Arriving at the Alabama maximum security prison, Concord, Mass., resident Jenny Phillips brought inmates three things rarely found behind bars: a movie crew, Buddha's teachings and the prospect of inner peace.
Arriving at the Alabama maximum security prison, Jenny Phillips brought inmates three things rarely found behind bars: a movie crew, Buddha's teachings and the prospect of inner peace.
The Concord psychotherapist and first-time filmmaker offered murderers and violent criminals a reprieve from the despair of hard time and life sentences by organizing a 10-day meditation retreat in the Donaldson Correctional Facility.
Working with two meditation teachers, Phillips filmed prisoners' efforts to strip away layers of anger and self-deception to discover a calmer, better person deep within themselves.
Instructors Bruce Stewart and Jonathan Crowley taught Vipassana meditation, which required total silence throughout hours of sitting. Based on Buddha's 2,500-year-old teachings, Vipassana means to "see things as they really are" in the Pali language.
Working with inmates, Stewart and Crowley of the Vipassana Meditation Center of Shelburne Falls transformed prison space into a makeshift retreat center.
From these experiences, Phillips made "The Dhamma Brothers," a fascinating look into the hearts and souls of violent criminals. It is a thought-provoking documentary that raises serious questions about the nature of current correctional practices.
"There's a lot of ignorance about who these people are. I wanted to make a film that shows the average person what goes on in prison and what works," she said. "These are human beings just like you and me. When I first entered, I saw a sense of possibility and spiritual growth. I'm not arguing to set them free but to humanize them. If they're going to be locked away, give them the tools to manage themselves better."
"The Dhamma Brothers" will be shown at 6 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 28, in the Remis Auditorium at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
It has won awards in two film festivals, including best documentary in the Woods Hole Film Festival and second place in the Rhode Island International Film Festival.
Of the 36 participating inmates, viewers get to know a handful of articulate prisoners whose thoughtfulness seems at odds with their brutal crimes.
Edward Johnson is serving a life sentence for involvement in a gang-related triple murder. Rick Smith fatally stabbed a woman 78 times. Also a lifer, Grady Bankhead was present when two men he had just met killed a man.
Phillips believes inmates, especially those serving long sentences with little chance for parole, are most receptive to meditation's benefits.
And Phillips rejects stereotypes that demonize convicts as beyond redemption.
"We often create this category of the 'other.' Prisoners are the most invisible of people who are behind the walls of these fortresses we create," she said. "Yet when people are in crisis or suffering, they're very available for change. If given the opportunity, many are ready to examine where they're going and what they can do to improve their situation."
Throughout the course of Phillips' 76-minute documentary, viewers see prisoners struggling to come to grips with their crimes, and the grief they've inflicted on their victims, families and themselves.
While most of the movie was shot in 2002 within the facility near Birmingham that houses 1,500 prisoners, the film intersperses news coverage of several prisoners' crimes and public reaction with interviews of correctional staff, family members and the inmates themselves.
To make the film, Phillips founded Freedom Behind Bars Productions. Phillips served as co-director and co-producer. Andy Kukura of Northern Lights Productions in Boston served as co-director, co-producer and editor. Ann Marie Stein, formerly of NLP and now associate dean of professional and continuing education at Massachusetts College of Art, served as co-director and co-producer.
"Dhamma Brothers" challenges conventional notions of crime and punishment by suggesting men convicted of brutal crimes can discover a buried humanity through an Eastern meditative discipline. The title comes from the Pali word "Dhamma," often rendered as Dharma in Sanskrit and English, and refers to the moral core of Buddhist teaching.
Phillips is no naive newcomer to the grim realities of prison life.
A practicing psychotherapist for 25 years, she has been teaching "emotional literacy" at Bay State prisons for more than a decade. In addition to her private practice, she teaches at the Sousa-Baranowski Correctional Facility in Shirley. Phillips described "emotional literacy" as a way to help "the normal walking wounded" develop psychological "skills and tools to heal the damage done to them or by them."
The film addresses criticism that a 10-day meditative retreat coddles prisoners who use it to escape the daily rigors of incarceration or manipulate the system to earn parole.
Early on, a skeptical man says the inmates "should have meditated before" committing crimes that landed them in prison. Another woman who identifies herself as a Christian said she "doesn't believe in witchcraft."
Phillips addresses these concerns by pointing out meditation reduces the likelihood of inmate violence and helps them adjust to society when released.
"This is not a 'soft-on-crime' film. This is a public safety issue. From a humanitarian point of view, they're already paying for their crimes," she said. "Ninety-five percent of them will be back on the street. It's foolish to warehouse them and then dump them on the street. Do we want someone less able to contain themselves?"
Phillips' decision to bring Vipassana meditation to Donaldson began in 1999 after seeing a movie about the female warden of a maximum-security Indian prison who instituted a similar program with beneficial results. After hearing some Donaldson inmates were mediating on their own, she contacted prison authorities and eventually convinced them an intense mediation retreat could help prisoners serve their sentences more productively.
Phillips, who practices Vipassana and meditates an hour daily, plans to publish next year a book compiled from prisoners' journal entries and letters to her to be titled "Letters from the Dhamma Brothers: Freedom Behind Bars in an Alabama Prison."
By the film's end, virtually all inmates and several correctional officials and guards credit the program with helping inmates deal with their sentences.
In one of the film's most stunning moments, Bankhead learns his daughter has been sexually assaulted and murdered. His face twisted in pain, he said he'll mourn his daughter, "but I still got to love" her killer.
Raised in Ohio, Phillips has lived in Massachusetts for many years. She earned a doctorate in cultural anthropology and a master's degree in psychiatric nursing, both at Boston University.
The granddaughter of legendary editor Maxwell Perkins, Phillips and her husband, Frank, started the Hemingway Preservation Foundation to preserve his papers and the Cuban villa where he wrote several of his masterpieces.
Phillips believes Vipassana can benefit "any human whether locked up in prison or yourself."
"This is a program for people to look within themselves and take responsibility for their actions. This program works," she said. "This is a pathway for human beings to be the best human they can be. It's not a way of being easy on people. It's helping people take responsibility for who they are and what they've done and then facing the consequences."
To learn more about the film, "The Dhamma Brothers," visit www.dhammabrothers.com.
-- MetroWest Daily News