Del Hathaway and Joseph Nguany
Del Hathaway, left, and Joseph Nguany were among the first participants in a groundbreaking silent meditation program offered to residents of the Maine State Prison in Warren. (Portland Phoenix/Sam Pfeifle)
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Del Hathaway said it all happened for him on the ninth day.

“They bang the gong at 4 a.m. and we sit there and meditate. For two hours,” Hathaway said. “And I said, ‘I’m going to do this.’ I focused on my breathing and I shut out all these thoughts and by the grace of God I had the ability to just lock in and for the first time it didn’t hurt.”

He had spent the previous eight days in silent meditation trying to remain in positions that caused his back to ache, his shoulder to cry out, his feet and ankles to fall asleep and scream at him. 

Del Hathaway
Maine State Prison resident Del Hathaway: “It was weird and the pain started dissipating and slowly went away and I kind of freaked out. Am I just tripping? Is it just in my head?” (Portland Phoenix/Sam Pfeifle)

“They say past issues that happened to you cause the stress that causes the tensions that cause the pain,” Hathaway said, “so I’m talking to this pain, as I’m breathing, and I’m like, ‘It’s not your fault. Things happen in your life and it’s time to move on.’

“It was weird and the pain started dissipating and slowly went away and I kind of freaked out. Am I just tripping? Is it just in my head? Then my ankle started hurting and I directed my attention to my ankle and then that slowly dissipated and went away. And the two hours felt like two days.” 

Hathaway’s face opened with a sense of wonder. “Up until then, I wasn’t sure,” he said. “Is it real? Is it BS? But that let me know. All this pain and torture that I did to my body was all worth it.”

Stories like these aren’t uncommon after introductory Vipassana meditation courses, which take students through techniques that originated in India thousands of years ago and were taught by Gotama Buddha as an “Art of Living.” The Vipassana tradition is open about how difficult the 10 days are – no talking at all beyond a short opportunity with the instructor, hours and hours of still meditation – for the reward of “self-transformation through self-observation.”

What’s uncommon is that Hathaway is a resident at the Maine State Prison in Warren and that the course was taught by two Vipassana instructors who spent March 17-28 inside the prison with Hathaway and eight other students. It was the first time nonresidents had ever slept inside the prison, which is only the third correctional facility in the United States to host the course. 

“Fundamentally,” said Fred White, one of the instructors and a member of the Vipassana Prison Trust, the residents of MSP got the same course that is taught in the same way all over the world “because of how Maine has really stepped up and tried to provide the environment that everyone else would have. In my 15 years of doing this, it was a very smooth course, one of the smoothest I’ve been a part of.”

The whole thing started because a student who had gone through the Vipassana course saw “The Dhamma Brothers,” a 2008 film by the late Jenny Phillips about a Vipassana course of study at the Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer, Alabama, and took the initiative to send a letter to all 50 U.S. commissioners of corrections inviting them to watch the film and bring Vipassana into their facilities. 

Randall Liberty, Maine’s corrections commissioner, was the only one who took them up on the offer.

“When I heard from the volunteer,” Liberty said, “I thought, ‘What a great opportunity for us to allow the men to practice mindfulness and to seek redemption and to really climb deeply into their thoughts without the distractions of everyday life.’”

And why does he think he’s alone among his peers?

“The corrections industry can be a heavily punitive culture and can be fairly entrenched,” Liberty said. “I believe firmly that most of us believe in redemption when it applies to us, but we’re reluctant to allow people to be reborn and reinvent themselves.” 

‘Lightbulb moments’

The Vipassana course was just that opportunity Joseph Nguany needed to explore reinvention. 

“I’ve been incarcerated for 10 years now,” Nguany said, “and for as long as I’ve been here I’ve stopped being me. I forgot what me was and when they saw a glimpse of me, it was a reminder.”

Like Hathaway, Nguany had what he called “lightbulb moments.”

Joseph Nguany
Maine State Prison resident Joseph Nguany: “I used to just pace back and forth, and being able to sit down and observe everything and not put the attention on one thing or another, that’s a habit that I want to continue to build on.” (Portland Phoenix/Sam Pfeifle)

“As I started doing the breathing more, I was just not even in my body. I didn’t feel nothing,” he said. “I was aware of the pain, but it wasn’t just throbbing in one area, it was almost like a vibration type of thing. It was as if I was watching it. I can’t even explain.”

It has allowed him, he said, to “deal with things in daily life. … I used to just pace back and forth, and being able to sit down and observe everything and not put the attention on one thing or another, that’s a habit that I want to continue to build on.”

Hathaway knows the feeling. 

“When situations present themselves,” he said, “one of the things (Vipassana) teaches you is to let go. This guy is having a bad day and he’s saying shit to me and I can say, ‘Hey man, I hope you have a better day.’”

“I’m not there yet,” Nguany added. “The way you handled that was dope.”

Hathaway demurred but acknowledged that the Vipassana – the word translates to “seeing things as they really are” – has allowed him to drop his facade, to not feel like he needs to be a tough guy. 

“Being able to have that is a gift,” he said. “It’s super stressful being in prison and keeping up with that image, it’s so stressful. To not have to do that, to be able to say, ‘Hey, man, I’m good, that’s fine with me,’ it’s crazy. It’s liberating.”

