Planting the Seeds for Vipassana and Dhamma Brothers

A history of The Lionheart Foundation and its work within the Alabama Department of Corrections and the Donaldson Correctional Facility

In 1996, The Lionheart Foundation, through its National Emotional Literacy Project for Prisoners, started developing a working relationship with the Alabama Department of Corrections (AL DOC) and the Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer, Alabama. This relationship served to till the hardened topsoil of the AL DOC and nurture fertile ground where the Vipassana Meditation Retreat could take root and flourish six years later at the Donaldson Correctional Facility. Donaldson is a high-level maximum security prison with a reputation of being one of this country’s most violent prisons.

Dhamma Brother Film and The Lionheart Foundation ConnectionIn 1995, as part of Lionheart’s concerted effort to develop a relationship with prison staff, and get the Houses of Healing Program into every prison in the U.S., Lionheart contacted staff in the central office of the AL DOC to receive approval for the distribution of 16 donated copies of Houses of Healing to every state prison library in Alabama. Approved by the central office, the books were shipped.

At Donaldson Correctional Facility, the books were received by the prison librarian, inmate Troy H. (name chanced for privacy). Upon receiving the books, Troy wrote a letter to Lionheart’s Executive Director and author of Houses of Healing, Robin Casarjian, expressing his enthusiasm and relating the story about how he and seven other men were seeking a place in the prison where they could conduct a meditation group. The psychologist, Dr. Ron Cavanaugh, told Troy that the only way the inmates could get a room in the prison designated for a group was to conduct a formal course of study that was pre-approved by the AL DOC. No such existing course met their needs. As Troy wrote in his letter dated March 6, 1996,

Yesterday, the library supervisor, Officer James Freeman, brought in a box of books that had been approved by the Program Director of the Dept. of Corrections in Montgomery, AL. He gave me the box. When I opened it and pulled out your book, Houses of Healing, I randomly opened it to page 131, and read the sentence, “We’re not going to always feel like meditating but the important thing is to put some time into it.” I then turned to the front and began to read the inside front cover and look at the chapter headings and to thumb through it, and I knew that once again the Universe had assisted with a small miracle. Here was a course of study that we could take to the psychologist and it was already approved by the Project Director of the Dept of Corrections. This would not only give us a quiet place for our weekly meditation group, but would offer a structured course on which to base that group. Here was a blend of Psychology and Spirituality (an East meets West) study course that would promote healing and transformation. We intend to begin a weekly study/meditation group called “Houses of Healing Study Group”, pending approval and ask that you send a Houses of Healing Training Manual. I would also appreciate any advice and comments that you may have time to render and thank you so much for the generous donation of these books.

Aside from limited substance abuse/recovery programming, there was no treatment budget and little, if any programs, offered to inmates at Donaldson outside of religious programs.

Unlike in many prison systems nationwide, where inmates are not allowed to facilitate groups, Donaldson depended on mature inmates to fill the program gap. So began the first Houses of Healing Program at Donaldson.

Over the next four years, with support and encouragement from the Lionheart Foundation as well as Donaldson psychologist, Dr. Cavanaugh, Troy’s study group grew into a large pool of several hundred inmates who participated in the Houses of Healing program and were meditating on a regular basis.

The Houses of Healing book and program were extremely well received by inmates and staff alike.

Since its introduction, The Lionheart Foundation has donated more than 1500 copies of Houses of Healing to state prisons in AL. (Hundreds more have been donated to county and federal prisons within the state.) Because of the close working relationship that Lionheart developed with Dr. Cavanaugh and because the Houses of Healing Program was so integrated into Donaldson, Lionheart has donated 525+ copies of Houses of Healing to this one facility. Prior to the Vipassana retreat, Lionheart had donated 400+ copies to Donaldson. In addition, Lionheart donated two sets of the Houses of Healing Education Video Series and 13 copies of the House of Healing Training Manual. Lionheart has donated, by far, more resources to the Donaldson Correctional Facility than to any other prison in the country.

In 2000, Robin Casarjian, Lionheart’s Director, joined with Jenny Phillips, Ph.D., psychotherapist, anthropologist, and enthusiastic volunteer facilitator of Houses of Healing, and psychologist Richard Wolman, Ph.D., to conduct a research study on the efficacy of the Houses of Healing intervention on inmates in the MA DOC. Dr. Cavanaugh agreed to conduct a similar battery of tests with inmates at Donaldson.

In June 2000, Jenny and Robin went to Donaldson to meet with Dr. Cavanaugh and observe the inmate facilitation of Houses of Healing courses. In addition, Jenny, having an interest in male identity and its impact on violence in the prison culture, was granted the opportunity to interview men for a qualitative part of the study. Results from her interviews were later published in the American Psychological Association Journal, Men and Masculinity.

In May 2001, in order to further support the integration of Houses of Healing within the AL DOC and at Donaldson, Robin Casarjian facilitated the Houses of Healing Emotional Literacy Training for Corrections Professionals. The training was underwritten by The Lionheart Foundation and sponsored by the AL DOC under the direction of Dr. Cavanaugh who had, by then, been promoted to the position of Director of Treatment for the entire state prison system. Sixty+ (60) corrections professionals representing seven (7) AL state prisons and six (6) AL work release facilities attended the training that was held in Montgomery.

By the time the Vipassana retreat was introduced to Dr. Cavanaugh and the Commissioner of the AL DOC, hundreds of men within Donaldson had participated in the Houses of Healing program. Since meditation is at the core of the Houses of Healing program, meditation was no stranger to involved staff and all Houses of Healing participants.

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