The Dhamma Brothers is truly a must-see film. It tells the story of inmates at the Donaldson Correctional Facility in Alabama who volunteered to participate in 10-day meditation retreat under the guidance of two instructors from the Vipassana Fellowship. The two instructors were invited at the behest of Dr. Ron Cavanaugh, Director of Treatment at Donaldson, who had been inspired by a meditation program at the Tihar Prison in India.
What struck me most about the film is the poignancy with which the humanity — both positive and negative aspects — of the prisoners is conveyed. This something that is often lost in the public discourse about our system of justice/corrections. Certainly each man has been incarcerated for very good reasons, and there are graphic discriptions of the horrific crimes for which they have been convicted. Still, in hearing their individual stories one feels great compassion (karuna) for the suffering — often deeply repressed — that in many ways are the preface to the actions that eventually landed them in prison.The Dhamma Brothers is really the story of each of these men coming to recognize their own humanity and suffering, and finding a sort of freedom even within the context of a life sentence in a maximum security prison. The personal transformation that takes place over the course of the 10-day retreat is truly palpable — eliciting deep feelings of sympathetic joy (mudita) among the audience.
For me the take-home message of the film is twofold: First, our prison industry has largely abandoned any pretense of rehabilitation. Criminals are cast aside as (barely) human refuse, for whom and from whom nothing better can be expected. Yet progams such as the vipassana program at Donaldson shows that — with proper encouragement — even the most hardened criminal has the potential to get in touch with his own humanity: the innate wisdom and compassion that can arise even in the midst of suffering. When this transformation happens, we all benefit.
Brenda wrote a brief blog post about a screening of The Dhamma Brothers she attended back in May. I’ve included links to some other “prison ministry” projects in the comments.)