Interview of Annapurna Sarada, President of SRV Associations, by Joan Elisabeth Shack, President of the Sri Sarada Society and Editor of Integral Vedanta News.
Joan Elisabeth Shack: Would you confirm the date the SRV prison ministry began?
Annapurna Sarada: Before SRV began its Oregon prison ministry, we came as “friends” to the visitation room in a prison in California until those inmates were released. In the mid 90’s Babaji (Bob Kindler) was contacted by an East Coast Vedanta Society to work with an inmate seeking teachings and guidance. That person was later released, finished parole with flying colors, and flew over to take initiation and attend retreats last year. Babaji continues correspondence with inmates in other prisons. Our official prison ministry in Oregon as state volunteers started in either late 2001 or 2002.
Joan: Is five the total number of Oregon prisons involved?
Annapurna: We visit seven prisons now if you count the Minimum and Medium security facilities at the women’s prison as two. We give separate classes there. Some of these prisons are far distant from major urban centers. It is very important that volunteers representing a variety of traditions make it out to these places.
Joan: Presently, how many devotees are involved in helping with this particular ministry?
Annapurna: There are two aspects to this work. The first is teaching inside the prisons and the other is mentoring re-entry students (students who are released from prison). There are five volunteers who go into the prisons to share the teachings and also help as needed with re-entry students. One other person is available as a mentor for re-entry students.
Classes inside prison consist of thematic presentations given by Babaji covering Vedanta, Sankhya cosmology/philosophy, and Patanjala Yoga. Classes by our other volunteers focus on a particular scripture, such as the Bhagavad Gita or Vivekachudamani. Some or all of the Vedic Peace Chants are chanted at the start of each class. At the women’s prison, puja (ritual worship) has been introduced, and generally once a year, during Navaratri, a scaled down version of the SRV Durga Puja is offered.
The first time puja was offered behind bars for our students at the women’s prison was nothing short of transformative. The teachings of Vedanta are well received at the intellectual level, but the heart’s devotion was not being addressed. As an experiment, we got permission to hold a puja and offered a very simple arati with group flower offering and devotional singing. Over the years, some of these students had learned about Mother Kali, Mother Durga, about Sri Sarada Devi and other Incarnations and Deities. This was the first time to honor Them with ceremonial worship. The atmosphere of self-surrender to God that developed in that puja was palpable. The opportunity to safely, communally, offer body, mind and soul at the Feet of Bliss and Purity triggered something very deep in almost every woman there. The timing of this was auspicious as well, as we later learned, for a couple of women were undergoing extensive and difficult work in preparation for meeting the people their actions had harmed, or had had their first meeting that week.
Joan: How has the program grown over the years?
Annapurna: At first, in Oregon, we were approached by a spiritual “cousin” from the Al-Jerrahi Order of Sufis. He was interested in bringing as many traditions with qualified teachers in to the prison system as he could. He himself was a former inmate and knew well how much religion and spirituality was needed there. His method was to invite Babaji Bob Kindler and I as guests to one of his religious services, introduce us, let us pass out our magazine, Nectar of Non-Dual Truth, and then have those interested request that we come and share the teachings of Vedanta. Prison authorities are required by law to provide such services if they are available. So then we started coming in. This also happened at a time when the Oregon Department of Corrections Religious Services Department was undergoing great changes and becoming uniquely open and amenable to the inflow of many “alternative” traditions. They even had a Buddhist Chaplain on their staff. Today, they have a Jewish Chaplain, Muslim (at least one if not more), and Buddhist, along with a wide variety of Christian sects.
After two or three years at OSP, the maximum security prison in Salem, one of our students was transferred to another prison much further away. So we received a request to go there. A group gathered after one visit. Later on another student got transferred to yet a different prison. Thus it has grown over the years until here we are regularly visiting 7 prisons. The class size varies over the years, changing in response to the fluctuations of the prison populations at any given prison. This is most noticeable in the minimum security prisons where people are there for 3 years or less.
Joan: What specific difficulties have been overcome to carry on?
Annapurna: Challenges come in several categories: prison system, inmates, volunteers, the sangha.
