Donaldson Correctional Facility is located in Alabama, southwest of Birmingham. There are 1,500 men housed in this overcrowded, maximum-security prison behind high security towers and a double row of barbed and electrical wire fences. Jenny Phillips, a cultural anthropologist and psychotherapist, began a documentary film in 2002 about a remarkable experiment in this very rough Southern prison. She convinced two meditation teachers Bruce Stewart and Jonathan Crowley to lead a 10-day silent meditation course for a group of 36 prisoners.
The film includes interviews with some of the men, their families, the warden, guards, and other staff members. Everyone involved realizes that the meditation program is an alternative to the heavy emphasis upon punishment over rehabilitation. Although some prisoners have been practicing meditation on their own through outreach programs for years, this experiment would mark the first time that an intensive retreat was held in the United States in a high security prison.
The filmmakers show the inmates preparing for the retreat by setting up cushions and sleeping mats in the gym and starting the process of silent meditation. It is almost like they are turning their space into a monastery where they will eat, sleep, and meditate apart from the rest of the inmate population. The dhamma brothers (referring to the dharma, a term for the teachings of the Buddha) share their experiences of working with mindfulness and encountering their feelings of anger, stress, anxiety, guilt, and other volatile emotions. Stewart and Crowley, the mediation teachers, express their delight in the transformation they see in a number of the prisoners who talk about a fresh sense of community and their interest they have in continuing the program.
Unfortunately, the 2002 experimental program was shut down after the chaplain at Donaldson began to worry about inmates becoming Buddhists and abandoning Christianity. The authorities failed to see that no proselytizing had been going on and also this kind of silent meditation is practiced in the Christian tradition.
Years later, Phillips received a call from officials at Donaldson and was told that the Vipassana courses would once again be welcomed there. The homecoming is a sweet one for the inmates who maintained a meditation practice on their own and for the teachers who had high hopes for continuing this program. The Dhamma Brothers is a convincing documentary that proves the cathartic value of meditation in the lives of these prison inmates who share their experiences of inner peace and growing compassion.