Able, Baker, Charlie & Denver

Last year, Shambhala teacher Cynthia MacKay began visiting the  Los Angeles Men’s Central Jail to offer meditation instruction to prisoners. This March, on completing a year of service, she will be officially recognized as a Buddhist prison chaplain. 

3700 A-21

menscounty“Hey Cynthia,” he says to me through the bars, “I read this book you gave me last week. Now I’m reading it a second time more slowly and trying to understand it better. It’s an incredible book and it’s so much deeper on the second read.”

I have to look at the book because I don’t remember him or the book I gave him, there are so many of them, inmates and books. It’s Turning the Mind Into an Ally and I must have also given him my triage style of meditation instruction because he repeats it back to me verbatim, almost as quickly and briefly as I give it. “Sit down, feet flat on the floor, hands on thighs, chest open, shoulders relaxed, chin tucked, eyes open, gaze down, soft gaze, be gentle…”

I stand outside each cell in the rows I walk and introduce myself as a Buddhist and ask if they’d like to learn about meditation. If they say yes I call out instruction over the blare of the television and the guys screaming at one another and singing together and telling their stories. I have to get on the tips of my toes or duck or move to the left or right to see their eyes between the bars. Depending on our height together, and the width of their head, their face is usually split into four parts by the old worn metal bars. They’re worn in the middle, where men have hung onto them for five decades. The corners still have their original patina. The whole place smells like Dial soap. I hate Dial soap.

I give the why’s and what’s of meditation, shamatha history, posture and technique. All in what feels like one breath, because that’s all we’ve got. Literally and figuratively.

I have to be with another chaplain during my first year in Men’s Central Jail and she moves fast. She zips down her half of the row checking in, handing out paper, pencils and magazines. She’s from the Zen Center, everything is more efficient over there. I try to make it through my half of the row while still offering the inmates clear enough instructions to instill in them the confidence to try it. And then we quickly move on to the next row. Able, Baker, Charlie and Denver.

“It’s my first time in here,” the guy whispers to me; he doesn’t want the inmates on either side of him to hear. “I’ve been trying to do the practice for 10 minutes, like you said, twice a day.”

“Good,” I tell him, “I’m glad I remembered to tell you 10 minutes.” It all happens so fast I hope I remember to tell everyone everything. A lot of the guys in here are kids, gang kids with gang tattoos who have been in and out for their whole short lives. I wonder how he’s 40ish and ends up in MCJ for his first time but I don’t ask. I never ask.

His name is John, nice eyes, a little melancholy around the edges and he’s on the “fish row”. Men’s Central Jail is the oldest in Los Angeles County, built in 1963, and the largest jail in the country, housing 5000 inmates. The fish row is a transitional row before the guys are put in their permanent (relatively) place. The fish row contains everyone; high power, gay, sex offenders, murder, multiple murder allegations… you name it. In the rest of the jail you can tell who inmates are by the color of the suit they wear, in the fish row all are created equal. It’s also a place where there are no phones, no televisions, no visits and no one is allowed to leave their cells

John tells me how challenging it is to practice in that environment. It’s loud all the time and he’s worried about his wife and children and he keeps trying to bring his awareness to his breath in his body but he can’t stop thinking. He’s worried. He doesn’t feel like he’s doing it right. He’s not sure about the eyes open, is he supposed to be looking at something?

John and I have the same conversation I would have at any Shambhala Center with any new practitioner, except his face is cut in four parts by worn bars.

I give him further instruction about gaze and working with noise and disruptions. “I have so many questions,” he tells me, “but I also realize that I can latch on to little things and make them big things that stop me from learning. I don’t want to do that anymore.” He seems to really be connecting with his mind.

Then John begins to whisper again, I lean in to get close enough to hear him but not too close to be hurt, just in case, and he says, “these people in here need a lot of compassion.” Tears pool in the corners of my eyes. I agree.

He says he wants to remain compassionate toward them and try to be of benefit while he’s here. “I love this book and the meditation practice. If this is all I get out of being in here I will call this a worthwhile experience. Thank you.”

I thank him back and promise to stay in touch. I will have to follow him in the jail system. I will bring him the dharma books he asks for and help him develop a sitting practice. I make the aspiration that we can maintain our compassion and then I carry on.

How to Help

  • You can support this work by donating old magazines, used books or money to purchase new books.
  • For more information, please send an email to jail@smcla.org

Cynthia MacKayCynthia MacKay has been a student of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche for over 20 years. She has traveled extensively through Asia receiving teachings from many other renowned Buddhist teachers, including the 17th Karmapa. Cynthia is now following in her teacher’s footsteps by running marathons. She is also actively involved in teaching meditation at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility in Malibu.

One thought on “Able, Baker, Charlie & Denver

  1. I am searching for information on getting involved in bringing meditation to the prison community, and would love to hear more about your experiences and a possible place to begin.