Prison system: Given the environment of prison, there are going to be challenges between the religious-spiritual and emotional-mental needs of inmates, and what Security perceives is needed to avoid unsafe situations. On any given issue, whether it is getting mail to an inmate, a religious item, a book, creating a proper atmosphere for worship, the security needs of the institution will be weighed, and only if the two can balance out will we be able to proceed. Sometimes this requires special efforts and a little hoop-jumping by chaplains, staff, and volunteers. Inmates learn patience and forbearance. Volunteers must as well.
Inmates: A major portion of the inmate population (77% of women, 47% of men) have known mental health issues before they enter prison. Instead of these people being taken care of in situations more conducive to their issues, they flow into the prisons, which are not meant to be mental instutitions. There is inadequate mental health care inside the prison, and like all government institutions, budgets are shrinking. Drugs are prescribed to the mentally ill, and also available for others to relieve the emotional stresses of incarceration. So when it comes time to attend class, we are often working with people whose brains are fogged up with drugs of various kinds. This is not a challenge we can overcome, just persevere through. We encourage those of more sound mind to try to get off these drugs and use the yogic teachings to strengthen their minds and self-control. Some are successful.
On a side note, it should be stated that the fact that our prisons are housing the mentally ill who are not receiving the kind of treatment that can help them truly change their behavior (if it exists in their cases), and the recidivism rate for these is likely to be very high, this creates and sustains a perception on the outside that “criminals” cannot change.
Volunteers: The challenges with and for volunteers is first finding qualified sangha members who want and can take the time to share the Vedanta. Other challenges are just remaining steady, detached, encouraging, and peaceful with inmates, staff, and security personnel while moving through a landscape of bars, gates, fluorescent lights, privations, despair, judgment, delusion, and emotional and physical turmoil.
Sangha: Our sangha has been wonderfully receptive and supportive of prison ministry and has welcomed our re-entry students with open-heartedness in almost all cases. The one sentence that has stirred the most discomfort has been with sex-offenders. We have actually lost one family and major funding as a result of welcoming a re-entry student with that offense on his record. There is much that can and should be said about this category of offense. Within Oregon, only .19% (not even 1%) of those sentenced for sex crimes are predators with a high risk to recidivate; 88% of this population has a very low recidivism risk. The situations that can give rise to a judgment of “sex offender” are numerous, diverse, and not all of them even involve sexual activity, yet public and inmate perception is that any sex offender is a child molester. Religious programs are often the safest place for “s.o.” inmates to go for support and upliftment. They are generally the “lowest of the low” in prison. Therefore there seems to be an unusually high percentage of re-entry students joining the “outside” sangha bearing this burden and stigma. When we first had to deal with this issue and walk the line between providing spiritual support and community to these re-entry students and providing for the security and comfort of the sangha, we held a sangha meeting at a well-attended retreat and developed a policy that would allow for both. It was a great victory over fear, and much understanding and compassion was generated. The policy includes mentoring, knowledge of the actual crime, parole requirements, and access to a student’s parole officer— but only for the prison ministry team. The sangha trusts the team to make the appropriate decisions for the sangha on a case by case basis.
Joan: What has been the response from prisoners and prison establishment?
Annapurna: We have heard very frequently, “this is why I came to prison, to meet you (Babaji) and learn about Vedanta.” Inmates, almost to the person, show great respect and appreciation for our time and effort to meet with them and share the teachings. No matter what their background, Vedanta can speak to them. The other night at the women’s prison, three new women showed up looking very bewildered. Someone had played tricks on them and signed them up for Vedanta and they looked like they wanted to leave. At the end of the class, however, they were asking when the next one would be. They were amazed at how much sense Vedanta made, and how practical it is.
The “prison establishment” here means the Religious Services Department. The fact that we have been steady and responsible for 12 years has earned Vedanta a good reputation. It is not certain how much they know about Vedanta itself, except in the cases of one or two of the chaplains. It is well accepted that religious/spiritual activity and spiritual community support “pro social” behavior (to use their language). For us, it is a matter of holy association: “From the company of the good arises nonattachment; through nonattachment arises freedom from delusion; through freedom from delusion arises steadfastness; and from steadfastness arises liberation in this life.”
