Between the Bars
Published in The World and I, Spring 2002
AND SITA Lozoff love the simple life. They wake in
their small cabin on a wooded ashram just outside of Durham,
N.C., and walk through a routine of meditation, meals and
mail. To the graying couple, life couldn't be better.
Hundreds of thousands of prisoners also lead simple, highly
regimented lives, though their atmosphere is usually not one
of peace but of conflict and confusion. But through the Lozoffs'
correspondence with inmates, many of them are also waking
up. They are working toward spiritual freedom from the confines
of their cells.
and Sita are the founders of Human Kindness Foundation (HKF),
an interfaith organization that writes and distributes free
tapes, videos, books and letters -- enveloped in humor, encouragement
and a bit of necessary bluntness -- to prisoners worldwide.
"Through meditation, prayer, martial arts or whatever
appeals to you, you can gradually attain enough mindfulness
that you can see what's happening before you deck somebody,"
writes Bo, HKF's director. "You need to be doing something
every day -- while everything's okay -- to get ready for those
RELATIVES and ex-cons helped the Lozoffs build the
structures that make up Kindness House, HKF's 69-acre complex
of cabins, workshops, gardens and pine forests. Yet the ashram's
foundation is really a trinity of principles -- daily spiritual
practice, dedication to service and simple living.
Bo, HKF's director, claims that American culture, built around
self-centered living, is 180 degrees opposite these tenets.
In fact, he says we are violating every great sacred principle
of life, namely compassion, reconciliation, forgiveness and
The nation's prison system exemplifies this desecration, says
the director. Having visited more than 500 prisons, Bo concludes
that convicts have no opportunities to learn compassion and
responsibility, or to make restitution to their victims in
any practical ways.
Nor are inmates treated with much humanity. With the average
federal prison a third over capacity, prisoners sleep in tents,
overcrowded dorms and converted broom closets. Some 240,000
rapes occur in U.S. prisons each year; most victims are young,
nonviolent, first-time offenders.
Bo also questions our "socially sanctioned hatred"
of criminals. "We've been lead to imagine a legion of
heartless monsters plotting to get out and hurt us again,"
Bo writes. "The truth is, most prison inmates are confused,
disorganized and often pathetic individuals who would love
to turn their lives around if given a realistic chance."
BEEN hippie rebels in the 1960s, Bo and Sita have
had their own dances with the law. The young couple escaped
lock-up in 1969, when they refused to help smuggle 1,400 pounds
of marijuana on a sailboat from Jamaica. Everyone involved
was arrested, including Bo's brother-in-law Pete, who was
later sentenced for 12 to 40 years for a similar scheme.
Bo and Sita chose a different life, settling down at an ashram
in North Carolina. Visiting Pete a year later, the couple
was struck by the parallels between their routines -- waking
at 4 a.m., eating communally, going without sex and working
hard for little pay. The difference was that Pete was miserable
and they felt satisfied. Bo saw that inmates could learn to
cultivate a spiritual practice instead of just counting down
Bo applied for a job as a prison guard and instead landed
a consulting contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
The jobs didn't last, but they made Lozoff a figure on the
national prison scene.
Sita then discovered Be Here Now, Ram Dass' 1971 spiritual
classic applying Eastern wisdom to Western life. The couple
invited him to visit their ashram in North Carolina. During
his stay, Ram Dass mentioned that he'd been sending his books
to inmates, and asked the couple if they'd like to take over
With financial backing from Ram Dass, the Lozoffs started
the Prison Ashram Project in 1973, corresponding with prisoners
and developing spiritual materials oriented to their environment.
The couple didn't anticipate that nearly 30 years later, their
work would reach hundreds of thousands of convicts around
And now, released prisoners have a chance to put that principle
into practice. Since 1994, some 10 to 20 ex-cons have returned
HKF's service and support by living and working at Kindness
AT SIX A.M., as the sun begins to awaken
the ashram's clover and alfalfa hayfields, Kindness House
residents huddle around a small altar in the powder-blue meditation
hall. After silently meditating, the group discusses text
from one of the wisdom traditions enshrined on the walls,
from Zen calligraphy and Hindu iconography to a photo of the
Dalai Lama and a picture of Christ.
