Oregon prison officials blanched when they learned about the terrible physical and emotional toll that corrections work was taking on their front-line staffers.
They took a novel tack, hiring a consultant who trains people in the Buddhist tradition to improve their physical and emotional health. He is also a convicted drug smuggler who served 14 years in federal prison.
Corrections officials didn’t immediately publicize those bona fides when they pitched his training program to the officers watching over the state’s 14,700 prisoners.
“The ultimate goal,” they wrote to staffers, “is a culture shift from one of denial, stress, burnout, untreated trauma and resulting emotional problems to a culture of healthy self-management and self-care, emotionally-socially intelligent communication, healthy stress and conflict management, and overall staff wellness and safety.”
Sixty staffers – many of them corrections officers – signed up for the pilot program.
Sgt. Laura Hinkle, a stalwart corrections supervisor then in her ninth year at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, remembered the first day of training. The consultant – a white-haired guy named Fleet Maull – talked about “mindfulness”and “emotional intelligence,” then asked the group to try a breathing exercise.
“Close your eyes,” he said.
Fleet Maull, a Buddhist priest and former federal prisoner, taught breathing and relaxation exercises at a training session in the Oregon State Penitentiary complex earlier this year.Bryan Denson/The Oregonian
Hinkle rolled her eyes. What was this guy smoking? There was no way corrections officers were going to close their eyes on a tier brimming with prisoners. This guy clearly didn’t know anything about life inside the walls.
Afterward, Hinkle walked over to Kelly Raths, then the prison chaplain.
“I’m done,” she said. “I can’t do this.”
Raths told her to keep an open mind. Come back for at least one more session, she said.
Only later did Hinkle learn that Maull knew all about life inside.
The Department of Corrections hit an emotional rock bottom in 2012, prompting radical changes to reduce the stress of its corrections staffers. Two corrections officers committed suicide in 2011, and another in 2012.
A story in The Oregonian exposed the internal wounds, pointing out that corrections staffers suffered PTSD at a rate several times higher than the general population.
“There was a sense of urgency and need,” Raths said.
She and others did their research. Corrections officials chose Maull –a senior teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist Community, founder of the Prison Dharma Network (now called the Prison Mindfulness Institute), and who casts himself as a master consultant and executive coach.
But how do you sell roughly 2,500 corrections officers on such concepts as “mind fitness” and “emotional intelligence”?
It’s counterintuitive, Raths said, for corrections officers to think of stress reduction as an antidote to their poor health, poor diets, and difficulty in their relationships at work and home.
“Their adrenal glands, their (emotional) systems, are burned out,” she said. “They’re tired. … So now I’m asking you to enter a whole new way of being. And your level of comfort around that? It’s hard.”
Corrections staffers with 12 or more years on the job were less receptive to learning new ways to deal with their high-stress jobs, and a study published last November by Portland State University confirmed that those veterans also had more problems.
“For folks who were newer to corrections, it was an easier sell,” Raths said.
Half of the 60 staffers who began the program dropped out, and prison officials rushed to find replacements for some of the vacancies. Some of the dropouts thought the concepts were silly, and a few felt bamboozled when they learned – several sessions in – that Maull was a convicted felon.
Hinkle was six or seven sessions into the yearlong training before she bought into the program. What turned her around was an exercise Maull taught them that he called a “body scan.”
It’s an old technique. You lie on your back and close your eyes. You breathe in and out, slowly feeling the weight of your heels, moving to your calves, thighs, buttocks, lower back, the curve of your spine, your neck and the back of your head. If you do it right, you can almost feel yourself levitating.
Maull told them when they felt the back of their head to think about how they felt at that moment.
“I slept like a baby,” Hinkle said.
A big portion of the training centered on corrections staffers learning to share their feelings with co-workers. That’s an against-the-grain concept for traditionalists taught not to show vulnerability inside prison walls, said Michelle Dodson, a spokeswoman at the maximum-security penitentiary where Hinkle works.
Hinkle says she has learned to turn to co-workers and say, ” ‘Hey, I’m having a stressful day. Kinda watch me.’ That’s very helpful, especially where I work.”
She also learned to review her day at work on the drive home and check the negative baggage at the door.
“That way,” she said, “I’m not going home and bombarding my wife with all kinds of stressful things.”
Perhaps the greatest test of her stress management was the day last December, when she waded into a cellblock to break up a fight. She was taken from the prison with a broken leg and off work for more than two months.
“When I found myself getting anxious to get back to work,” she said, “I just went through the mindfulness exercises that Fleet taught us and just relaxed, thinking, ‘OK, I’ll get better when I get better.’ “
Maull, in an interview, explained that his training combines the complexity of mainstream neuroscience with the basic principle of “self-empathy”: When we are OK with ourselves, we do well in life. When we fear, we fail.
“Stress is natural,” he said. “Chronic stress is a problem.”
The program concluded this year, and it’s unclear whether it will be brought back.
During a training session earlier this year, Maull struck a little bell to call to order a group of corrections staffers, some wearing gray uniforms.
They took seats in plastic chairs, feet flat on tan institutional carpet, hands relaxed in their laps, necks of rubber, eyelids drooped like sunning geckos.
Maull told them in a quiet tone to inhale using their diaphragms and exhale slowly through their noses. They all took deep, steady breaths, the picture of serenity.
“Notice how it changes your state of mind,” he said.
By then, he was preaching to the converted.
They had broken up into small groups early in their training, units of roughly eight people who met twice a month to practice what they’d been taught in three daylong sessions. Hinkle’s group grew so tight that they vowed to keep meeting when funding for the program ran out. They had created their own support network.
One day standing watch in the penitentiary visiting room, Hinkle looked into the sea of faces and spied a prisoner, his face growing red, wiping the corners of his eyes. Now she heard his voice growing loud and animated. By the time she reached him, he was weeping.
His family had brought him bad news. Hinkle now pulled him aside to another room.
“I know, obviously, you got some bad news,” she said. “Do me a favor, sit down,” she said in a calming voice. “Take some deep breaths for me.”