Information and sign-up for new volunteers
Jessica is the volunteer coordinator. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Schedule of upcoming visits
**AS OF JUNE 2021 VISITS TO PRISONS ARE RESUMING**
How many people should sign up for each visit?
We always need one trained volunteer to be present at each satellite we visit. Special Volunteers (those who have not yet been approved by TDCJ) are always accompanied by a trained volunteer. New Approved Volunteers are accompanied by an experienced volunteer as needed.
LAST UPDATED: June 5, 2020
Volunteers from the Shambhala and Dharmata sanghas of Austin go to the Crain Unit in Gatesville every second Wednesday and fourth Saturday of the month, and to the Lockhart Unit on the third Saturday of the month. Each visit, we do a two-hour class (technically, a religious service). We carpool, leaving Austin around noon or 1 PM and returning around 8:00 PM from Gatesville and around 5pm from Lockhart.
Our goal in providing these services is primarily to ease the prison experience for offenders by giving them the tools to develop a meditation practice. These tools include instruction in basic technique, which we can speak about out of our own experience; motivation to practice, which we also can speak about out of our own experience; and support for their practice, which we give by dependably showing up, occasionally (and optionally) corresponding with them, and once in a while providing special events such as providing Communal Meals on official Buddhist holidays." While we draw specifically on Buddhist/Shambhala practice and focus almost exclusively on shamatha meditation, we try to make our instruction comfortable and welcoming for people of all faiths.
In seeking to motivate people to practice, we may engage with the offenders concerning issues in their daily lives. These conversations are strikingly similar to conversations we have with members of our own sanghas here in Austin. We all become both learners and teachers. We strive to model Buddhist principles of compassion, patience, and generosity, refraining (to the best of our ability) from assuming any I-know-better posture and from giving advice - while at the same time recognizing that we have been blessed with opportunities to study the dharma which most of these offenders have never had. While we may not explicitly talk about Buddhist or Shambhalian teachings, our contributions to these discussions are grounded in our understanding of the core teachings of Buddhism and/or Shambhala. We are not there to do therapy (even though we may be talented therapists) or to engage them in other techniques, and I mention this not because it is a "rule" or anything like that, but simply to help convey to you the spirit in which we approach the prison sangha.
We also make some attempt to support Buddhist offenders with specifically Buddhist teachings and discussions. This is always a bit of a dance, as we have a variety of faiths as well as varying levels of Buddhist "sophistication" present at each meeting and from one meeting to the next.
Volunteers in our program should be affiliated with the Shambhala or Dharmata sanghas. You should have at least one year of experience with meditation. Please don't think your practice has to be perfect in any way, as it is definitely reassuring to offenders to hear about how we have struggled with our own practice. But you should be committed to meditation as a tool for spiritual development or self-awareness and have personal experience with shamatha meditation. A basic familiarity with Buddhist or Shambhalian teachings is also good, but really you don't need much so long as you participate as a member of the sangha and don't represent yourself as an authority.
One other factor to consider is that you will be dealing with TDCJ (Texas Department of Criminal Justice), a very strict bureaucracy, a rule-bound, enforcement-driven, very serious don't-joke-with-us organization. If strict yet arbitrary enforcement of rules that you may not understand irritates you or provokes your spirit of rebellion, this might not be the right volunteer venue for you. We are allowed into the prison at the pleasure of TDCJ and we have to do things their way. Period.
TDCJ provides and requires training for volunteers in the chaplaincy program. However, you can come with us up to four times as a "Special Volunteer" without having taken the training. You will be paired with an experienced volunteer(s) when you go, and you can participate or simply observe. You can use this web page to see upcoming events and request that you be included. We will also meet with you before your first visit, to go over any questions and give everyone a chance to get acquainted. Contact the volunteer coordinator to set up your visit.
Before visiting the prison, you should read the TDCJ Volunteers Handbook, especially the rules of conduct and the information on contraband and emergency situations. TDCJ does a good job of explaining the boundaries that should exist between volunteers and offenders. In terms of safety, nothing scary has ever happened to our volunteers, but this is a prison and you should know what risks you are taking.
If you want to become a regular volunteer you will need to submit an application to become a TDCJ volunteer (find a link to the application on this page). You will also need to attend a training session. You may have to wait a while for a training to be offered in the Austin area, so you should check the schedule and rsvp for a training as soon as possible. Find a link to the training schedule on this page. Take a copy of your application to your training session. Upon receiving your application, TDCJ will conduct a background check and then send you a letter indicating approval (or not, but we have never heard of an application being turned down). If you receive this letter before you go to training, take the letter to the training session.
Thank you for you interest in this program! This is wonderfully worthwhile work that has changed the lives and practice of all of us who volunteer - to say nothing of what it has done for some of the offenders.
If you have ever been incarcerated in the TDCJ system (not including state or local jails), we MUST notify TDCJ before you make a visit. Please tell the volunteer coordinator if this is the case.
TDCJ Volunteer Training
Due to Covid, TDCJ training is taking place online only. For more information about becoming a volunteer, please go to this page: volunteer services.