One of our students, known for violent behavior was finally moved to another prison to make a different start. His violence was often generated by seeing unfairness playing out between people, especially security personnel and inmates. He would try to intercede and then end up in “the hole.” He was a very intelligent student and loved the teachings. At a pastoral meeting one day, Babaji encouraged him to take a stand on non-violence, ahimsa, and practice it to the letter. He took this to heart; practiced detachment in those circumstances described above and little by little effected a transformation that was noticeable to prison staff and inmates.
Another question may be asked: If a sizeable percentage of students are on drugs or mentally ill, why are we bringing Vedanta in? What keeps us returning month after month and year after year against such odds? Of course, there are plenty of others who are not so mentally disadvantaged and are intelligent and become very inspired. We learned right away that a lot of good people are in prison. They have used the opportunity to really examine themselves and have taken to Vedanta or other traditions and are facing off their ego, bad habits, deluded perceptions, etc. Vedanta and Buddhism have a built in “filter” and I would say we get the most earnest and sincere people automatically. They are cultivating daily sadhana. But even in the case of the others “seeds are planted.”
Here’s one story. A woman with several different mental health issues and physical problems attended Vedanta for years and as many other programs as she could. She had behaviors that inmates and volunteers could barely put up with and she was kicked out of several programs. Over the years we watched her long cycles of tamas (depression, dullness, ignorance) and rajas (restlessness, habitual questioning, distorted understanding), and every once in a while she would cycle into sattva (balance, peacefulness, capacity to understand). She began to recognize these cycles too. When a sattvic cycle would hit, she was like a different person and the impact of the teachings were manifested. But then a long tamasic cycle would come and she would spend it in isolation for months due to bad behaviors. Once, in a sattvic cycle, she had an awakening experience and suddenly understood some of the nature of Reality, the world, and herself as an embodied being. She had the presence of mind to write down what she understood in that moment. She shared that with us. At the time she shared this, a leading volunteer had been entertaining a serious doubt about whether taking Vedanta into the prisons was worthwhile at all. But this inmate’s experience quenched that doubt. She might never overcome her mental illness in this life, but she had experienced a moment of Truth, of Reality and this she will take with her into a next lifetime.
Our class sizes range from 6 to 26 students at each prison. Over the course of the years, many students have been released, but only a few stay in touch. There are different reasons for this: 1) paroling far away; 2) being swept up with parole, school, work, and family duties; 3) falling back into prison in a few cases; and 4) wanting to leave the whole prison experience behind them. However, the few who have joined the “outside sangha” are warmly received and it is wonderful to see them taking their place in the dharma.
Joan: I read of a pending DVD project… How was SRV able to coordinate with SONY, Advaita Academy, and prisons to bring this about? It seems like a big step.
Annapurna: We first learned of the project from an inmate student who was tangentially connected with it due to his video expertise. At his suggestion, we contacted the appropriate person. Timing had a lot to do with this. SRV had just received professional quality video equipment in preparation for livestreaming Babaji’s classes for Advaita Academy [www.advaita-academy.org]. We were learning how to use it and starting to record his Sunday classes. We were the only group of volunteers on the threshold this way, so they asked us to provide the first programming and they provided the Sony software to us. It has been a long process on their end due to technological issues, but the first dvds have just gone out. The long range goal is for the Department of Corrections to offer a network channel throughout the prisons in Oregon solely for the non-Christian traditions. There will be a Christian channel as well with programming from many sects. In the meantime, one of our volunteers has learned video editing and has worked with Babaji to edit his classes for both the DOC and the SRV YouTube channel. http://www. youtube.com/user/SRVAssociations/videos • • •
ANNAPURNA SARADA is President of SRV Associations and an assistant teacher offering classes on Vedanta philosophy and spiritual life to the SRV Sangha, its children, and its prison outreach program. SRVINFO@SRV.ORG
JOAN ELISABETH SHACK, Adjunct Professor of Mathematics at Hudson Valley Community College, is Co-Founder of Sri Sarada Society Inc. At her home in Albany, New York, day-long retreats and Saturday satsangs are held. Email: PRESMA@AOL.COM