ISKCON Prison Ministry Gives Inmates the Key to Freedom
Bhakti-lata Dasi is typing away busily at her laptop, absorbed in composing one of the 15 to 40 letters she writes to inmates at prisons across the US every month. But she looks up, smiling, happy to talk to ISKCON News about the service she’s been dedicating the bulk of her time to in the past two years.
Her office is a cosy room at the back of her Alachua, Florida home, dedicated solely to ISKCON Prison Ministry, an organization established in the USA in 1988 to bring Krishna consciousness to those who need it most.
The laptop is donated by a supporter inspired by IPM’s mission, as is the black and white laser printer next to Bhakti-lata’s desk. On the wall behind her are pictures of Lord Krishna, Sri Chaitanya and Srila Prabhupada, many of which were painted or drawn by inmates. There’s even a hand-carved wooden box, adorned with a line drawing of Krishna and Arjuna by Arjuna Dasa, an inmate initiated while still in prison by ISKCON guru Bhakti Marg Swami.
Shelves covering another entire wall are filled from floor to ceiling with Srila Prabhupada's books and Back to Godhead magazines, hundreds of which are also provided by inspired donors every month. There are even CDs and a recent donation of twenty complete Prabhupada DVD libraries worth $70 each—inmates can watch or listen to religious DVDs or CDs in their chapel once a week.
The third wall is dominated by a hanging shelf, built by Bhakti-lata’s husband Mukunda, with immaculately ordered mailing supplies including tape, IPM address stamps, and envelopes of different sizes. On the floor is a box spilling over with packaged books and letters ready to go out to inmates.
Bhakti-lata Dasi of ISKCON Prison Ministry
“In 1991, I was visiting the Alachua ISKCON community from my hometown of Montreal, Canada, when I spotted an ad on the temple notice board looking for people interesting in writing to inmates,” Bhakti-lata recalls, stamping IPM’s address on the upper right hand corner of an envelope, and placing it in the box along with the others.
“Instantly, I knew it was something I wanted to do,” she continues. “I had always desperately wanted to give Srila Prabhupada’s books to people, but I just didn’t have the personality to approach pure strangers on the street and just start talking to them, as in traditional book distribution. I thought I would never be able to distribute books in this lifetime. But here was a way that I could give Krishna consciousness to so many people—and people who wanted it so much—from the safety and comfort of my own home.”
Returning to Canada, she began to write and send books to inmates at 35 prisons around Quebec, and continued to do so for the next six years. Then, during the hiatus that followed, she moved from Montreal to North Carolina, and finally to Alachua. In 2008, she met Shyama Priya Dasi—who had volunteered for ISKCON Prison Ministry for 18 years, and was the driving force behind it—and was inspired to begin again. And when Shyama Priya sadly passed away due to pancreatic cancer in April 2009, Bhakti-lata took on her services and became a full-time volunteer.
Bhakti-lata and her daughter Manjari (left) pack Prabhupada's books to send out to inmates.
“I love doing this service so much that in the first five months I would do 120 hours a month, and often forget to eat, go to the bathroom, or clean the house,” she says, and you can see that even just talking about IPM fills her with excitement and happiness. “These days, I give around 100 hours a month, and I’m really careful to take lunch and regular ten minute breaks, so that I don’t burn out—I want to be able to do this long term. But if my body didn’t need anything, I would just be there at my desk all day.”
Still, despite allowing time for relaxation, it’s remarkable what Bhakti-lata manages to do in 100 hours a month.
She has revamped the website iskconprisonministry.org, which she currently maintains, and updates people about with a monthly email newsletter. She posts articles about IPM’s activities on popular ISKCON websites. She sends the monthly print newsletter “Freedom,” created by ex-inmate Bhavananda Dasa, to sixty-five inmates, and plans to increase that amount to 120.
She regularly keeps in touch with fifteen IPM volunteers across the USA by phone or email, and regularly mails books and Back to Godhead magazines to inmates on their behalf.
A box full of letters ready to go out to inmates across the U.S.A.
She also trains new IPM volunteers, or “penpals,” and plans to create a manual for them this year which will include a list of dos and don’ts, and answer all frequently asked questions.
“Whenever new people volunteer to write to inmates, I take some time to talk to them and get to know them, because this service doesn’t suit everyone—for example people who are short tempered, rude, or judgemental,” she says. “Inmates will come up with all sorts of personal concerns and confessions, and unless you have an open, relaxed attitude, they won’t feel safe and respected.”
Bhakti-lata also takes time to package books and other materials for practicing Krishna consciousness such as CDs, DVDs, Japa beads and bead bags, and drives to the Post Office several times a week to mail them along with the letters.
Less frequently, she packs boxes of Prabhupada’s books and drives them to the devotee-owned store Sacred Threads, where owner Radha Jivan Dasa pays to have them Fed Exed to prison chaplains around the country.
“I’m in regular correspondence with a number of different chaplains, who usually contact me asking for materials after one of their inmates has expressed a desire to practice Krishna consciousness,” Bhakti-lata says. “A rare few are fundamentalist Christians who seem to feel threatened by the Hare Krishna faith and give inmates a hard time accessing the materials. But mostly they’re favorable, keep asking for more books, and we form a nice relationship.”
