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Jul 21
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Helping the Corrections Officers too
Oregon State Penitentiary Corrections Officer Laura Hinkle underwent mindfulness training at the prison, which has helped her in her work with prisoners and her life. photo courtesy of Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian

Oregon State Penitentiary Corrections Officer Laura Hinkle underwent mindfulness training at the prison, which has helped her in her work with prisoners and her life. photo courtesy of Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian

Exploring the Shambhala Prison Program
Portland, Oregon

article by John David Smith

On a recent drive back to Portland from Eugene, where we were teaching a Shambhala class on the basic goodness of society subtitled How Can I Help?, Doug McCanne and I discussed a project he’s been involved with for the past two years that seeks to teach mindfulness practices to prison correctional staff around Oregon. I was scheduled to talk with some of the project’s leaders on Tuesday morning conference call about how to keep some momentum going now that initial funding had ended.

It was a surprise when I got home and opened the Oregonian to find that it had a long story about the project. It made me want to know more about the connection between this project and the Shambhala Prison Program at Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP) that Doug has been leading for many years. Later that week I pieced together the back story…

About 8 years ago, Doug joined the Shambhala Prison Program that had been going for a year or two at OSP in Salem. It was organized by Chaplain Karuna Thompson, a Shambhalian trained at Naropa University. Teachers and volunteers from the Portland Shambhala Meditation Center (PSMC) and other Shambhala Centers offered Shambhala Training programs to prison inmates. There were six weekend programs/trainings per year. About three times a year, a teacher from another city visited to lead these trainings. The Department of Corrections paid for travel and overnight stays for teachers and volunteers. As well, they bought meditation cushions to use in these and subsequent programs at OSP.

Doug McCanne

Doug McCanne

About 3 or 4 years ago, when budget cuts at OSP threatened to end the Shambhala Prison Program, PSMC became the program sponsor, with Doug as the project leader. Project leader/sponsorship added administrative responsibilities such as planning and organizing classes and meditation retreats, recruiting and training volunteers, and paying some expenses, travel costs, lodging and honorariums for visiting teachers. Because of the funding cuts the program became an all-day meditation retreat offered every month, alternating months between PSMC and Dharma Rain Zen Center (in Portland).

Funding for the Shambhala Prison Program is unique. Some funds come from direct donations, but the main funding mechanism is a partnership between visiting teachers and PSMC. Over the years teachers participating in this partnership have included Acharya Fleet Maull, Acharya Gaylon Ferguson, Shastri Ben Hines, Dan Petersen, Jim Colossi, Doug McCanne and Chaplain Karuna Thompson, along with the invaluable support of 6-8 committed PSMC volunteers that have kept the program going.

Through many years of participating in this program Doug McCanne developed a good working relationship with the OSP head chaplain, Kelly Rath. So in 2012, when an Oregonian article described the stress, PTSD and suicides that the corrections officers were suffering, Doug raised the question of whether the mindfulness practices that were benefiting inmates could help the staff, too. Out of that conversation and others to follow, Chaplain Rath convened a meeting with Doug and several other non-Shambhala prison volunteers to continue discussions about ways to help the corrections officers.

The conversations led to Doug’s suggesting that they contact Acharya Fleet Maull (featured in the current Oregonian article) for consultation and advice because of his experience teaching mindfulness to prison inmates. Acharya Maull was very interested in helping in any way he could.

After that consultation, the group and Chaplain Rath decided that the best approach for this experiment was to collaborate under the auspices of The Prison Mindfulness Institute, which Acharya Maull had founded 25 years ago. Though he has extensive experience working with inmate populations, working with prison security staff is a more recent development, and this project continued that exploration.

Oregon State Penitentiary Corrections Officer Laura Hinkle underwent mindfulness training at the prison, which has helped her in her work with prisoners and her life. photo courtesy of Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian

Oregon State Penitentiary Corrections Officer Laura Hinkle underwent mindfulness training at the prison, which has helped her in her work with prisoners and her life. photo courtesy of Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian

Although the Shambhala Prison Program and the corrections officer project are separate and quite different in some ways, Acharya Maull and Doug’s years of experience in the Shambhala Prison Program enabled them to play key roles in the development of the new project. Also on the team were people from the Non Violent Communication (NVC) community, a former chaplain, a life coach, educators, and a freelance writer. The common bond was a genuine concern for the well-being of others. As a group, they were responding to the question, “How can we help?” – the topic of the class that Doug and I had just taught in Eugene.

A follow-up posting in The Oregonian blog suggests just how difficult a corrections officer’s job is. As I listened in on Tuesday morning’s conference call to the project leaders talk about how to keep the project alive for the program participants now that the original funding has run out, I realized that, in a way, corrections officers are themselves held prisoners by budgets, policies, culture and fear. As Brian Denson describes the corrections officer’s job in The Oregonian, “It’s a thankless job.” For the volunteers on that conference call, the main point was not funding or being thanked for the work they were doing, it was to address the question, “How can I help?”

Thank goodness for that!

(You can donate here.)

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