Finding Compassion with Insight on the Inside
By Editor | Nov 21 2016
By Ken Brown, IMCW Volunteer
It’s a challenge not to be “in the moment” the first time you walk in the door of a correctional facility.
The outside door is always the least imposing as it simply marks the entry into an intimating reception area. Most likely you will pause, looking for a friendly face or some type of instructions. Signs will direct and warn you of the consequences of contraband, of wearing improper clothes and failure to pass the screening detectors. (You usually get three tries before you are denied entry.) You will note the noise of clanging locks and how human voices sound different, almost metal-like.
You are aware of each moment because in a correctional facility, whether you are a visitor or an inmate, each moment counts as one less moment behind the barbed wire, the imposing walls and the doors that bang shut and lock with a loud surety, just like those in a movie in a setting.
Once you are inside, behind the walls, your body might react. You may feel a cold sweat or a shiver. It might be a physical shiver or a mental one where the coldness of the entire place shakes you to the core. As you walk down the corridor, you keep your eyes focused on nothing and everything. Likely, it’s because thousands of thoughts of being trapped in this place are raging in your head.
You enter a medium-sized room with large glass windows. You note the correction officers watching from the other side. A group of inmates sit quietly, watching your every move. A single thought begins repeating in your head: “Why did I ever volunteer to do this?” But that thought rambles into others, like, “how can I possibly talk about kindness and compassion in here, under these conditions? This is the least kindly place on Earth”.
But you do find a way because kindness and compassion are your intentions. Behind these wall, you think these intentions, somehow, have more meaning.
The program description of Insight on the Inside (IOI), a volunteer program sponsored by IMCW, reads that it “teaches mindfulness through the practice of meditation to incarcerated men and women in facilities in Washington, DC, Maryland and Virginia”. Currently there are eleven classes weekly. The description hardly describes the program or its impact.
David Novello, an IOI volunteer for the past year, describes his experience as a way “to stretch myself. It was a good thing, as it deepened my practice (of meditation) by challenging me to remain open and cultivate the always important ‘don't know’ mind."
Statistics point out that the majority of people who enter have some type of substance abuse or other mental health issues. Unfortunately in many correctional or transitional housing facilities, volunteer programs such as IOI, provide the only source of help. While it may take time for some inmates “to get it,” or to discover how a meditation practice evolves, the group sessions provide many inmates with immediate benefits.
...teaching meditation in a correctional facility setting serves as a concrete reminder to “not only to practice compassion, but to do so in a place where there is much darkness and suffering”.
For Mr. Novello, teaching meditation in a correctional facility setting serves as a concrete reminder to “not only to practice compassion, but to do so in a place where there is much darkness and suffering”.
Brown Sharp II, another IOI volunteer in a Maryland correctional facility, often finds the inmates asking: “Is the idea if kindness and compassion a reasonable thing to practice in such a harsh environment?”
“In this room, for this time, with these people,” he responds, “we regard each other with gentleness and respect.” These brief moments may well be the only source of kindness that inmates experience for the duration of their time behind bars.
Mr. Novello believes the IOI program provides many inmates with the opportunity to help themselves, “whether it be in dealing with addictions or uncontrolled anger, communicating better with family and others, or simply providing a greater degree of freedom for them -- something that is of particular importance if you are imprisoned. Practicing mindfulness in prison hopefully will spill over into their lives when they return to the community following incarceration”.
IOI is actively recruiting volunteers. The decision to volunteer and lead a session is “a deeply personal decision — that should not be rushed — and for me it evolved over time,” said Mr. Sharp.
Volunteers undergo extensive training involving group and on-line sessions, mentoring and monthly discussion groups with other volunteers. New volunteers accompany experienced IOI volunteers, allowing them to observe and become comfortable with both their personal practice and sharing their meditation practice with a diverse group of people.
For additional information about volunteering please email Carolyn Stachowski, Program Director.