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Light Between the Bars
Published in The World and I, Spring 2002

BO 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.

Bo 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 heavy times."

FRIENDS, 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 responsibility.

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."

HAVING 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 the days.

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 the work.

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 the world.

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 House.

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 principle."

THE 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."

JACK 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.

Though 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 about it.'"

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 them.

"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 help people."

IN 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 service.

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.

IN 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 ago.

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."

***

For 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.

Other orgs that work with prisoners on a spiritual level:

Engaged Zen Foundation
P.O. Box 700
Ramsey, NJ 07446-0700

Buddhist Peace Fellowship
P.O. Box 4650
Berkeley, CA 94704
(510) 525-8596

Prison Dharma Network
P.O. Box 912, Astor Station
Boston, MA 02123-0912


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