A group of devotees from the ISKCON temple in Alachua, Florida have begun to visit and hold programs at Union Correctional Institution in nearby Raiford, Florida. A maximum security prison for over 2,000 male inmates over fifty years old, it also has 320 inmates on death row, making it the third largest death row in the world.
The ISKCON outreach effort began when Bhakti-lata Dasi of ISKCON Prison Ministry asked local temple devotees if they’d like to hold regular meetings with inmates she had been in touch with by mail.
ISKCON Alachua Vice President Krishna Keshava Das and educator Akuti Dasi stepped forward, taking the four-hour training seminar required by prison officials and beginning their program in fall 2012.
Today six devotees—Krishna Keshava, Akuti, Madan Mohan Das, Nrismha Tirtha Das, Saranga Thakur Das and Kaliyaphani Das—hold weekly meetings at the prison every Saturday from 1pm till 3pm. Currently five to eight inmates attend the programs in a room in the prison.
“We do kirtan at the beginning and at the end, chant one round of japa, read from Srila Prabhupada’s books, and the rest of the time it’s open discussion,” says Kaliyaphani Das, a theatrical actor originally from the UK.
He explains that Krishna consciousness brings some light to the dark existence of the inmates.
“There’s one inmate who committed murder and is in prison for life,” he says. “When he first came he always looked like he was carrying something heavy around on his shoulders. He wanted to know what happens at the time of death, if a prison sentence relieves one of one’s karma, and what Krishna consciousness could do for him.”
Devotees explained that under the universal law of karma, the man would have to accept responsibility for his acts and receive an equal and opposite reaction for his actions. However if he stopped his sinful activities, surrendered to Krishna and understood that he was part of Krishna and that his function was to please Him, just as the hand feeds the stomach, than he could become free from Karma.
“He’s been coming to our programs ever since,” Kaliyaphani says. “And every week, he relaxes and opens up more. At first, he wouldn’t chant in the kirtans. He would just sit there, looking like he was carrying a heavy load. But now, he’s started singing at the top of his voice. And he has begun seriously studying the books.
It’s very rewarding to see.”
Inmates at Union Correctional Institution live austere, strict lives. They get just three minutes to eat their main meal of the day before they’re herded on; many have been in prison for thirty or forty years already; and many will die in prison. If their families don’t claim their bodies, some will be buried in a cemetery behind the prison—the closest they’ll ever get to freedom.
Thus they are very appreciative and grateful for Krishna consciousness. Kaliyaphani calls them “a really amazing audience” and explains that since they’re not exposed to the many varieties of sense enjoyment that free people have, they’re ideal candidates for Krishna consciousness.
“Most of them have either very long or life sentences,” Kaliyaphani says. “So they have no future. Those who are sincere will discover the internal dimension. But the external life for them is zero. There’s no hope.”
This is especially true for the over 300 inmates on death row. For these men, security is so high that they’re not even allowed to attend the Krishna conscious programs in the prison. But devotees can, and do, go to visit them.
“I’ve met about 200 of them,” says Krishna Keshava Das. “My experience was wonderful. I was surprised to find that they were all very respectful and disciplined. And the majority of them accepted their position and realized there was no point in being angry or depressed. Rather they tried to make peace with their situation as best they could.”
Krishna Keshava was led by a corrections officer down each corridor one by one, and passed each death row inmate a book by Srila Prabhupada over a five-and-a-half-foot mesh fence.
One inmate overheard Krishna Keshava talking to the man next door, and called him over. “You’re a Hare Krishna, right? I used to see you guys at the airport in the 1970s! What have you got?”
Krishna Keshava explained to him the difference between the body and the soul, and how we don’t actually die. He also told the man that although he was in a prison and restricted by bars, the so-called ‘free’ people on the outside are also in the prison of the body, controlled by the bars of the senses. The man listened and asked intelligent questions.
Krishna Keshava also spoke to a Spanish inmate, who began telling him about the Bible and Jesus. Feeling that it was good for him to speak about Jesus, Krishna Keshava simply listened. Here and there, he interjected a comment, such as how God is one yet His names are many. The man was very appreciative, took a book, and asked if he could speak more with Krishna Keshava the next time he came by.
Another inmate beseeched Krishna Keshava, “My mind is reeling. It’s giving me so much trouble. What do you have for the mind?”
Immediately the devotee responded, “I have the best remedy for the mind. It’s called a mantra. ‘Man’ means mind, and ‘tra’ means to deliver.”
“I then gave him a card with the Hare Krishna maha-mantra written on it, and had him repeat it after me,” Krishna Keshava says. “I told him, ‘Just continue vibrating this sound, and you’ll see that your mind will clear up. It also purifies the heart. You’ll feel very blissful and happy.”
ISKCON Alachua devotees plan to keep regularly visiting Union Correctional Institute, and fanning the Krishna conscious spark in the inmates there as well as reaching new inmates. They also plan to develop systematic study plans for books like Science of Self Realization and Bhagavad-gita As It Is.
“It’s nice because we have nothing to gain from doing this—ISKCON is not going to receive any money from it,” Kaliyaphani says. “So it’s a pure, unmotivated service—a purely spiritual program. And it’s a compassionate program. Most of these people have no friends at all. So you become their friend. And it melts their heart. They open up. And they listen.”
“These days,” he adds, “It’s very difficult to find someone who wants to hear the philosophy of Krishna consciousness. But they do. They drink up every word that you’re saying.”