Realities facing Dharma Prison Chaplains

by Linda Merle, Pennsylvania, USA, The Buddhist Channel, June 15, 2006

I am writing in response to your recent articles about a prisoner in New York who was denied the book on Zen. I worked for a couple years for a Buddhist organization called Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive ( It distributes books and other media free. It works with several organizations to distribute books to prisoners in US prisons. I learned a lot there -- I handled correspondence from prisoners constantly.

First of all the prison systems in each state are run by the state (50). Add in the Federal system. Add county prisons and prison systems run by large cities. Each of these operates under different rules. Some are maxium security and some are low. Within each jurisdiction, the rules vary. They vary not only with the facility but even within a facility. If a prisoner is moved from the general population to a punishment facility within a penitentary, suddenly the rules change. Today the prisoner can receive mail but then he's caught up in a jail riot and next month all the mail is returned unopened because he's in lockdown. This is prison life -- it is terrible.

Consequently almost all prision activist work in the USA is done locally. Buddhist organizations that work within prisons establish personal contacts within each facility, often with the chaplains. Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archived worked with a prison chaplain in Canada where two lifers transcribed much of their material for them. They had built a very nice zendo in their prison. I think the FPMT magazine did an article on them a few years ago. We sent free books to many prisoners, some at the request of the prison chaplain who wanted them for the prison library.

We worked largely with The Liberation Prison Project: . Another group with a strong prison outreach is . This site has a lot of very moving material on line. However that's the half of it. I have a friend who is is a Bikhsuni in the Chinese Mahayana order (though Caucasian). In her pre-ordination life she worked with prisoners as well.

Now she could read the addresses of the mail we got at Lama Yeshe and get much more than we could from the address. There are prisons that contain only very hardened criminals. Many are experts at 'coning' people and use the mail and religion to do so.

This is not to say that true conversions don't occur in them -- they do, but you have got to be aware of who you are dealing with as well as the type of facility.

In many cases we did not ship books to prisoners but only to chaplains at prisons. Some prisons would only accept paper back books because prisoners hid knives and other contraband in hard back books including Bibles and Zen books. Some prisons would only accept books mailed from the publisher (us) and not private addresses since prisoners received contraband from friends and family.

There were a zillion rules -- which is why we largely quit sending books directly to prisoners and had them sent through the Liberation Project -- it had enough expertise with dealing with these prisons to actually get books to prisoners. Usually the prisoners need more than a book -- they need a relationship with someone who is trained to assist them and we could not provide that service either. Prisoners inside prisons who worked with clergy, including Christian clergy, were far more likely to get their books than those who had no benefactors inside.

So I do hope that you do not launch a campaign from Malaysia to reform US prisons. They need reformed but you will not be helping. Supporting organizations that put nuns and monks into prisons in contact with prison officials is what helps Buddhist prisoners in US prisoners. It is slow work requiring a lot of patience and a good deal of wisdom as well.

There are other groups that do prison work as well in all the various traditions. I am sorry I am only aware of these two in the Tibetan tradition, since that is my tradition as well. It's possible that some books would need re-written to get them inside prisons. Consulting with clergy already working in prisons would be the best way to go. It makes sense to me that an inmate could not function like a roshi -- he lacks due to his karma the ability to function independently.

It makes sense to me that a prison would not want inmates trained to function in a way that they cannot and that might result in confrontations with prison authorities. It might be that such a book would need rewritten for every prison in the country. The only way to begin working effectively for prisoners would be to work with the prison management to get the book written to their satisfaction.

Christians, Jews, and Muslims have been working with officials to train inmates as clergy for some time. Sur ely Buddhists can also learn to do so as well without claiming -- from afar -- to being discriminated against. Thousands of prisoners have been denied access to religious books for many 'reasons' while thousands are reading their books right now.

The article is very one-sided.