HKF's live-in volunteers, 6 women and 6 men (including two
ex-convicts), resume their buoyant conversation as they go
about making meals, answering mail, gardening, and working
in the woodshop. (While many ex-convicts help in different
ways, Sporting a wild white beard, devilish eyebrows and a
playful expression, Bo works silently beside them. Last September,
Bo and resident Shabari Ma Case entered a year of silence,
using message boards only for urgent communication.
Bo hopes that this year will help him move into the next level
of spiritual awareness and service. "What that may look
like is a complete mystery," he wrote.
While that voice has now led him into a year-long silence,
which includes a halt to written correspondence, other times
it has called him to give workshops at as many as 20 to 30
prisons in one month. Among other things, Bo teaches inmates
the basics of meditation and an eye-contact practice to help
them see past each other's outward appearance and personality.
Though brief, the workshops go deep. "Bo's workshop was
one of the most interesting religious experiences I've ever
had. It reaffirmed to me that you don't have to be a hard
person all the time," says Bill Adkins, corrections counselor
at the Eldorado Correctional Facility, just outside of Wichita,
Kansas. "Having been a correctional officer for 13 years,
I've seen lots of programs come and go. The only thing you
can count on is people changing themselves. Bo espouses that
HKF'S OFFICE wood-lined walls are decorated with
icons of a different sort: envelopes from prisoners, illustrated
with everything from clowns and Buddhas to portraits of Kindness
House residents and prisoners in their cells.
The foundation receives 50 to 100 letters every day, mainly
from prisoners requesting free copies of Bo's books, which
include Lineage and Other Stories, Just Another Spiritual
Book, Deep and Simple, and We're All Doing Time, sometimes
called the Prisoner's Bible. Now translated into four languages,
We're All Doing Time is filled with cartoons, drawings, prayers
and humor, and written in a style that speaks to the street-wise.
Other letters come from prisoners giving thanks, airing opinions,
sharing their poetry or looking for insight on violent "cellies"
(cellmates), dealing with loneliness and hatred, and other
common prison dilemmas. But in essence, the letters aren't
so much about giving words of wisdom as simply offering the
support and caring that is so rare in prison life.
Some of the correspondence is printed in "A Little Good
News," HKF's seasonal newsletter. Bo's loving but fiercely
honest responses often stir up even more letters. In one newsletter,
Bo suggested that a prisoner who lives a few cells down from
his mother's murderer try to see him as a human being, a teacher
even. Another inmate wrote back slamming Bo's "candy-assed
advice," saying the prisoner needed to "take the
[guy] off the count" and "practice spiritual principles
later!" "This stuff goes all the way, in every situation
imaginable," Bo wrote back to the irate prisoner. "No
time out. The stakes are high. The jackpot we're headed toward
is better than your wildest dreams."
M. , now known as Arjun, was an unlikely candidate
for spiritual change -- the kind of high-risk, repeat offender
that politicians and prison officials consider permanently
unsafe to society. From the time Arjun was 13, he was living
on the streets of Birmingham, Ala., staging street crimes
to support a growing addiction to pharmaceutical narcotics.
Over time, he graduated from petty theft to more serious offenses
-- including an armed pharmacy robbery, in which Arjun killed
employee Rick Penn. He was shuffled through several Alabama
state prisons, finally landing in an ultramax security prison
where they put "all the screwballs and misfits,"
says Arjun with a thick Alabama accent. "I got a life
sentence, and I earned it," the ex-convict says.
Ten years into Arjun's sentence, a cellmate loaned him a copy
of We're All Doing Time. The book came into the prisoner's
hands at a time of emotional breakdown and spiritual crisis,
leading to a deep desire to rebuild his life and make amends
for the horrors he had caused.
the prisoner couldn't relate to traditional religion, Bo presented
its principles in a simple, practical way -- "not a lot
of complicated theology," says Arjun, now 43. "Bo's
books [emphasize] that spirituality is not about believing
in God or having a particular set of beliefs. Instead they
stress ongoing spiritual practice as a means of liberation.
That enabled me to take more responsibility in my life."
