Friday, April 10, 2009

Death Row

Yesterday morning I drove over to San Quentin State Prison to try to visit an inmate some sangha members had requested I go see, if possible. I say if possible because this fellow is in segregated housing. Previous to this my ministry at San Quentin has consisted solely of going to the weekly Sunday evening meetings of the San Quentin Buddhadharma Sangha, under the leadership of Seido Lee deBarros, for the past three years.


How interesting that the first time I should do any cell to cell ministry I went in about as far as you can go! San Quentin is several different prisons within one 275 acre complex. I have been on North Block before, which is a level II facility where most of the guys in our program live. They are mostly lifers and term-lifers and considered by administration well-behaved, so they get privileges like coming to chapel and working in Prison Industries. North Block looks like you might imagine from a prison movie, tier upon tier of tiny cells about the size of a bathroom with two guys in each cell, and very old and funky. East Block was where I went yesterday, and it is a whole different story! It is where most of California's 637 or so condemned prisoners live, one person to a cell, under extremely tight security. The man I went to visit is not a condemned prisoner, but is in segregated housing. As I understand it he is waiting to be transferred to another facility elsewhere in the state, but in the meantime, because he is also not considered a threat they put him to work cleaning cells in East Block, so that's where he is currently living. Before I was getting set to leave yesterday I got a call from Lee saying he wouldn't be able to go with me because his foot which he broke a month ago was bothering him, but Lee urged me to go ahead and have a try.


I was very lucky when I got there because I found Rabbi Carole Hyman in her office and she called over to East Block and arranged for the man to be brought down for a visit. She had to go with me as an escort because my "Brown Card" security clearance is not high enough to be there unescorted. I got the picture when we went inside East Block through several more iron doors with armed corrections officers present, and signed in and then was requested to don a bullet-proof vest. I put the vest on over my hippari, but put the rakusu over the vest! They wouldn't allow me to go up on the tier to see the guy in his cell, but instead had brought him down and put him in a "holding cell" which was a cage slightly larger than a phone booth where he stood up while I stood outside and talked with him for well over half an hour. I must say that given the bizarrely unnatural conditions prevalent, the C/O's (they don't like to be called guards I've heard) were very respectful and civil to us and Carole gave us our space and we had a very nice chat given the circs!


We talked about many things, including his meditation practice. He had a misconception that a lot of people on the outside share, which was that he could use meditation practice as a means to insulate himself from his troubles. So we talked about that, and where real equanimity comes from. He was grateful to have a job, as most prisoners who do are, and he explained that he was kept real busy cleaning the place. He said East Block is the cleanest part of San Quentin because it comes under a lot of international scrutiny, as this is where the condemned live and die, and many civilized people consider this cruel and unusual punishment. Many thanks to Rabbi Carole and everyone else who helped make that happen. It certainly made his day, and made an impression on me that I won't soon forget!


Brad Warner said...

Great post, Greg! Maybe cut it up into paragraphs to make it easier on the eyes. But very well written and informative.

Renee said...

What an adventure!

Steve said...

Thanks for this post Greg. I'd be interested to hear more about your understanding of what Buddhist "ministry" looks and feels like. This is something I think about often in my work as a hospital chaplain.