Volunteers are required to retrain every two years. The first training is in-person at a training site. After that the training alternates between on-line and on-site.
These items are approved for us to carry into the prison.
small bell with striker
2 travel packs of kleenex
incense (may not be burned in prison)
pad of paper and pencil/pen (for taking attendance)
25 name tags and 1 marker pen. NOTE: YOU MUST GET THE NAMETAGS BACK. If the women leave the meeting with a tag, they can get in trouble for that.
3 x 3 foot cloth with devotional image for hanging/display.
pack of religious pictures (not for distribution)
religious literature for distribution. If you plan to take some, please tell Nell in advance so that she can double-check with chaplain.
clear plastic container for carrying the above
Devotional items that inmates may possess
Inmates are allowed some devotional items that pertain to their faith. For Buddhists, these are
japa or mala beads
Mala beads must be black (colors pertain to gangs), on cotton string (can't use as weapon) and beads no more than 3/8 inch. It is not to be worn on the wrist.
picture of buddha
8.5 x 11 or smaller on normal paper or cardstock. Must "meet the standards of TDCJ." We can give the chaplain a supply of pictures and then our Buddhist friends can request them using a form.
The dharma medallion is purchased through the commissary and handled by TDCJ.
To obtain a devotional item, an inmate does an I60 form to request the item. The Chaplain checks their travel card (religion) and their property records to verify that the inmate doesn't have that item already. An inmate with too many items may have to give up some other devotional item to get this one. The I60 form names the vendor the item will be purchased from. The vendor must be approved (call chaplaincy office in Huntsville to get approval). Once the I60 is approved, the inmate can order the item. The prison mailroom is informed. The item is received by the chaplain, a property slip issued and the item given to the inmate. Without that property slip, the inmate will be assessed a violation.
Winter Feast Meditation Buddies
Actual meditation buddy assignments will be sent out by email. If you have questions about your buddy assignment, contact Cindy (cphillips78669[at]yahoo.com).
Please write to your buddy once every 10 days during the period Jan. 15 through Feb. 23. Mail your letters directly to the prison. The address should look like this, where the digits following the addressee name is the inmate's prison id number:
Jane Doe 123456
1401 State School Rd.
Gatesville, TX 76599
The return address you use should look like this:
<your FIRST name> (chaplaincy volunteer)
Austin Shambhala Meditation Center
1702 South 5th St.
Austin, TX 78704
We ask participants to write back at least one letter to their meditation buddy. Don't be surprised if the letter is very short. Self-expression and even literacy can be challenging for these folks. Letters from the prison to you will be sent to the Shambhala Center. Prison volunteers will pick them up and see that they get to you. Whether or not you continue to correspond with your buddy after the feast is over is up to you. Our experience in past years is that correspondence peters out pretty quickly once the feast is over. If you are really hoping to hear from your buddy, we suggest you send them a stamped, self-addressed envelope. Put a stamp on an envelope and fill out the send-to address as shown above. Put the inmate's name and number in the return address on the envelope (they can fill out the rest). Do not send stamps that are not attached to a self-addressed envelope. Unattached stamps will be confiscated.
What to say?
If you have more than 1 buddy, you can say the same thing to all of them.
Your buddy may be brand new to meditation or they may have been meditating for a while. We all struggle with the commitment to our practice. Your Winter Feast buddy has made a promise to practice daily during the feast. How would you support any fellow sangha-member who had made such a commitment? You can be a cheerleader. You can tell them about your own practice. You can talk about successes and failures you have had with your practice or with your commitments. Imagine you took a job in Antarctica and while you were there vowed to meditate for forty days and felt pretty alone. What kind of letter would you want to receive?
Here are some specific suggestions:
Special considerations when writing to inmates
If you meet someone at a party, the conversation often begins with a list of things about you. “I’m a doctor, I work at Seton. I went to school in Houston. I have three kids.” There’s no need to do that in these letters. Keep your letter focused on meditation or your spiritual path. Reach out to these people as a fellow sangha-member, meditator, and spiritual seeker. You can be personal in the sense of sharing your feelings, experiences, frustrations, religious history, etc., but don’t give personal “facts” unless they are really relevant to your discussion.
Don’t inquire about their conviction or other legal matters unless they bring it up first (which is extremely unlikely).
The other thing to know when writing to inmates is that the gesture of writing, whatever you say, is huge. The fact that you take the time to do this, to recognize their existence, is huge. They will receive whatever you write as an act of generosity and kindness. It’s hard to fully appreciate this if you have not been in the prison environment. On the other hand, as meditators, they are just like us. Their struggles with meditation and the benefits they receive from meditation are exactly like any of us in the sangha. You can write the letter that you wish someone had written to you when you were a beginner or when you were struggling with your practice or when you were elated by your practice (as many of the Gatesville women will be by the Winter Feast) and that will be a great letter.
If you need help, contact any of our experienced prison-going sangha members. Dharmata: Jim, Cindy, Sergio, or Janet; ASMC: Jessica or Jake.