Bhakti-lata also compiles the amount of books sent by all IPM volunteers every month and sends the cumulative total to ISKCON’s “Sankirtana Newsletter.” In 2010, the Newsletter lists ISKCON Prison Ministry as having distributed 3,178 books and 1,900 BTGs, although the unofficial tally is probably much higher.
And of course, there’s Bhakti-lata’s most important job—writing to the inmates—for which she has a very efficient system. “Letters are constantly flowing in—for instance, right now I have 25 to 30 in front of me to answer,” she says, guesturing at the pile. “So a few times a week, I dedicate a whole day to just answering one letter after the other.”
"The Butter Thief" by Burl Dees, Inmate Art
It’s the inmates that come to IPM, with some finding out about it through word of mouth, or finding a book that was sent to another inmate. When they write her, Bhakti-lata first sends them an introductory letter with a questionnaire asking them for their name, address, and inmate number, as well as the rules observed at their jail.
“Prisons have very high security and very specific rules, and each one is different,” she explains. “In some cases, if there is something as small as white-out on an envelope, or a label, it will be sent back. So you have to know every little thing. For instance, are they allowed books? If so, how many at a time? Are they allowed hardbound books? Are they allowed photocopies? What about pictures? Can I staple material I send them? Can they view DVDs and listen to CDs at their chapel? Are they allowed items like chanting beads and neckbeads?”
Once she’s found all this out from an inmate, Bhakti-lata creates a detailed profile for them, which she can refer to whenever she receives a letter.
Next, she mails the inmate a pamphlet about how and why to chant Hare Krishna, followed by other pamphlets on Lord Chaitanya, the Shiksastakam, Tulasi Devi, tilak, and a more detailed japa guide.
She answers each inmate’s enquiries effectively by utilizing a comprehensive database of files filled with Back to Godhead articles and Srila Prabhupada quotes answering the most common questions. She sends these to inmates so that she does not have to spend time rewriting the same answers over and over.
“Some people want to know why we don’t eat mushrooms or onions or garlic, so I have an article about that,” she says. “Some want to know what is the difference between Shiva and Krishna, and why we don’t worship Shiva instead—so I have a BTG article about Shiva and who he is in relation to Krishna. I have articles about Krishna’s incarnations, what Ekadasi is and why we follow it, who Radharani is, why Vrindavana is such an important place, abortion, and Christ and Krishna consciousness. And I have a quote of Prabhupada explaining that it’s good to ask questions in spiritual life, since most beginner inmates will start by saying something like, ‘I don’t know if I can questions,’ or ‘This question might be stupid, but…’”
One of Bhakti-lata’s most important collection of articles is, of course, those discussing chanting.
“One inmate told me that each time he chanted, tears fell from his eyes,” she says. “He didn’t know anything about Krishna consciousness, but every time he chanted, he would cry—not just a few tears, but the front of his t-shirt would be wet, as if he had turned on a powerful faucet. He told me that at first he had been angry and scared, because he knew that if other inmates saw him cry, they’d beat him up. Whenever he chanted, he had to make sure he was alone. He wanted to know what the tears meant, if they were normal.”
Inmate Art, by Pedro
So Bhakti-lata found a quote wherein Prabhupada explains that tears flowing from the eyes is a sign of love of God, and that Krishna sometimes gives beginners a realization high above their level to give them an impetus to keep chanting.
Bhakti-lata also accompanies the quotes by writing something of her own in each letter, so that the inmates feel there is a real person behind it. She can take anywhere between five minutes and—for inmates who are especially sincere in their practice and deep in their questions—an hour and a half. She regularly corresponds with 45 inmates, while 15 part-time IPM volunteers bring the total of inmates receiving regular letters up to about 200.
Because Bhakti-lata cannot write to each inmate much more than once a month, she sends enough material to keep them going with their study of Krishna consciousness each time—there’s a personal letter, an article from Back to Godhead, pamphlets about various subjects, and often pictures, too.
“They live in a black and white environment, where everything is very drab,” she says. “They don’t have a lot of joy or sunshine. So when they receive Deity pictures, or BBT art, it’s so full of color that it illuminates their very selves. I even send pictures of an altar with Radha Krishna, Pancha-Tattva, and Srila Prabhupada, which many inmates put on their wall. They chant in front of the pictures, and offer their food, as well as maybe a flower and a little water to them—they worship to the best of their ability in their circumstances.”
The enthusiasm, sincerity and frequency with which inmates take to Krishna consciousness is inspiring—in fact, for the preacher of Krishna’s name it seems a riper field than even the general public.
Initiated inmate Arjuna Dasa hand-made this beautiful wooden box depicting Krishna and Arjuna.
“Many inmates told me, ‘It took for me to come to prison to slow down and sober up enough to think about God, my life, and my choices,’” Bhakti-lata says.
“Many people that are in prison are there because they hit rock bottom. And the only direction they can go is up. So when they hear about Krishna consciousness, they’re very, very eager to learn more.”
