Prison inmates, who have hit rock bottom in their pursuit of material happiness and have plenty of time to think about their choices and the real purpose of life, are one of the most receptive and enthusiastic audiences to Krishna consciousness.
Since relaunching in 2009 under director and full-time volunteer Bhakti-lata Dasi, the U.S. branch of ISKCON Prison Ministry has been reaching more and more of this audience throughout the country’s correctional system.
And with another year reaching its end, the results are purely inspirational. With December still to go, Bhakti-lata’s office in Alachua, Florida alone has sent out 3,020 pieces of devotional literature to inmates, consisting mostly of Srila Prabhupada’s books as well as Back to Godhead magazines and books by other devotee authors.
She has also sent out pictures, calendars, sacred neck beads, over 200 spiritual CDs and DVDs (which inmates are often allowed to play in their chapels) and nearly 100 sets of japa beads. And she would have sent out a lot more, she explains, if many prisons didn’t ban beads because of their possible use as weapons.
Meanwhile other ISKCON Prison Ministry volunteers in ten other U.S. states have also been sending inmates many more books, spiritual accessories, and of course letters explaining the basics of Krishna consciousness and answering questions on spiritual life.
Pancha-Tattva Sankirtan Party, by inmate Bhakta Brian Babinski
“I estimate that this year about 500 inmates received one or more letters from IPM volunteers in the USA,” says Bhakti-lata, who also includes a picture and a transcript of one of Srila Prabhupada’s lectures with each letter.
Inspired by the letters and books they read, inmates begin to attend programs arranged by ISKCON devotees in prisons all over the country – currently, devotees in Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, and Utah all hold regular programs.
These usually consist of a kirtan, an arati if allowed, a Bhagavad-gita lecture with time for questions, japa chanting time, and some prasadam distribution when allowed – often just some fruit or candy.
Meanwhile Chandra Das not only organizes weekly Krishna conscious programs at the Snake River Correctional Institution in Oregon where he works, but also engages inmates and prison employees in caring for “Radharani’s garden,” where they grow flowers to offer to Krishna.
There are, of course, very active prison programs beyond the U.S. too. Chandramauli Swami and others hold programs at prisons in Brazil, Chile, Bosnia, Croatia, and Slovenia; Krishna-kripa Das in Spain holds regular programs for which he’s allowed to cook full opulent prasadam feasts in the prison kitchen; and there are also very active prison programs in India, Spain, Australia and other countries.
Inmates especially inspired by Krishna consciousness also organize their own weekly programs in a room of their prison chapel.
“There are dozens of such programs going on in U.S. prisons at the moment,” Bhakti-lata says. “Some of them really blossom. In Petersburg, Virginia, for example, Bhakta Richard started a program three years ago that now regularly draws 20 to 25 inmates.”
These programs, along with the letters and books they receive, have a major impact on inmates’ lives. Two inmates who work in a prison kitchen offer every vegetarian dish they make so that the whole prison has prasadam (sanctified food offered to Krishna). Other inmates prepare taffee in their cell from hot water and the small cream containers they receive, then offer it and distribute it to other inmates regularly.
Caitanya embracing Sanatana, by Bhakta Robert Humple
Many write letters to ISKCON Prison Ministry that positively glow with realization and gratitude.
“Thank you for the books Life comes from Life and Chanting Hare Krsna,” wrote Bhakta Joel S. from Coaltownship, Pennsylvania. “They are beautiful. I love Prabhupada’s books. I love how they are put together, illustrated, organized; I love everything about them, especially Krishna’s mercy which flows freely from them.”
“I want to be with Krishna and bask in Krishna’s love, and light,” wrote Bryant Mau from Corcoran, California. “As I write now I listen to the sounds of my soul and I know Krishna is in my heart, I can feel it. I want to dance and chant.”
And Benjamin B. from Buckeye, Arizona, wrote, “I try to plant as many seeds of Krishna consciousness as I possibly can. At the moment, I have one inmate in my pod with whom I am studying KC with. I put him in touch with Balabhadra Prabhu in Boise. When I received the Chaitanya Charitamrita he also received some wonderful books. He was really excited, he ran to my cell to show me what he had received. It was beautiful to see his utter joy!”
Even after prison, ex-inmates continue practicing Krishna consciousness and finding solace in it. Despite struggling with her mental stability, Jackie, in a half-way house in South Florida, calls Bhakti-lata regularly and and is fond of reading about Krishna and sharing Prabhupada’s books with other ex-inmates. She also chants between 3 and 16 rounds nearly every day and shares the maha sweets she receives from the Alachua temple with her roommates.
So where do all these inmates hear about ISKCON Prison Ministry? Some hear of it by word of mouth, some by reading about IPM in a prison resource guide, and some through more serendipitous experiences.
“One inmate was praying for guidance one night,” says Bhakti-lata, “And the next morning he saw that someone had slipped a Bhagavad-gita under his cell door!”
Often, chaplains are the connection between ISKCON Prison Ministry and the inmates, arranging for them to get books and spiritual paraphernalia. Many are grateful to IPM for caring for the spiritual needs of their Hare Krishna and Hindu inmate population, and some begin to really see the benefits of Krishna consciousness.
Lord Nrsimha, by Bhkata Ferril Mickens
“Thank you so very much for your ministry… and for the enrichment and education of the general population of the facility,” wrote Rev. Richard G. Barnes of MTC Imperial Regional Detention Facility in Calexico, California. “It is appreciated more than words can say.”
“We have had a very positive response about Krishna from some of the institutions,” wrote Reverend Michael Sims of Ellendale, Tennessee. “I enjoy talking with the inmates and hearing of their spiritual progress.”
One Virginia chaplain was so enthusiastic that he had an inmate who was practicing Krishna consciousness come into his office and order an amazing $1,500 worth of books and accessories from Hare Krishna websites in one sitting. Now, after several ordering sessions, his prison has every one of Srila Prabhupada’s books, as well as Deities, mridangas, kartals and a harmonium along with instructional videos, incense, kurtas, tilak, DVDs and CDs.
For Bhakti-lata, hearing these stories is her lifeblood.
“My IPM service is the rock that gives me stability in my Krishna consciousness,” she says. “Since I became a devotee, chanting my rounds and reading Prabhupada’s books have always been very important, but it is even more so since I started writing inmates. After all, what will I have to tell them if I myself do not appreciate the matchless gift I am offering them?”
IPM gives tax-deductible receipts. To donate, or to find out more information, please visit www.iskconprisonministry.org, write to IskconPrisonMinistry@gmail.com, or contact Bhakti-lata Dasi or Mukunda Das at ISKCON Prison Ministry, P.O. Box 2676, Alachua, FL 32616-2676.
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