Prison service seeks Buddhist adviser for inmates

By Sue Bailey, The Canadian Press, June 15, 2009

OTTAWA, Canada -- The federal prison system is looking for help to nurture more zen in the Pen.

Corrections officials want to renew a contract worth up to $75,000 over three years to offer Buddhist spiritual advice and support in its prisons near Kingston, Ont.

They include the maximum-security Kingston Penitentiary and the Warkworth Institution, a medium-security facility that houses some 600 inmates, about a third of them sex offenders.

Duties include offering spiritual guidance to at least 40 identified Buddhist offenders in the region plus counselling, religious education and advice on Buddhist issues.

The recently published contract description notes that the Correctional Service of Canada "is mandated with the provision of religious and spiritual services to all offenders in our care.

"The Ontario region is seeking to implement these standards for the Buddhist faith in a consistent way."

A meditative faith anchored by goals of compassion and tranquil acceptance may seem an odd fit with convicts serving hard time.

But Kelsang Donsang, resident teacher at the Kuluta Buddhist Centre in Kingston, says misconceptions about prisoners abound. Many of his own assumptions were proved wrong after he started visiting inmates, he said in an interview.

"We always have this idea it's a bunch of bad guys and gangs doing bad stuff in there, continuing to act in criminal ways. Of course there are some. But I would say not more than in . . . a normal community.

"For most of these guys, they did something wrong at some point (and) it changed their whole life. But they're not the person they used to be when they committed that crime."

Donsang's centre is identified by the corrections service as the single agency capable of offering the local Buddhist expertise it seeks. It is now finalizing details of the contract.

Donsang already visits several prisons and holds weekly gatherings for inmates in a little chapel at Warkworth.

"It is a Christian chapel with a crucifix but we meet in a different corner."

They set up a makeshift shrine with a Buddha and donated offering bowls. Inmates have to show enough consistent interest to obtain a pass for the group activity, Donsang said.

He offers advice on meditation and related study, and he's always willing to chat or listen.

"They're really, really happy to have someone just to talk to, just to take them out of their daily stuff. For me, really, this is more than enough. If they just want . . . someone who can listen and propose different ways of thinking, different avenues . . . that's a direct Buddhist approach."

The men he helps are serving time for everything from unpaid fines to murder. Many are not the same people they were when they arrived, he said.

"Most of these guys were engaged in one criminal act that they got severely reprimanded for - with reason, of course. I'm not saying that's not the way it should be.

"They may have done terrible things 10 or 15 years ago but will have completely changed . . . . Every case is different, but there is a lot of spiritual need, a lot of very beautiful spiritual journeys that I came across. It's very inspiring to work in there."

Holly Knowles, a spokeswoman for the prison system, says Catholic and Protestant faiths are most common but services are also offered for native spirituality, Judaism, Muslim inmates and recognized minority faiths.

"This is a basic human right, of course, that we recognize."

A little religion can go a long way to ease the stress of prison life.

"Religious observances and practices within an institution can be very beneficial," Knowles said. "Many offenders can come into the service and learn of the spiritual dimension of life which will emphasize . . . being peaceful, and following moral practices.

"It differs for each offender. But we've certainly found that the provision of spiritual services is of great assistance to many offenders, which inevitably will help them in their re-integration back into the community - and contribute to a safer community in general."
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