Nguany has even taken to removing his shoes and walking around barefoot following the Vipassana course. Hathaway saw that and was instinctively shocked at the vulnerability that it showed in a population that generally feasts on the vulnerable. 

“I’m like, ‘This dude’s crazy,” he said, “but he looked so happy. I said, ‘Lemme give that a shot.’ … For the first time in my life, I had that connection to the earth. It was liberating. It really was. I felt so free and empowered. I have been locked up my whole life and I’ve never been able to do that. And I’m 42 years old.”

Overcoming skepticism

Matt Magnusson, the MSP warden, said the Vipassana course has been more successful than he imagined. He knew right away that the class would be “way outside the facility’s comfort zone” and wondered if anyone would actually go through with it.

“I knew personally it was nothing I could commit to,” Magnusson said.

Matt Magnusson
Maine State Prison Warden Matt Magnusson: “Guys skipped college classes for this, their recreation opportunities, the sports leagues. Everything they had, they’re giving up for 10 days. I thought, ‘No one is going to sign up for this, but we’ll offer it.’” (Portland Phoenix/Sam Pfeifle)

Thirty residents showed up to the initial meeting where White and his colleagues made the pitch.

“It was brutally honest about what it would entail,” Magnusson remembered. “No mail, no phone calls, no comfort food, no contact with loved ones. Guys skipped college classes for this, their recreation opportunities, the sports leagues. Everything they had, they’re giving up for 10 days. I thought, ‘No one is going to sign up for this, but we’ll offer it.’”

They started with 11 participants and were told about 50 percent would drop out, on average. And yet nine finished the program.

“That says a lot about the people who signed up,” Magnusson said.

White backed up Magnusson and said he was impressed by how quickly the men got down to work and how thoroughly they reaped the benefits.

“The majority of that is their own effort,” he said, “but it was really aided by the cooperation with the Maine State Prison. We didn’t have interruptions that would have really impacted or been a distraction to the students. It was very quiet.”

And that was hard on the staff, who were nervous about unattended volunteers mixing with their population. Magnusson said the experience pushed the facility’s security team.

“It really took a lot of trust that (guys like Hathaway and Nguany) wanted to be there and nothing bad (was) going to happen,” he said. “But they went to the meetings. They engaged. And I kept hearing, ‘You know, this isn’t too bad. We’re seeing some positive things here.’”

Positive enough that they’re planning another 10-day course for September with another group of residents. White and his fellow Vipassana instructors are happy to have built the relationship with Maine as one designed to be long-standing. 

He acknowledged there was initial skepticism – Nguany was convinced they were federal agents – “but as people have experienced it and seen the benefit,” he said, “all that goes away.” 

Liberty, the corrections chief, is sold.

“It really has transformed some of these gentlemen,” he said.

Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected].

Randall Liberty
Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty: “Our approach is to identify what brought people to corrections and help people identify those issues so they don’t come back.”

Is the ‘Maine Model’ for real?

It’s fair to be skeptical of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty and Maine State Prison Warden Matt Magnusson as they describe the “Maine Model of Corrections” and how they do things differently.

They are the leaders of a prison system, after all, and all of the available data show prisons in the United States do more harm than good for the people kept inside. 

But “our approach is to identify what brought people to corrections and help people identify those issues so they don’t come back,” Liberty said. 

In case that sounds like empty discourse, more than one resident of the Maine State Prison is buying it.

“When I first met Magnusson,” said Joseph Nguany, who was sentenced in October 2016 to 40 years for murder and spent much of his initial time in the high-risk portion of the Maine State Prison, “we started a conversation, and I still remember that day. … He took me by surprise. He didn’t fit. That made me think, ‘There’s going to be change.’”

“They call us ‘residents,’” said Del Hathaway, sentenced in March 2018 to eight years for aggravated trafficking of scheduled drugs. “Not ‘inmates’ or ‘prisoners.’ (It) gives us each an opportunity to see the other as human. You can take the opportunity to be yourself. Where I’m from, you can’t do that, because they take your kindness for weakness and they think you’re soft and it’s a wrap.”

Hathaway trains dogs, does yoga, and works out. “I cry in front of people,” he said, “because I have the ability to do that here without having to be self-conscious and have it cause some kind of situation. It ain’t like that here. It’s great.”

Nguany went a step further.

“This isn’t even a prison. You can’t call it a prison, with the things you’re able to accomplish here,” he said. “There are people out there who wouldn’t have these opportunities to do the things that are happening here. Yeah, we’re held against our will, but a lot of people, out on the streets, that’s a prison in itself. When I come to work here, I’m free.”

Heather Richardson, who oversees programming at the prison, said things have changed dramatically just in the five years she’s been working in Maine’s corrections system.

“Before this,” she said, “I was in Arizona and it would completely not have happened there.” 

Liberty said he’s just getting started and is proud of what he called Maine’s low recidivism rate (roughly 31 percent over three years after release, the lowest in New England) and other statistics.

“I think the outcomes are much, much better when you treat people with respect and dignity,” he said. “And I feel like we’re just getting warmed up.”

— Sam Pfeifle