There are endless stories about Krishna giving special mercy to inmates. One man wanted very much to know about about God, and would ask fellow inmates what they knew. But no answer left him feeling satisfied. One day, an inmate whom everyone thought was crazy—because he was always walking around the yard talking to himself—approached the searcher and said, “I hear you’re inquiring about God. Would you like to ask me some questions?”
At first, the searcher thought, “Oh, no, the crazy guy! I’m not going to ask him!” But then he reasoned, “Why not? What do I have to lose?” So he began to ask questions, and was completely floored by the depth and wisdom of the answers he received. The “crazy guy,” it turned out, was not crazy at all, but was a devotee who had been chanting—not talking to himself—in the yard. And as a result of regular discussions with him, the searcher came to Krishna consciousness and began corresponding with IPM.
On another occasion, when an inmate expressed his interest in Buddhism, his next-cell-neighbor offered, “I have a magazine on Buddhism, would you like to read it?” But when the inmate sat on his bunk to read it, he soon realized it was not about Buddhism at all. Angrily, he threw the magazine into the corner. But his eyes were repeatedly drawn to it, and finally he had to get up and start reading again. The magazine was Back to Godhead, and the inmate never turned back.
Living as they do in a violent, dangerous and scary environment, inmates love to hear about and keep a picture of Lord Nrsimhadeva, the ferocious half-man, half-lion incarnation of Lord Krishna who protects his devotees. Many have told Bhakti-lata that the Lord in this form has protected them.
“One inmate told me that on many occasions, other inmates have come to him in a very violent mood and have been about to attack him,” she says. “But when he yells, “Nrsimhadeva!” right in their faces, they suddenly assume a very confused expression and just wander off. He says this has happened many times.”
Another inmate was very anxious to be transferred to another prison, because the one he was in was especially violent. His request came through, but on the morning that he was to be transferred, a fight broke out, and the warden called a lockdown. Not only did that mean he wouldn’t be transferred, but it caused a huge commotion, and danger of more violence. Scared and discouraged, the inmate went into his cell, sat in front of his picture of Lord Nrsimhadeva, and started chanting. Nobody bothered him, and that very day, he was miraculously transferred anyway.
"Key to Life" by Burl Dees, Inmate Art
Lord Krishna has also protected inmates in his original form. Chandraumali Swami, author of the IPM book Holy Jail, tells the story of a Muslim prison gang who would go up to different inmates and ask them, “What color is God?” If anyone answered, “White,” they would beat them up. Causing mayhem and terror in the jail, they finally approached one devotee inmate and asked him the same question: “What color is God?” Without hesitation, he replied, “Blue!” Bewildered, they just stared at him and then left him alone.
It’s these stories that move and inspire Bhakti-lata to dedicate so much of her energy and time in managing ISKCON Prison Ministry and writing letters to inmates. Yet she does not have time to write to ex-inmates, which she feels is just as important, if not more. That’s why she has established—and is looking for volunteers for—the Adopt an Inmate program.
“I realized that we nurture the inmates when they’re in jail, but then they’re released, and they feel totally lost,” she says. “Often, they’re completely alone.
They’d love to move near a temple and go there every day, but their parole officer dictates where they can go, and there may not be a temple there. So often they have less Krishna conscious association outside of jail than they do inside.”
What’s more, ex-inmates have a whole other set of questions once they’re free. They’re going from being sensory-deprived in jail to having every sense enjoyment option at their fingertips all at once. This is a bewildering atmosphere in which it is difficult to keep focused and to keep chanting. So the Adopt an Inmate program is crucial.
“I’m asking for devotees to volunteer to connect with these ex-inmates by phone or email regularly, so that they feel there’s still devotees caring about them,” Bhakti-lata says. “Right now we have three volunteers, and I hope to see more and more become a part of it.”
Bhakti-lata also hopes to inspire devotees to physically visit prisons in their areas and hold Krishna conscious programs. “You can simply contact the chaplain of the prison and tell them that you’d like to do a program,” she says. “They’ll do a criminal background check, give you a four-hour class, and then you’re good to go. There are already several devotees around the country—some I didn’t even know about until recently—holding regular programs, chanting, explaining about Krishna consciousness, and distributing simple prasadam.”
Bhakti-lata hopes that in the future, more and more devotees will connect with inmates by participating in IPM’s various projects. “Lord Chaitanya meant his movement to be for the most fallen, and the more devotees support them by taking on his compassionate mood, the more inmates will become full-time devotees,” she says.
Already, several have been initiated—there’s Bhavananda Dasa, who runs the Freedom Newsletter, and Arjuna Dasa, who was initiated by Bhakti Marg Swami while in jail. And many, many more are taking to Krishna consciousness with a deep love and enthusiasm that many “free” people could only strive for.
“We ask more devotees to step forward and help keep them connected to Krishna,” says Bhakti-lata. “Even writing to one inmate regularly makes a huge difference.”
She points to a photo on her wall of Arjuna Dasa, grinning as he chants the Hare Krishna mantra in his cell. “You could change someone’s life.”
To volunteer to write letters to inmates or participate in the Adopt an Inmate program, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org. To donate to IPM, please visit www.iskconprisonministry.org and use the paypal button on the homepage.