Release from Prison: Shock or Growth?
by Michael Powell
One of the common approaches to "doing
time" in a prison community is to "shut the world out."
This refers to shutting the "outside" world out and bringing
all your focus into the world within the fences or walls. There
is no world "out there" anymore, only the world inside
the fences or walls. It seems, to a certain degree, that this is
helpful. In the sense that we seek to be fully present in the currently
arising instant. Prisoners are less likely to construct a chain
of thoughts related to their spouses loyalty, or to the many
things which theyre missing out on. People do "hard time"
when they keep projecting their thoughts "out there" beyond
the prison perimeter.
Years pass, and prison simply becomes the place
where we live. The punishment aspect fades away. We become accustomed
to our environment, our world, and we even become comfortable. After
five years of incarceration, whatever the courts hoped to accomplish
has been accomplished, or it hasnt. Further incarceration
will not produce that which has not already been produced.
Some men will use the time to become "good
cons" (perfected convicts). They will have tattoos, muscles,
proper clothing styles, proper speech, proper outlook. They will
"fit in." Whereas prison was once threatening to them,
they are now clones of those who most intimidated them in the beginning.
Its one kind of fear or another that drives most of these
men to emulate the lifers or old cons. They see that these men have
survived many years in a dangerous world. They hope to survive too.
Too weak to stand on their own, they give their own identity up
in favor of the convict code.
Not all men do this. Some of us are well centered
in who we are, even though we may be far from perfect. We have a
strong sense of self. We are secure in our sense of sexual identity.
We are aware always that although we are living in this hostile
world for a while, it is not forever. We will one day return to
the world weve always known, and we seek to remain someone
who can be reinserted into that world. We dont want to become
The people who spend their imprisonment perfecting
their convictness finally reach that place where they approach their
release or parole date. They "get short." They get nervous.
They dont think they will fit in in the outside world. Now
they have tattoos all over them. They have convict hairstyles including
mustache and beard styles indicative of incarceration. They have
spent years trying to fit in as a convict. Now they are told to
leave. They have to start all over again.
Some panic. They stab another prisoner or kill
one, so they will get more time. They assault guards or get caught
with drugs, whatever it takes to receive a new sentence or violate
their parole or lose accumulated statutory good time so they can
remain in prison.
Of course, despite their efforts, some of these
men are forced to leave prison. They carry their mindset onto the
streets, into the free world. In order to substantiate their toughness,
their convictness, they have to perform antisocial, unlawful deeds
so people around them wont think they are weak.
Going back to prison isnt a threat. They
are comfortable in prison. The free world is more threatening now.
They feel like orange pieces in an otherwise blue puzzle.There is
no real effort to rehabilitate people who are incarcerated. Its
become a "warehousing" effort. The administrators and
custody officers will all admit it to any questioning prisoner.
Its all about the warehousing and punishment of people who
the courts determined to be a threat to the community. Some are
and some arent.
Rehabilitation is a personal road within the
prison system. Even the system tends to discourage self-rehabilitation
because the recidivist rate determines the longevity of the system
itself. No customers, no money.
Nonetheless, prison is an excellent opportunity
for someone who genuinely seeks self-transformation. Prison is the
intercession in the habitually destructive pattern of a persons
life. Its the "time out" that allows us to look
at who we are and what weve done. We can check our motivations
and decide what we really want to do with the remainder of this
rebirth. We are taken out of our world, stripped of our supports
and possessions, and placed in a world where we have no identity
to uphold. We begin as a number. We have no friends or family, or
In a most bizarre turn of events, we are completely
free. Nobody knows us. We arent expected to act in any specific
way. Those around us havent become accustomed to our behaving
any particular way.
We are also free of the drugs and alcohol which
many of us used to enhance our unsatisfactory existence, creating
further suffering and unsatisfactoriness.
Of course some cannot capitalize on this new
start, this freedom. They use drugs in Prison. They get drunk. They
continue their same cycles of use and abuse. There is no break,
no intercession. So when they are released from prison, they are
still bound by the habitual behavior that imprisoned them before.
Theres no difference in what they do or why they do it. Also,
they now know prison, so it isnt a deterrent to them. They
know how to do time.
Those of us who want to live outside prisons
is motivated to discover the causes within ourselves for all our
suffering so we can eliminate them. We dont want to live in
prison. We dont want to hurt others or ourselves. We dont
want to be separated from family, teachers, or other things we enjoy.
