Manchester University
Oak Leaves

March 3, 2017

The Dahma Brothers

"The Dhamma Brothers" film poster

Peace in Prison
Film explores meditation's effect on inmates' lives

Kelleen Cullison

The grand finale of Discussion Day, the film festival, took students to some unusual places exploring mental health. The 2008 film "The Dhamma Brothers" transported students in Flory Auditorium behind the bars of one of Alabama's most notorious prisons.
The film began in 2002, and followed several inmates with life without parole incarcerated in the Alabama Donaldson Correctional Facility as they discovered Vipassana Meditation. The film is a result of a 10-day retreat, isolated from the rest of the prison population in the facility's gym.

Students flocked to the film with varied expectations."I chose to come to this film because I have a general interest in institutional reform," said junior Sean Sane. "I hadn't heard of the program before, and wanted to learn what I could from it's success or failure."Sophomore Delaney McKesson was drawn to the practice. "I've always been fascinated with the effects of meditation and mindfulness," McKesson said.
The inmates: capital murders, prison gang leaders, drug dealers and thieves, spent the first nine days in complete silence. There was no talking, no books and no television. It was just the men and their minds. The time and practice forced them to face their crimes and their deep seated issues with clarity for the first time. Certain inmates gave their testimony, giving detailed accounts of their crimes, and later on, of their personal battles. Many came to terms with their crime and with their punishment, and accredited their newfound peace to the Vipassana practice. It even helped one inmate cope with the death of his daughter, who was murdered after he'd been imprisoned. He found out about her death through the news, but maintained, "If I practice what I preach, then I have to love him (the murderer) as a fellow human being. I don't like what he did, and hope he can never do it again, but I have to love him. And the me saying that is not the same me from before."

The film also showed the challenges of providing mental health services to those locked up, and introducing new methods in America's "Bible Belt." The point of the intensive program was to improve the mental health and quality of life for inmates living in the violent facility. The members of the Vipassana Meditation Center lived with the inmates for the duration of the retreat, who attested to their seemingly improved state of mind after beginning the practice. Despite its effectiveness, the program was shut down for four years at the vehemence of the prison Chaplin, who complained that, "the conversion of the inmates to Buddhism was stealing his practitioners," despite the vehemence of all involved that they practiced Vipassana as a mental practice as opposed to a religion. Still, the administration demanded the program be shutdown. It wasn't until four years later that the administration changed, and the practitioners were able to continue.
The discussion following the film was led by Dr. Christer Watson, professor of physics and a practicing Buddhist. His take on the film was equally personal and fascinated. "The mind can quiet in was you never realized it could," Christer said. He expressed his sentiment that the inmates seemed to undergo a religious experience, a thought the audience shared. 

He also noted the contrast between Discussion Day's opening ceremony and the film. While Lynn Sanford's keynote speech connected mental health with love and personal connections, the film portrayed it more as a solitary journey. "[It was] a dissolvent of the self," Christer said. 

The audience expressed a general discontent at the prohibition of Vipassana, whether it was a religion or a way of life being practice. "It seems to me," said junior Ben Miller, "that one could strengthen their own religion by practicing, or being open to another." 

McKesson also shared her opinions on the topic. "The changes the inmates expressed make me believe that if a facility has the capacity and resources to provide this program, they should," McKesson said. 

Interest in meditation on campus was sparked. McKesson, said she'd been interested in meditation for years now. "If they offered a meditation program on campus, I'd definitely go. I've always wanted to learn." For others exposed to meditation for seemingly the first time, the film made a lasting impression."After watching this," said sophomore Jamie McBright, "I can definitely see the benefits of meditating."