Buddhas Behind Bars

Books Buddhism around the World Buddhism in Canada Chaplaincy Prison

If you are reading this, chances are pretty good you could not possibly imagine what it is like to be a criminal. Unfortunately, many people find themselves in prison, their entire identity reduced to the worst mistake they ever made. But what happens to those people when they wish to change, to grow, and to re-form themselves? Where do they turn for help? Buddhas Behind Bars is one of the few books to answer that question from a Buddhist perspective.

Buddhas Behind Bars

Speaking of the authors of this book, Brad Warner, author of Hardcore Zen, says, “The men in this book have faced themselves in ways most of us can’t even imagine.” Two of them incarcerated for first degree intentional homicide and one for first degree sexual assault, these three prison inmates recount their life stories: how they grew up, how they went wrong, their crimes and how their lives have changed within prison as they encountered the teachings of the Buddha and the Tao. Told with sometimes shocking honesty, these stories bring to life a struggle to build a life of positive action within the sea of negativity that surrounds them “inside.” Vivid pictures of prison life illustrate the ups and downs of men slowly finding a Way that offers them stability. Described in their own words, their encounter with the teachings offered by the prison program of the Milwaukee Zen Center over a period of more than ten years offers a window into the lives and struggles of members of the prison sangha. Says Grady Hillman, director of the Southwest Correctional Arts Network, “Buddhist disciplines provide an amazing perspective that transcends years of pain and anger. True journeys that can help us all.” An Afterthoughts section offers insights from Tonen O’Connor on working within correctional institutions.

Tonen O’Connor is a Soto Zen Buddhist priest and was the resident priest at the Milwaukee Zen Center from 2001 to 2011. She received ordination from Tozen Akiyama in 1994, dharma transmission in 1999 and in 2000 performed the ceremony of zuise at Eihei-ji and Sojiji, head temples of the Soto school in Japan. She trained in Japan at Shogoji Hosshinji and Hokyoji, and holds the rank of nitokyoshi wiithin the Japanese Soto system as well as a four-year assignment as kokusaifukyoshi. For 14 years she has worked extensively with inmates within the Wisconsin correctional system, serves on the Wisconsin Department of Corrections Religious Practices Advisory Committee and was invited to give a presentation on this work at a conference in Tokyo in 2008. Tonen is active in interfaith programs, is a past President of the Board of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association and with Zuiko Redding of the Cedar Rapids Zen Center is co-founder of the Great Sky Sesshin, held annually for the past seven years at Hokyoji Zen Practice Community in Minnesota. Prior to entering the Zen world, Rev. O’Connor had a 40-year career in the professional theater and was managing director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater from 1974-1995. She has two sons, four grandchildren, four great-grandchildren and lives happily with two splendid cats.

The Canadian Context

According to prisonjustice.ca (in support of prisoners and prison justice activism in Canada), in 2006 there were 192 correctional facilities across Canada. On any given day, there were more than 33,440 adults in custody and more than 153,000 individuals under the supervision of Correctional Service Agencies. The cost of incarcerating a Federal male prisoner (2004/5): $87,665 per prisoner/per year. The cost of alternatives such as probation, bail supervision and community supervision range from $5-$25/day.

If anybody has stats on the religious affiliations of adults in the correctional system, I’d like to know. It’s hard to imagine they are all Christians. I still can’t figure out why the Harper government has eliminated non-Christian chaplains in the Canadian prison system. It seems like a no-brainer to me that chaplains represent one of the best avenues of communication for reaching prisoners and giving them a new lease on life, reducing the rates of recidivism, and the ensuing costs. A win-win.

Tonen O’Connor’s book is a a clarion call for new solutions to old problems. Buy the book, support prison reform, and make some noise. The book is available at Amazon.com online for $13.99.


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