Some of us have wives and children we love. We know weve hurt
them as well as ourselves, and we want to repair the hurt.
Some of us discover a path while in prison.
We are drawn to Christianity, our tribal heritage, Islam, Krishna,
or Buddhadharma. There are those who see these paths merely as vehicles
to provide earlier release from prison. They can pretend to be religious.
They can use this façade in order to manipulate people in
the free world.
But there are also some of us who do sincerely
admit our previous negative habitual behavior. We confess our fault,
our sins, and we regret the suffering we have caused. We internalize,
to the best of our ability, the transformative teachings. We make
our primary daily focus the work of transformation. The rest of
our conventional daily world is left to fall as it may around the
core of our religious practice.
I was sent to prison three times. The first
time I was released early and sent to a drug program because I had
a "drug problem, not a criminal one," to quote the court.
Unfortunately I had no desire to transcend that problem, so I left
the program unchanged. The root causes were not addressed or surmounted.
I went west "on the run" and soon
found myself surrounded by a gang of criminals, fugitives, and drug
users who saw me as their leader and epicenter. I found myself in
a position where as leader, I had to act quickly in a dangerous
situation, choosing to take a life rather than knowing how to wound
or flee the scene.
I spent that period of incarceration in a brutal
prison system in New Mexico. People died there every week. I still
had not overcome my desire to use drugs and alcohol. I still felt
it was justified to use violence to resolve confrontations. I affected
no change within myself. I was released by a parole board that felt
I was justified in killing the person. So, unchanged, I reentered
the free world.
This time I met some people who were drug and
alcohol free. I learned from them for a while. I seemed to be changing.
People who had known me for years gained newfound hope. I was released
early from parole.
But I had not penetrated myself deeply. It was
superficial change. It created a coating that appeared deceptively
to others, but inside I still festered. Other people told me drugs
and alcohol were bad, but I still saw them as sources of pleasure,
although they were socially unacceptable. Intellectually I put them
aside, but I still wanted them.
Eventually I found myself alone in the presence
of alcohol, and I drank it. The old responses were still there.
Then the drugs were available and I took them, and those old responses
were still there too. I hung out less and less with those who were
sober and straight and associated with those who took refuge in
drugs and alcohol.
I really perpetrated a horrible hoax on myself
this time. I felt I was using in moderation. I thought I was using
just as decadent Western society condoned. And again I made errors
in judgment, returning a third time to prison, this time for being
in the proximity of my sons .22 rifle.
There was no new criminal conduct. The judge
said he was sorry that the mandatory minimum sentences imposed by
Congress compelled him to sentence me to fifteen years in prison.
He said, "I dont see that you were involved in any criminal
behavior, nor do I have any reason to believe you intended to be.
But you are caught by definition of the Law."
I thought, "How unjust! The judge even
believes Im being unjustly sentenced. I wasnt doing
anything wrong! I let my son bring his rifle on a family camping
This was the me talking that rationalized and
justified everything Id ever done, no matter how hurtful.
The truth is the judge was wrong. I belonged in prison. Maybe not
on the basis of having let my son possess his own rifle, but certainly
because I seemed incapable of interceding on my own behalf. I couldnt
break the cycle of my habitual behavior.
Ive been in prison over ten years now.
I have three years yet to serve before I am eligible for release.
What will be different this time? What have I done differently during
the last ten years of incarceration?
Whereas I couldnt see it before, I can
now accept that I am the solitary source of all the suffering in
my countless lives. Im actually thankful that I was arrested
and placed in here. I had strong obstacles to overcome, and this
has been a strong therapy. As I threw myself sincerely into the
work of cleaning myself out, and as the mud of my delusions settled,
I found that the medicine had always been close to me, since I was
a child. For me the medicine is Buddhadharma.
With complete fear of spending the future eons
in the hell realms because of my negative actions, and with complete
confidence in the unsatisfactory nature of all cyclic sources of
apparent pleasure, and with complete faith and confidence in the
Buddhas, their teachings, and the living community of teachers and
practitioners, I renounced my harmful behavior and prayed for the
grace of all the enlightened ones to save me upon compassionate
wings of mercy. I prayed and prayed, and tried to live as kindly
and ethically as I could.
Finally I wrote letters out into the world,
seeking the personal guidance of qualified teachers, so that I would
continue to cleanse myself and so that I would be guided properly
in the study and practice of Buddhism. I wanted to be assured that,
should I continue to delude myself in any way, that there would
be an honest compassionate teacher here to bring me to reality,
to ring me face to face with myself again and again.
