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Home Global Activities America Forty Years to Redeem Mistake of Single Moment

Forty Years to Redeem Mistake of Single Moment

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"When I was 16, I did something in 0.1 seconds and now I am in prison for forty years because of that." an inmate told Tzu Chi volunteers. The suicide rate of young people in their 20s in U.S. prisons is the highest in the world – they would rather end their lives than spend decades or their whole life behind bars.

Volunteer Rui-Qin Tan from San Diego has visited prison inmates in California for many years. He has shared with them Buddha's teaching to comfort hearts which went astray and tell them that everyone can turn to kindness. In 2012, he told Tzu Chi of a professor, Dr. Lancaster, who had planned to teach Buddhism in the prisons. At the time, everyone really hoped that Dr. Lancaster would be able to visit the Tzu Chi USA headquarters. However, since he spent most of his time at Hong Kong University teaching Buddhism and in South Korea leading the editorial work of Buddha's sutras, he could not fit a visit into his schedule.

In November 2013, Dr. Lancaster had a brief stop-over in Los Angeles; it coincided with many Tzu Chi volunteers in the USA sending Jing Si Aphorism books to the prisons. Seizing the opportunity, the media department of the headquarters invited Dr. Lancaster to speak to the volunteers. On November 30, he gave a speech at the San Dimas campus Jing Si Bookstore about the prisoner population situation and how Buddha's teaching has sent love and care to the prisons. Many volunteers were deeply moved by the speech. Rui-Qin also shared his experiences of caring for the inmates; this strengthened the resolve of Tzu Chi volunteers to visit the inmates.

Dr. Lancaster said that the USA has the highest prisoner population in the world, with more than five percent of the population behind bars. It costs every citizen US$65,000 a year to look after them -- and that is on top of the costs of maintaining the infrastructure of the prisons! In California, there are 36 jails for male prisoners with a total of 130,000 inmates. The prison system has become overcrowded; the government's solution is to fly new prisoners to a private jail in Arizona.

Thousands of inmates have been abandoned by their families. They have lived for decades without a letter or a visitor; they have been forgotten. For nearly 20 years, every Sunday Rui-Qin has woken up at 3:30am and driven three and half hours to the prison for a visit, and then made the same drive home. He has been visiting five prisons and rotates them weekly.

The first facility he visited was Calpatria Prison. At the beginning, the inmates found it unbelievable that somebody would actually visit them every month. But his visits have become the thing that they looked forward to most every month. Dr. Lancaster stressed that caring for the inmates is a long term process that requires dedication and commitment, because it means a great deal to the inmates.

The first time that Dr. Lancaster visited them, someone told him: "These are villains. You can never help them, go do charity outside!" Many could not understand why Dr. Lancaster wanted to give lectures to the inmates. He was asked: "Don't you know that many of them had done horrible things? Why waste your time on them?" Others with knowledge of Buddhism said: "Helping those who have committed serious crimes is a great act of merit." But Dr. Lancaster emphasized to the volunteers: "Don't do this for merit, do it out of compassion."

The first time Rui-Qin approached the inmates, he was surprised to find that they were just a group of normal people and that there was no aura of violence. One inmate said: "When I was sixteen, I did something in 0.1 seconds and now I am in prison for forty years because of that." The suicide rate of young people in U.S. prisons is the highest in the world. These young people would rather end their lives than spend decades or their whole life behind bars.

Ten years ago, inmates said: "We are clueless about Buddhism. We know a little about meditation but not about its history. We want to learn more, can you teach us?" Dr. Lancaster and his group have worked for ten years. Finally, for the first time in 2013, they were able to provide a college-accredited course for the inmates in two prisons. They are Calipatria State Prison in Imperial Valley and Chuckwalla Prison in South California. These two maximum security prisons have a total of more than 7,000 inmates. In these prisons, the inmates are not allowed to do anything -- not even help in the kitchen, do their own laundry and not touch anything that could potentially be a weapon. The inmates say: "I have nothing but time." Dr. Lancaster recorded his course at the University of the West - Introduction to Buddhism in a DVD. So the inmates may follow the DVD and, at the end of the year, they have earned this one college credit.

From the Last Mile to Happy Campus

Dr. Lancaster said that visiting the prisons was a great learning experience for him. He said: "The inmates had nothing; so, from a certain perspective, there was a unique sense of simplicity. They didn't have to be tactful or very courteous and they can see the world in their own eyes. Sometimes they are very frank and they ask very direct questions without any decorum. That really makes you think because you cannot give them a standard set of answers and you must seriously contemplate the answers you give them."

"They are desperately curious about karma, how it works and how you can reverse it, etc. They also want to know what Nirvana is, what enlightenment is. They explore right to the core, to things that matter to them." One of the inmates who is serving a life sentence, with whom Rui-Qin has interacted with for years, said: "I understand this is my karma, I am a bodhisattva in the prison." His role is to help the other inmates.

Dr. Lancaster used to work with an organization from Northern California known as The Last Mile. This group teaches the use of a computer to inmates of San Quentin Prison in San Francisco due for parole in the next two years. In the prison, the inmates were not allowed to have a cellphone, computer or anything that could communicate with the outside world. So those who have been imprisoned for two or three decades have never seen a computer or cell phone, nor even heard of an e-mail.

Discovery Channel has helped make CDs for the inmates to help learn how to write computer programs and to use the computer. When they graduate from the two-year program, the Last Mile invites executives from Silicon Valley tech companies to attend their commencement ceremony. After hearing the graduates' speeches, many of these executives offer them a job on the spot. So far, none of the graduates from this job-training program has gone back to prison.

Dr. Lancaster visited one of the firms. The CEO said that, when his employees knew that he wanted to hire an ex-convict, they were very afraid. "But he was very hard-working and proved himself. Now nobody will think of him as a criminal." Dr. Lancaster spoke to this ex-convict, a young man of 28 years who spent 12 years in jail. He said: "for the first time in my life, someone gave me an opportunity, I must seize it."

However, the Last Mile Training program only has 25 places every year. Many of the 5,000 inmates in prison want to participate, because many of them will barely get an interview without assistance. Without that, they usually will not find a job or return to a normal life. Eventually they recidivate and return to prison. Therefore, Dr. Lancaster thinks that there needs to be more care for the inmates and ex-convicts to reduce their burden on society and bring stability.

Rui-Qin praised the Happy Campus project which helps low-income community schools and counsels the students. Many of these children in poverty lack parental supervision and spend a lot of time loitering on the streets, which is the start of a life of crime. The Happy Campus Project is the solution before they open the doors of a criminal life. Tzu Chi in Taiwan has brought Buddha's teaching into the prisons; Rui-Qin hopes that more volunteers in the USA will join the program to care for the inmates and ex-convicts. He said: "Tzu Chi is very powerful. I hope we can work together and help more people."

Article by Fei-Fei Zhang, Tian-Xiang Zhou, Yong-Li Zeng in Tzu Chi USA Headquarters 30/11/2013)
Translated by: Huiying Chin
Edited by: Kristofor Fan

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" The future is an illusion, the past is a memory. Hold on to the goodness that is in our heart at this present moment and take care to fulfill the duties that we have at hand. "
Jing-Si Aphorism