Prison Program — Philosophy

This report was written by Getsushin in 2008 as part of an evaluation of religious programs at Coffee Creek Corrections Facility. It it organized by factors defined by the Oregon Department of Corrections (the Oregon Accountability Model). Updated in 2010 by Genko. It summarizes the overall philosophy behind the prison program.

The Buddhist program at CCCF started in 2001 in response to a request from Chaplain Arnadene Bean. A couple of years later we expanded to the Medium facility upon repeated requests from an inmate who is still a regular member of our group. Both the Medium and the Minimum groups are still going, though we have made some changes in the Minimum facility.

The Oregon Department of Corrections requires that each religious group working within the prison system should be familiar with the Oregon Accountability Model and be encouraged “to develop intentional programming that directly addresses crimonogenic factors.” Since most of the inmates we are working with will sooner or later be transferred back into society, we agree that it is important to present material that will be helpful not only inside the prison walls, but also prepare them to reenter society.


The historical Buddha frequently compared himself to a physician devoted to healing the suffering of the world. This suffering, he believed, is centered in the mind, and it can be healed through skillful inner work. Buddhism is not an “evangelizing” religion. It is a spiritual practice which teaches us to change the focus away from the distractions of everyday life and focus instead on what is going on in our own minds. Consequently, Buddhist practice can benefit anyone regardless of regardless of religious affiliation or world view.

Most criminal acts are caused by impulsive reactions to negative emotions such as anger. Through meditation, we learn to be mindful of our emotions. Instead of acting out and empowering our negativity, we can step back, focus on the breath and observe how emotions rise and fall in our mind without acting them out. The power of this simple practice has been noticed by health professional of many kinds, and meditation is used as a component of healing in many hospitals and clinics today. In our groups we show how ancient Buddhist teachings contain tools for healing which are as relevant to our problems of our own daily lives as they were to the lives of people who lived more than 2500 years ago.

In the following paragraphs we focus on the seven components of the Oregon Accountability Model and the way we work with them in our Buddhist groups.

1. Associates

One of the foundational teachings of Buddhism is interconnectedness. The Buddha believed that all beings have “buddha nature.” What separates us from our own intrinsic wisdom is negative karma caused by conditioning and habit energy. Our practice is to look at our conditioning and discover the root causes of the negative behavior which led to suffering both for ourselves and other people. In this often difficult work we need support from people who are more spiritually advanced than we are (teachers) and from fellow students who are doing the same practice. We emphasize the importance of good spiritual friends and associations with people who will support our effort to live more positive lives. On the other hand, we discourage close associations with people who drag us down.

2. Substance Abuse

The ethics of Buddhism is centered around a series of precepts, which are offered as a guideline to the practitioner. When dealing with substance abuse, for example, we point to the following precept:

“Do Not Become Intoxicated — Polish Clarity, Dispel Delusion.”

Intoxicants obviously cloud the mind and are in direct conflict with the Buddhist aspiration to wake up and see reality clearly.

3. Community Functioning

Buddhism teaches that we are all connected and we are all dependent on one another for survival. We encourage the members of our groups to use the prison experience as an opportunity to practice skills for living in community. In order for this to work they will need a refuge, a place where they feel safe. Our aspiration is to build a group that is solid enough to provide this kind of refuge. We explain that it is important for each member to be willing to accept the ground rules of tolerance, kindness, mutual respect, etc. When these ground rules are broken, we deal with it as compassionately as possible. While this has at times been challenging, it is an excellent opportunity to interact with others in a way that promotes harmony rather than chaos. We believe that if the group members can learn to do this within a caring circle, they will gradually be able to apply it outside the group as well — in their living units, in the entire prison community in general, and ultimately in the society they will return to once they’re released from prison.

4. Education and Employment

The women in our groups represent many different educational levels, from elementary school to college graduates. In our groups we teach a number of skills that will serve them well when faced with potential employers, such as uprightness, honesty, accountability, “right speech,” discipline, generosity, and equanimity. Teachings that support this include discipline, accountability, mindfulness, the ability to focus on the task at hand, and work as practice. As Buddhists we believe that all beings have great potential once negative habit patterns are weakened. We always encourage them to nourish their own potential and start moving in the direction they want to go, one step at the time. We applaud members who tell us that they have completed GEDs or other milestones in their career development and education.

5. Emotional and Mental Health

This is one area where we can make a great difference. As already mentioned, the historical Buddha repeatedly compared himself to a physician devoted to healing the suffering in the human mind. In our prison groups we do extensive work on emotions such as anger, grief, jealousy, etc. Ancient Buddhist scriptures and modern commentaries provide a lot of material for us to work with. We find that many of the newest research and practices in counseling are aligned with Buddhist teachings on mindfulness, and that counseling and Buddhist practice reinforce each other.

6. Marital and Family Life

Buddhism is a practice of harmony and balance. Many of the members of our groups come out of abusive families and relationships, and frequently criminal action originated in deep, unhealed wounds. We believe that healing these wounds through therapy and/or spiritual practice is essential to breaking the circle of violence and to begin developing healthy relationships. Since professional psychotherapy is limited within the prison environment, a spiritual practice focusing on the mind can be very helpful.

7. Attitudes

One basic Buddhist teaching is about the three poisons of greed, hate, and delusion. For each, we talk about how to turn it to its opposite.

Greed / generosity
Hate / loving kindness, compassion
Delusion / wisdom

We focus on transformation.


Our transition program is in the process of development. We have had volunteers who have been working on creating a more coherent and comprehensive program, including ways to collaborate with other faith groups in the area to coordinate services. HGO connects with a network of services and seeks to provide positive role models for those released from prison. They find resources and assets in the community, such things as help creating a resume, finding clothing, helping to learn about the Internet and transportation, etc.

We have a monthly support group for those released from prison and prison volunteers.

Most of our inmates haven’t been released to Portland. We have had a program of Dharma Friends for many years, where an individual member corresponds with an inmate who will be released soon, and then becomes a friend helping them when they are released. These have been very helpful to inmates.

One thing we have learned is that transition is very difficult. Inmates are really fearful about it, and need more support than they are getting. We are exploring how best to meet their needs within our own resources and mission. We are encouraging people in our Portland sangha to commit to this work.