I felt as though I'd been the emperor in his
new (invisible) clothes, a fool to all as he paraded in his self-centered
egoism. I wanted to be able to really see myself. I wanted to avoid
doing harmful things. I wanted to bring some value to this rebirth,
to use it wisely instead of continuing to squander it.
Buddhist practice is the difference in my world.
Within the techniques I found the applications which affected real
change in my thinking and actions. The teachings on transforming
all felicity and adversity into the spiritual path helped me see
that there is no "down time," no post-meditation time
in the sense of there being a lapse in the opportunity to practice.
Every instant of arising consciousness provides us the chance to
practice, to learn, to apply.
Buddhist practice has made all the difference
in my life. If there is a single reason why I will not return to
prison, its because Ive studied and practiced the Dharma.
Please understand that Im now serving a mandatory minimum
sentence under the federal sentencing guidelines. This means I receive
no consideration for early release based on good conduct, religious
conversion or activity. I will serve the full thirteen years, of
which I have already completed ten, whether I am a devoted Buddhist
practitioner or a violent drug addict. I say this so you will know
my words are real.
Now that I have years of sobriety and celibacy
within my living experience, I feel protective, like a marathon
runner who has made an investment in their ability to run twenty-six
miles. To stop and have to start training all over again is unacceptable.
Tomorrow I want to run twenty-seven miles. The next day I was to
run more. I want to learn more every day. I want to become a gentler
human being every day.
The difference in me is the motivation to do
no harm to others or myself and to help others as much as I can.
When I dont know how to help, I want at least to do them no
I now live in a daily environment where drugs,
alcohol, theft, pornography, sex, assault, lies, manipulation, and
deceit are considered normal and acceptable behavior. Whatever I
have access to out there in the free world, I have access to here.
Participating in these behaviors and activities is admired and encouraged
here. But I want nothing to do with them. I encourage others not
to embrace them. They are sources of suffering.
I dont want to be a "good convict."
I dont want to live my life in this prison. I want to study
and practice the Dharma, attend teachings, participate in retreats,
be of service to others.
I wonder what advice I could possibly give to
others who will leave prison one day so that they dont come
Realize that we create every suffering we experience.
When we hurt others, we created future suffering for ourselves.
Live ethically. Leave the intoxicants alone and learn to accept
whatever arises as a blessing and opportunity. Discover which methods
of mind training help unveil the nature of mind and its tendencies.
Be kind to all living beings. Quit blaming other people for the
unsatisfactory aspect of your life. Avoid hate and anger, harsh
words, and jealousy as though they were flaming swords dipped in
poison. Eventually they will manifest exactly like this.
No matter what happens, I must always accept
it as the result of my previous actions. If I can accept things
in this manner, I will be at peace in my life.
If we hang out with negative friends once we
are released, we will find ourselves doing negative things too.
We all know we have to associate with positive people. We have to
be honest at all times, especially when we feel an urge to be dishonest
in order to avoid unpleasantness. When we live honestly it helps
eliminate thoughts and behavior that will create the need to be
The more we remain fully present in the here
and now, the less we daydream of things we dont have. We are
able to accept our life and be appreciative. We will not rehash
past events that cause us to feel guilt, pride, lust, anger, or
other disruptive feelings. Being fully present, honest, kind, sober,
and associating with like-minded people will be what makes the difference
this time when I walk away from prison.
I know that every instant of my life, I live
under the loving gaze of all the Buddhas, bodhisattvas, yidams and
protectors. All that I do, say, or think is witnessed. Even when,
due to my own obscurations I see myself as alone in a room, I am
actually in their presence; so I live my life accordingly. This
way I do not fall into finding reasons to be dishonest. I am able
to talk about everything I do.
As convicts or prisoners, we should remember
that we are not different from what we were or will be, that we
are a constantly developing work in progress. If we learn to see
the unperturbed center within ourselves which remains constant despite
exterior fluctuations, if we can learn to find the ocean supporting
the waves, and then see that the ocean exists within the waves as
well, then we can become that "piece of wood" when we
would have acted impulsively or mindlessly before. Step back, look
at what is happening, and think before you act.
Remember that this is simply an instant of experience
in a long chain of instants of experience, and like all things it
will swiftly pass. All that will be left to continue into the future
instant are the conditional factors we impart and carry over. Mental
factors which we contribute are all that remain.
