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Buddhistdoor View: Prisons and Buddhists

Lewis Lancaster and his longtime friend Danny Tam are the dynamic duo of Buddhist prison visitation. In an interview with this website in 2013, the emeritus professor of East Asian languages at UC Berkeley spoke eloquently about how his ministry with the International Bodhisattva Sangha Prison Program (of which Mr. Tam is chief financial officer) had transformed the lives of inmates across California’s state prisons. Prof. Lancaster and Mr. Tam have introduced inmates to Buddhism and taught them meditation, and are now offering an accredited course on Buddhism at Calipatria State Prison (in collaboration with Buddhist college University of the West). They are not only assisting in the emotional and moral rehabilitation of inmates, but are also offering them a sense of purpose and achievement in studying Buddhism.

Prof. Lancaster has conceded that despite their extraordinary work, no chaplain, religious or otherwise, can overturn what has become one of the most lucrative industries in the United States: the juggernaut of the private prison industry. America currently incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation on earth: about 2.3 million people, which is an astounding 25 per cent of the world’s prison population (Talvi 2007, xv).

Alongside state prisons, one hundred private prisons now operate under limited state or federal regulation. They are motivated, as any business legitimately is, by profit. These companies’ quarterly earnings depend on the incarceration of nearly 130,000 state and federal prisoners in private facilities since 2010. Since 2011, the industry has turned over US$5 billion in revenue, much of it flowing from the government, which pays prison companies to take inmates from overcrowded state and federal prisons. One of the corporations owning these prisons, Corrections Corporation of America, has enjoyed increased profits of 500 per cent. Meanwhile, journalists across the world have covered extensive abuses committed by private correctional facilities in America.

Society obviously needs to protect its citizens, and punishing crime is possibly an inevitable component of this duty. But America’s ballooning prison population has been caused by increasingly draconian legal measures against often non-violent crime (especially through policies like the War on Drugs and mandatory minimum sentences). This has committed ever more people behind bars for longer and motivated private prison companies to lobby the government for more inmates to maintain their massive profits.

Regardless of the debate between retribution and rehabilitation, this interlocking industry between a government keen on outsourcing, a disproportionately harsh legal system, and profit-driven prison corporations seems to be an inversion of a civilized polity’s priorities. This is an injustice at a structural level that even the hardiest of chaplains cannot topple, no matter how many people she heals within the system.

The alleviation of suffering is a principle that has always informed the Buddhist conscience. The basic premise is that something is unjust or needs to be questioned or changed if it harms the physical or spiritual well-being of sentient beings. But there are actually two levels of suffering: individual instances and structural injustices. Structures flagrantly in violation of Right Livelihood (samma-ajiva) in the Noble Eightfold Path, such as arms dealing, belong to the second category, and it is fair for a Buddhist to consider critiquing and challenging them productively.

There is both individual and structural suffering and injustice within the private prison industry. From Peninsula Times.
Prof. Lewis Lancaster has been teaching Buddhism to inmates across California in the past decade. From Buddhistdoor International.
Danny Tam of the International Bodhisattva Sangha Prison Program. From IBS Facebook.

But how far should Buddhism go in addressing structural injustices while maintaining its historical detachment to samsaric modes of being? It can be perfectly legitimate to argue, in good faith, that structural injustices are simply part of this flawed world of conditioned suffering and impermanence. Nevertheless, the Buddhist imperative to protect life and the inherent spiritual dignity of every living being cannot simply be written off as naive idealism: it is built into the Buddhist calling and identity as compassion (karuna).

At the end of the day, it is a matter of individual choice and motivation. Would a Buddhist’s conscience be better mollified if she critiqued structural injustices, or could she very validly settle for only addressing individual problems? The latter decision would surely save her a great deal of personal energy and grief, and is in line with the teaching of inevitable structural injustice in samsara. It would perhaps benefit her and other beings if she considered all options. Whether she chooses to critique all or just one of the manifestations of injustice is her call as a free moral agent. Any choice is a valid path to walk, as long as it is carefully considered and compassionately chosen.


Foucault, Michel. (1975) 1995. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, translated by Alan Sheridan. Reprint, New York: Random House.

———. 2007. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977–78, translated by Graham Burchell, edited by Michel Senellart. New York: Picador.

Talvi, Silja. 2007. Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S Prison System. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press.

See more

Lewis Lancaster Interview on Prison Dharma

International Bodhisattva Sangha Prison Program (Facebook) 

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