He wants me to know how dedicated he is to the deepest Buddhist practices and that he needs these accoutrements, mostly a mala, to allow him to chant his mantra, “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.” “Just like Tina Turner” he says, and although I have never been especially impressed by that particular celebrity endorsement, when I needed to spell the mantra, I Googled “Buddhist mantra Tina Turner.” I tell him that in our tradition, we sit silent mediation for quite a while before we ever use a mala. He is unconvinced. “Who is going to supply the mala?” I ask. “They are about $50.” He is less unconvinced.
He is disappointed. He says he had been expecting a monk, and I am clearly not a monk. He brags about his wife. I can relate to that, I sometimes brag about my wife as well. He says she is a mystic and has wisdom that you can’t even find in books. But, when I ask him whether she can send him a mala, he has only a weak excuse why she cannot. These situations have many layers.
“Robert, have you ever had meditation instruction?” I ask.
Would you like me to give you meditation instruction?
“Okay, let’s start with the posture….” When I tell him to relax, he looks at me and a big smile spreads across his face as if he is wondering how I could have known he had a hard time relaxing. We sit for about ten minutes. It seems good, but I usually have good meditation in places like the prison. When I ask him what he thought of the practice he complains about distractions: jingling keys, telephones, voices. He wants his mantra back. I tell him: “Ten minutes a day, try it.” He still wants his mantra back. I tell him again: “Ten minutes a day, try it.”
He has a court date on Monday for sentencing and it is unlikely that he will be returned to the St. Johnsbury facility. If he is, I promise him that I will be back to see him again. When I ask why he is there, he tells me he is a “street pharmacist.” When I ask why he is in solitary, he tells me that when his rights are violated, he just won’t stand for it.
“I am not like everyone else.” He says.
If there is a next time, I may talk with him about the all inclusive first noble truth.