Statement of Purpose
The Prison Program is a Dharma Rain Zen Center outreach program that serves Adults in Custody in and releasees from state prisons in Oregon.
- We provide meditation instruction and practice.
- We share Buddhist teachings and work to create Sangha within the prison.
- We work with inmates to foster inner peace and long-term personal transformation.
Dharma Rain Zen Center’s active prison volunteer program began in 1996, when Randi Getsushin Brox began corresponding with a Buddhist inmate on death row in Arkansas. The correspondence ended when he was executed a few months later. The following year two men on death row in Oregon contacted Dharma Rain. They were looking for a person who would be willing to teach them about Asian religions. Kyogen referred the letter to Getsushin. Both men have subsequently taken the Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts.
A few months later an inmate from the general population at Oregon State Penitentiary asked Getsushin if we would be willing to start an ongoing Zen Buddhist group at the penitentiary. This gradually grew into a well established group that meets regularly on the first and third (and fifth if applicable) Tuesdays of the month. Gyoshi is the lead volunteer, with Shokei and Chisho as regular volunteers with him.
Work in other prisons in Oregon has begun as inmates have requested it. The Coffee Creek Minimum group started because the then chaplain (a Catholic nun) was looking for somebody to start a Buddhist meditation group. The Medium group grew out of Non-Violent Communications classes, where an inmate pleaded with Getsushin to start a Buddhist meditation group there.
The Eastern Oregon groups started after a request from the Two Rivers Corrections Institution (TRCI) chaplain (a Christian himself). They were working on having various religions represented in their overall program. Kisei and Getsushin agreed to go to visit Buddhist inmates at TRCI four times a year. Then a Dharma Rain member (Joseph Mugaku Engum) who lives in Pendleton began meeting with the guys occasionally during the rest of the year and developed weekly groups at both TRCI and EOCI (Eastern Oregon Corrections Institution). Genko has been going to both prisons once a year to lead retreats and give Precepts.
A Dharma Rain member began working with the young men at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility after one of the young men asked for Buddhist support. It has met on again, off again over the years as volunteers have been unable to continue. The group is meeting regularly again, and more volunteers would be welcome.
The group at Columbia River Corrections Institution (CRCI) in Portland grew out of inmate and chaplain requests for us to do a Buddhist group there. It has been meeting 2-3 times per month for about 5 years. Currently a weekly group with Genko and Daicho.
Genko was going in to Multnomah County Inverness Jail once a week. No news yet when that might resume.
All of these groups were put on hold during the pandemic, and are just now (as of July 2021) beginning to come back to normal, with volunteers able to go in.
A report on the program at Coffee Creek describes the Philosophy of the Prison Program within the framework of the seven components of the Oregon Accountability Model, describing how we work with them in our Buddhist groups. The end of the report describes our developing work with Transition out of Prison.
Buddhism … 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.
In Their Own Words
When I started to work on this project, my plan was to consolidate the contributions into a coherent whole, but the handwritten pages, some in letter form, moved me so much that I decided to present them with minimal editing and minimal commentary. I wanted our incarcerated friends to speak in their own words with as little interference from me as possible. The stories of incarcerated people are almost always co-opted by others, a few well-meaning, many extremely hostile. Even in the best of cases, they tend to objectify and disempower people and deny them the opportunity to own their personal stories and to tell them in their own words.
An example of inmate writing:
I feel as if I have awakened. The first days in prison are guaranteed to be the worst in your life. I “fell” long and hard and felt cracked wide open. My puny but pure heart only allowed truth to come back in. Negativity had no foothold. I was awakened to my Buddha nature, but I was entirely dependent on the sangha and the Dharma to put the insight into practice. I needed a behavior blueprint. My first lesson was “presence.”
Prison program volunteers may go in to a facility once or twice a month or as often as every week. We try to go in with at least two people whenever possible, and for that we need more volunteers than we currently have available. Because Dharma Rain Zen Center is responsible for volunteers, we require that people be full members, and have taken the Precepts. They also need some knowledge of our prison program.
The process of becoming a full-fledged volunteer is somewhat lengthy, beginning with a background check, followed by several (3-6) visits escorted by a certified escort. After that, a potential volunteer undergoes training sessions provided by Oregon’s Department of Corrections. They may continue to go in as an escorted visitor until they get their own identification card, at which point they no longer need to be escorted. Scheduling is worked out among the people going in to each facility.
A Prison Transition Group meets monthly at Dharma Rain attended by volunteers, prison grads, and others with a connection to incarceration. Meetings often include a check-in and support time to share experiences and to work on any issues that may be coming up. Training in adult learning theory is occasionally provided.
One of the easiest ways to participate in prison outreach is to become a Dharma Friend. This involves corresponding with an inmate of the same gender who has requested a Buddhist pen-pal. Letters are sent to Dharma Rain and either forwarded or picked up at the Center so as to ensure everyone’s safety. There are guidelines for this relationship. If it is possible and appropriate, Dharma Friends may also visit with inmates in the institution.
This relationship has often proven to be beneficial both for the inmate and for the Dharma Friend. We look for Dharma Friends especially for those releasing within a year or two, so they have someone they already know here after they get out. We also look on behalf of those who have been in prison for many years and who will continue to be in prison for many years-to-life and need someone on the outside to connect with.
Some inmates in our Buddhist groups have been practicing for several years, and many of them have taken the Precepts in prison. They are wonderful people who have some problems, much like the rest of us. In prison they are right up against their suffering, and that can be a fruitful place of practice.
Home for Good in Oregon
We have four certified mentors for people who are released from prison. Unfortunately, the Home for Good program has been dissolved, though there are still remnants of it as referrals to various church communities. For Dharma Rain what we do for people transitioning out of prison is the monthly prison support groups and some level of meeting/phone support as needed.