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Doug Booth is the director of the Upaya Prison Project, a nonprofit organization based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, that is affiliated with the Upaya Zen Center. Its mission is to teach meditation as a means of ending the cycle of addiction, violence and incarceration for inmates. Through meditation, prisoners learn how to examine and eventually transform the unhealthy habits that govern their lives. The project offers weekly classes, workshops and weekend retreats at New Mexico prison facilities and distributes meditation manuals with follow-up correspondence to prisoners nationwide.


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Home » Features » An Interview with Doug Booth

Finding Freedom on the Inside
by Sally Sommer

Doug, how did you get started teaching meditation in the prisons?

I understood the teachings of the Buddha to be directed at the relief of suffering and I saw the prisons as places where suffering is at its worst, perhaps, and wondered if meditation would help. I had read books by Bo Lozoff, whose work in this area for the past 25 or 30 years has been very helpful to inmates. About four years ago I called up the assistant warden and program director of the Santa Fe Penitentiary, south facility, and asked him if he'd like to have a free meditation program. I called it "stress reduction/meditation" to make it more palatable to the mostly Christian administration. He said yes, so I started classes, going in once a week, and only a few came. Those who did come never returned. I didn't know what the problem was, and I quit for awhile. Later I realized that I had been reading from books that said "Zen" and were based on Eastern religion and thought. They weren't very accessible to most of the prisoners. Then Joan Halifax, roshi of the Upaya Zen Center, was starting up her Upaya Prison Project and wanted a male to go into the maximum-security facility with her. I started working with her and then later began teaching weekly classes at the minimum-security unit.

What is your experience and training for this kind of work?

I've meditated about 20 minutes a day for the last 12 years, practicing Vipassana or insight meditation, which is a Buddhist practice. For about a month every year, I also go on extended, intensive meditation retreats. As to training, I completed the Community Dharma Leader Teaching Training Program at Spirit Rock in California, under the direction of James Baraz, Jack Kornfield, Sylvia Boorstein and other Spirit Rock teachers.

You're working in four different prisons now. Is your program uniform? Do you do the same sort of thing in all of them?

They're all a little different, depending on the prisoners' interests and needs. Because the New Mexico State Penitentiary is right here in Santa Fe, I go once a week and teach an hour-long class. It's an eight-week course that ends with a graduation ceremony and the students receive certificates of completion. Many have never completed anything in their lives before so most of them are very proud of that certificate. The prison in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, is about two hours away, so we try to get there about once a month and run a day-long class. I'm not the only teacher now; we've also got a therapist, a former inmate, a Qi Gong instructor, a psychiatrist, a medical doctor, and a sensory awareness instructor, all with strong meditation practices of their own, and we're trying to get to the outlying prisons more often. We've had a lot of support from the administration at Santa Rosa, and from Father Dennis Bryan of the Church of Antioch, who's the prison chaplain. Father Bryan advocates the men doing anything on the psycho-spiritual level. He feels that type of work is integral to healing. We have done several two-day silent meditation retreats there, a first in New Mexico prisons. Another prison is in Grants, New Mexico. It is quite a drive so we go out once a month and teach day-long sessions of meditation, Qi Gong, and council process. Also, we just started to work at the women's facility in New Mexico, which is also in Grants. There's a meditation pod at the men's prison in Grants now, and . . .

Excuse me, could you explain what a "pod" is?

A pod is a prison dormitory, in this case housing 16 men in single cells, with a common area.

How did the "meditation pod" come about?

There was an inmate I'd met back in my early days who had a very profound meditation practice and he got shipped to Grants. He wanted to see something like this happen there. So he wrote some letters and got in touch with me, and I started going out to the prison. Then New Mexico's governor, Gary Johnson, got turned on to meditation and asked how he could help. I said, "Start a meditation pod."

You say a prisoner has a very serious practice of his own? People don't expect that kind of attitude in a prison. We often stereotype prisoners. Do you find a number of inmates who really have a serious practice?

I haven't had a lot of experience with the gene-ral population, but there are people who will probably be incarcerated for many years, if not the rest of their lives, who really want to transform and understand who they are. Those guys are really committed. One of them got a mail-away course in meditation and studied a Hindu practice with a mantra. He set it up on his own. Then he wanted some support from the outside and also wanted to use a wing of the prison where he could do contemplative practice, with only like-minded people in there, even if they had different practices.

The pod's been going for about five months, and it's doing very well. The men are enjoying the trust that is building and the common dedication to spiritual practice. Theft has stopped and mutual respect is growing. The 16 men living there were selected by the addiction services manager, mainly for their abil-ity to get along with others, and for their sincerity toward their own spiritual paths, not to mention their willingness to resist preaching to others. The men themselves decided to have three hours of silence set aside each day for personal spiritual practice. They also chose to restrict TV and smoking to their cells so the common area stays fairly quiet at all times. Two inmates teach yoga and Qi Gong six nights a week and anybody can come.

I see us teachers as supporting their practices and their ability to run their own pod. When problems arise, we use council process to pose questions like, "How do you picture the ideal pod?" "What can you do, personally, to make it happen?" "If you broke one of the pod rules, how would you like the others to handle it?"

There are several lifers in the pod, and two are very ill. As their sense of community builds in the pod, the healthy men are beginning to take care of those who are not. As they become more adept at working out their own problems and creating the space they truly want for themselves, they're also developing a remarkable sense of personal empowerment.


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