Several months into recovery from drug and alcohol abuse, George Mumford began experiencing chronic back pain and migraine headaches. As an alternative to taking pain medication, he enrolled in a stress reduction program with the Harvard Community Health Plan. That experience led him into insight meditation practice, and eventually into an internship with Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Stress Reduction Clinic. In 1990, Mumford, in collaboration with Kabat-Zinn, began developing meditation programs for substance abuse units housed in prisons within the Massachusetts Department of Corrections. George Mumford was interviewed by Joseph Goldstein and Marcia Rose about his work behind the prison walls.
George Mumford: Because of where and how I grew up, as well as my experience as a substance abuser, I can communicate with the inmates and frame meditation in a way that they can accept. It’s funny, I actually have folks in my classes that I used to get high with or knew from the streets. Since they see me as one of them, their faith increases in what I am teaching. The inmates resonate fairly easily to meditation; if I can give them a taste of the practice, the dhamma, they can see how it affects their lives. Once they actually calm down and feel some serenity, they understand its value. For example, after an eight-week course of meditation sessions, one man reported that corrections officers had come to move him from one cell to another. In the past, he would get angry, fight with them and end up in segregation. This time he simply walked into another room, sat down and watched his breath. He noticed that there was anger in his mind, but he did not react to it.
Since the program is for substance abusers, I talk about cravings. If they are thinking about drugs all the time, I explain that it is possible to train the mind to think about other things and to get a physical and mental benefit from that. I suggest that we are prisoners in prison, and we are also prisoners of our minds. Wherever we go, there we are, imprisoned by our ignorance, hatred and desires.
I avoid using words like spirituality. Instead, I try to keep the teaching on a very basic level. I talk about the behavior that got them into prison and point out that, if they continue to do those things, they will spend even more of their lives in prison. I try to get them to look at their habitual ways of relating to the world—and the consequences of those habits. I emphasize the role of stress reduction and meditation in helping to change those patterns. I don’t really go into the Noble Eightfold Path (morality, concentration and wisdom) a whole lot beyond concentration. The main focus is on developing mindfulness, mindfulness of breathing in and out as the object of meditation.
Inmates are into being macho, pumping a lot of iron and building muscles. So I talk about the importance of exercising or strengthening the mind and spirit as well. Stories about samurai warriors and martial artists who were able to harmonize the mind, body and spirit through Zen meditation often will motivate inmates to meditate.
I taught for ten months at one facility that was set up to house long-term inmates (imprisoned ten years or more and/or doing life). We held three-hour meetings where we would practice for an hour and then talk for two hours. These prisoners were really into meditation and had their own daily practices. They understood that in some sense they were in a monastery. These folks knew that they were not going to be leaving prison anytime soon, if ever, so the quality of their lives in the moment was very important—perhaps in a similar way to someone who has a terminal illness. That long term facility was one place where I could talk openly about the Buddha and it didn’t seem to matter to the prisoners.
We have held classes for Department of Corrections employees as well. One prison corrections officer reported that he had been confronted by a volatile inmate, and he was able to calm the prisoner down by using the stress reduction technique of getting the inmate to watch his breath for a while.
When difficult situations arise in a class and I’m mindful and in tune with what’s going on, things seem to take care of themselves. Often I will do my own half-hour of lovingkindness meditation before going in to teach a class. Basically, I just treat the prisoners as human beings. I invite them to try the practice, and to begin to examine their own minds and their own conditioning. So then, maybe, they can begin to move beyond that conditioning toward freedom, whether they are inside or outside of the prison walls.