When we experience so-called death, or when
we walk out of prison, or when we arrive at any newly arisen moment,
our experience is flavored by the last moment of our experience.
If I used drugs up to that instant, or if I felt violence was sometimes
justified, or if I was sexually promiscuous, then I will have the
tendency to carry these things with me, beyond death or prison.
As prisoners, we learn through experience. We
learn to see people as they are. Our survival depends on it. We
can look at a person, listen to their conversation, and determine,
often despite their façade and lies, whether they are going
to return to prison or not. We see who will go out and use drugs
or other intoxicants, who will sexually abuse children or adults.
We learn to read people, but how can the process be explained? Its
a slow acquisition , the ability surfaces unnoticed. It is just
suddenly apparent. I imagine we could draw an analogy with the way
our view is gradually perfected through study and practice. It usually
isnt an earth-shattering moment of supernova, but a gradual
falling away of the muddy earth of our obstacles as the new tender
stalks of an ethical compassionate being emerge.
We arent given a second chance when we
are allowed to walk out of prison. We are given a second chance
when we walk into prison. We have to be motivated to do the work
ourselves. We must be sincere, patient, ethical and enthusiastic.
At some point we realize, if we are truly devoted to transformation,
that it doesnt matter where we are anymore. Prison is not
a bad place to be. It can be a plush monastery. We receive shelter,
food, clothing, access to Buddhist teachers and texts, we are free
of many distractions, and we are surrounded by many mother sentient
beings who teach us and afford us opportunities to actually put
the far-reaching attitudes into practice. Those of us who take advantage
of this second chance afforded by imprisonment will not contribute
to the recidivist rate. We live in ethical conduct transcending
the mundane moral code and law of the land. We dont concern
ourselves with convincing people that weve changed, it is
obvious in our actions. We dont to talk a good game anymore.
We are a living example of the fruits of practice.Approach each
moment as our moment of release. Look at the content of our heart-mind.
Are we kind? Are we honest? Are we sober? Are we gentle? Are we
free of bias?
When we see a cow grazing in a field, we dont
expect anything of it but cow-ness. We dont condemn its being
a cow, nor do we feel we need to change its nature. We dont
want to hurt it. Are we as kind to human beings?
Learning about karma and its effect and dependent
origination helps us see how our sources of suffering are in our
mental continuum. We locate the job site, but we still need tools.
The tools for transforming the mind are in the Buddhist toolbox.
Of course, to use them properly, we need an apprenticeship with
a skilled teacher.
Buddhist practice has made me so much kinder
to others. My language has mellowed. I am more generous, and not
only with those I like, but also to those unknown to me and those
who arent particularly friendly. Now, if attacked by random,
I will not hurt the person back. I would try to fell or I would
cover up and try to sustain as little damage as possible while I
try to say key things to disrupt the attackers train of thought,
hoping to persuade him to stop. Then I will try to find out what
prompted the attack. Hopefully I will be able to show the person
that I am not his enemy and that I only what is best for him.
Its not so much that Ive decided
to be clean this time Im released. Its more that I made
the decision to be clean several years ago and am clean now. In
one way it could be a pitfall for people in prison to plan what
they are going to do when released. There is always a gap between
the plan and what will happen. Maybe its better to focus on
who we are able to be now and to put our energy into that. This
will bridge all the gaps. We always meet our future in the present.
I am clean. Geographical location doesnt
affect that cleanness. I will be clean when Im released because
I am clean now. That future will become now too. I did experience
some temptations during the past year which were very real and very
possible to enter into. They spun me for a while, but I did remain
true to my precepts and my motivation. Im glad I can say that.
I know my life will contain repeated tests along the way. Im
I intend to live clean when I am released because
I am living that way now. I prepare for success in the future by
being a success now, because every future is only realized in the
present. If I continue to take care of now, there will always be
For me the Buddhist path is a one-way path going
straight ahead. Enlightenment, too, will be realized here in the
present, so I will remain vigilant, awake, fully present here and
now. This is where the work is done. The future will come here to
meet me. The experience of release from prison will meet me here.
My enlightenment will greet me here. Post-release periods, post-meditation
periodswhat are they? What exists after now?
If I want to live ethically, I practice it now.
If I want to benefit others later, I practice it now. When later
arrives, it will be now and I will be practicing ethical discipline
and kindness then, now, also, still. We dont race ahead into
some mythical future constructed of our conceptual thoughts, and
we dont lie back down into the mythical dreams of the past.
We remain here and now, fully present, face to face with ourselves.