by Roger Zotti
After readers finish “Letters from the Dhamma Brothers: Meditation Behind Bars” (Pariyatti Press), its author, Jenny Phillips, hopes “they are thinking in new and creative ways about the problem of mass incarceration.”That’s what happened to the New York City judge who read Jenny’s book and now believes in rehabilitation. “He told me now it’s going to be harder for him to be a judge,” said Jenny, a cultural anthropologist and practicing psychotherapist.
Donaldson and Vipassana
In January 2002, Jenny writes, the W.E. Donaldson Correctional Facility, located in Birmingham, AL, a high level maximum security prison, “became the first state prison on North America to hold a Vipassana course. Twenty inmates, (the Dhamma Brothers), took part in the intensive ten week program. (Dhamma means “teaching of an enlightened person.”)
Vipassana, Jenny writes, “is a simple, practical way to achieve real peace of mind and to lead a happy, useful life. Vipassana means ‘to see things as they really are’ and is a logical process of mental purification through self-observation… It is one of the world’s most ancient meditation techniques… rediscovered 2600 years ago by Gotama the Buddha.”
The Letters and the Documentary
Much of the book was written by the inmates who participated in the Vipassana course. “It is a story told in letters and about their search for inner peace and redemption,” Jenny explained. “My writing wraps around the letters.” Some of the letters are philosophical, others humorous. “All of them are powerful,” said Jenny, who lives in Concord, MA, and works in prisons for 12 years now.
One of Jenny’s favorite is O.B. Benjamin Oryang’s “fly” letter. “It sort of contains all the meaning in the book, because this man was deeply in touch with his physical sensations and emotional responses to a house fly,” she said. Benjamin writes about the evening he and seven other men were meditating in a sweltering room. Suddenly a fly appeared: “… something very cold and heavy landed on my arm. I opened my eyes… the culprit was a regular looking fly. It continued to crawl across my bald head, face, and arms… Immediately after sitting everyone started to complain, at the same time, about the… one fly [that] had terrorized eight-hardened prisoners for a whole hour.”
In 2007’s award-winning documentary, “The Dhamma Brothers,” Benjamin’s letter, Jenny noted, “Is the very last thing in the film. He talks about how [the prisoners]… were struggling with their emotions about this fly. The film is both sad and inspiring, but after he read his letter, everyone left the theater roaring with laughter.”
Though Jenny knows that “there are inmates who are beyond being helped by programs,” her book challenges the warehousing-of-inmates mentality. Her major point is: “… locking up all inmates and denying them any means for significant personal transformation is currently creating a huge, separate system of pariahs and outcasts.”
As Pulitzer Prize winning historian Doris Kearns Goodman wrote that Jenny’s book “is an absolutely compelling story of an astonishing treatment program with prison inmates that, against all odds, worked.”