Not that changing old habits was easy. He encountered cynicism
from the prison staff, who thought he was just practicing
"jailhouse religion" -- a temporary turning to God
to impress the parole board. And some of his fellow prisoners
were men who, back in the free world, had shot up dope and
robbed stores with Arjun. "When I suddenly made a departure
from the so-called normal convict way of living and really
began to make changes, I was ridiculed. People would offer
me dope and smoke it in front of me," says Arjun. "I
realized I might never get out of this prison. I thought,
'This is my field of practice and I'm going to be very serious
For the next 13 years, Arjun entered a dialogue with Bo through
the mail. In 1998, he was released on parole and invited to
Kindness House. He's been there ever since.
After 23 years of incarceration, the transition to such a
different form of communal living wasn't smooth, however.
Though Arjun was 40 when he came to Kindness House, looking
back he feels like he was more like 17. "When I came
here, I saw the world through a lens of suspicion, mistrust,
and anger -- I felt like a victim," Arjun says. "With
the help of the people around me here, I've been able to see
those things and grow out of them."
Arjun is now in charge of responding to many of the letters
Kindness House receives, especially since Bo has gone into
silence. Arjun tries to share elements of his story to inspire
"People write me, saying you don't know what it's like
to meditate in a dorm with a hundred men with the TV blaring
all the time. And I answer that I lived in a 100-person dorm
where the beds were 30 inches apart and sports TV was on all
the time. During the NBA playoffs, I had to meditate on my
bed right under the television, while people were screaming
and hollering. I do know. And because of that, I'm able to
THE DINING hall, a slender, long-haired woman named
Janaki lays out a vegetarian lunch of leftovers and joins
the HKF crew trickling in from their morning duties. Like
Arjun, the 37-year-old "corporate drop-out" wasn't
someone you'd expect to give up earthly pleasures for spiritual
Yet five years ago, the young marketing executive felt compelled
to seek out a more meaningful life. Janaki looked into volunteer
programs like the Peace Corps, but felt like they were all
aimed at eventually getting people caught up in the consumer
world. She then heard an interview with Bo, who Janaki says
"just made sense," and decided to pay the Kindness
House a visit. She decided on the spot to leave the sprawling
city of L.A. for the quiet backwoods of North Carolina.
The first year Janaki was here, Bo told the group that a convicted
murderer in Alabama was up for parole, and had been accepted
into Kindness House. "I thought, 'I've never known a
killer -- I don't know if I'm ready for that,'" she recalls.
Within a few hours of meeting Arjun, Janaki was extremely
attracted to him, though she tried to let those thoughts pass.
They didn't. Arjun and Janaki weathered the turbulence of
their new and unconventional relationship, and married at
Kindness House last July on the full moon. Now expecting their
first child, the couple plans to stay at Kindness House indefinitely.
THE WINDOW of a small workshop, light pours life
into an amber and blue stained glass portrait of Radhe and
Krishna, a royal couple Hindus revere for overcoming many
obstacles. Sita examines an intricate design for a window
depicting Hindu gods Ram and Hanuman sent to her by Pam S.,
a 49-year-old woman from Los Angeles.
Pam's drug habit had taken her in and out of prison for many
years. On her last trip inside, Pam got a two-woman cell,
and finally got to read Bo's books.
"The books are perfect for someone who is interested
in an inner revolution, which is exactly what I had,"
says Pam, who has been drug-free since her release four years
Thanks to a recommendation from Bo, Pm now holds a contract
to illustrate a children's book, and also volunteers on a
crisis hotline, helping guide people through the kinds of
hell she once experienced.
Like Arjun, Pam is just one of the many ex-cons who have reinvented
their lives with the help of Bo, Sita and the many other hands
involved in Human Kindness Foundation.
HKF's success is really bonded to the way its founders and
followers live. "How to live simply and consume less,
how to truly cherish each other: those are things that as
a community we strive to practice here," Arjun says.
"We're here not just to get along well, but to really
learn how to feed each other deeply. That's a powerful offering
to the world."
information, including to order copies of HKF's books
and tapes, contact the Human Kindness Foundation, P.O. Box
61619, Durham, NC 27715; www.humankindness.org.
orgs that work with prisoners on a spiritual level:
P.O. Box 700
Ramsey, NJ 07446-0700
P.O. Box 4650
Berkeley, CA 94704
P.O. Box 912, Astor Station
Boston, MA 02123-0912