Yesterday I viewed a recent National Geographic Channel program entitled Solitary Confinement, which was shot at a Colorado maximum security prison.
I do recommend clicking on the above link and watching the show in its entirety.
The episode is narrated by Peter Coyote, whose voice seems to accompany more and more thoughtful documentaries out there — non-intrusive, smooth and distinctive, it works well here.
A day after watching, I’m left wondering just how effective the System’s plan of “rehabilitation” is, when so many inmates are driven to suicide and unhealthy mental/emotional states as a result of being locked in an 8′ x 10′ cell 23 hours a day, with zero physical contact (other than sticking their hands behind their backs and through a hole in their cell doors in order to be cuffed).
Through interviews with inmates, guards, the warden and various sociological and psychological professionals, a very disturbing picture emerges.
While the System describes this treatment (nearly unique in the world, as the U.S. is virtually the only country that has revived strict solitary confinement as a primary “rehabilitation” tool, having previously rejected it early in the 20th century as torturous and counter-productive) as an attempt to “re-program” compliance with “rules,” it is clear that sustained isolation, constant harassment and a sense of total helplessness actually leads to a vastly increased likelihood of spontaneous acts of violence and insubordination.
In other words, a policy of pervasive solitary confinement produces the exact behavior that it is purported to correct.
During one of the inmate interviews, however, we are met by a distinguished-looking Hispanic man whose expressions are penetrating and thoughtful. The camera looks through the small glass opening in his cell door, and we see him pacing around in his little box, doing push-ups, straightening the covers on his bunk, peering longingly through the thin slice of a window that is his only reminder of an outside world (unlike the image above, which shows a full window).
He tells us that inmates are ill-equipped to deal with the unnatural stresses of isolation, and that most are permanently damaged over time. He also describes his own problems and difficulties with the treatment he receives, while confirming fears that he may not emerge unscathed, either.
To what solution has he arrived?
And the camera shows him assuming a lotus position on his bunk, settling in for the duration.
While the topic of meditation is allowed to fade and is never again addressed during the show, we return to this particular inmate on several occasions — and it is patently clear that he is the most well-adjusted, earnest, self-searching and thoughtful individual in the entire documentary. Guards, warden, psychologists, sociologists — even Peter Coyote! — all pale in comparison with this man’s presence.
Subsequent reflections include:
1) I’m drawn to the possibility of teaching such prisoners skillful meditation that leads to self-arising bliss, joy and ecstasy, so that they may experience inner transformation that renders outward circumstances relatively impotent.
2) I would love to make contact with this particular Hispanic inmate, as I would imagine that he has given rise to ecstatic phenomena while meditating in long-term isolation. It would be interesting to see how he deals with the inevitable Dark Night period symbolized by the transition between second and third jhana.
3) I would love to make available to dedicated prisoner-contemplatives a full printed set of the Sutta Pitaka, and to enter into letter-communication so as to offer alternative translation possibilities that will more appropriately meet them in their ecstatic manifestations.
I know, I know, I know… I’m probably just dreaming here, as the System is not truly interested in rehabilitating inmates, especially when they have been deemed “incorrigible” enough to end up at a strict solitary confinement institution like in this show. The System does not care that it is crushing these human beings and turning them into damaged shells of their former potential. The System is simply complying with a perceived social imperative to put these inmates out of sight and out of mind, warehoused like laboratory rats.
That said… what if we could show that saturation in meditative absorption creates a desire for more and longer periods of sitting; that it evokes deep and permanent personality shifts that tend toward calmness and serenity; and that this is by far the most useful approach to enduring months, years and sometimes decades of forced isolation?
I do believe that, faced with a situation as described in this documentary, there would be plenty of inmate volunteers interested in adopting a rigorous and skillful meditation practice that is perfectly adapted to long-term isolation. In fact, I can think of no better application of this practice.
Are there any prison officials out there — especially in the Denver-Boulder area — who are reading this and would be interested in a pilot program to teach solitary inmates ecstatic meditation?