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Sister Mary White has introduced an innovative prayer program to the inmates at Stillwater State Prison.

Tom Wallace, Dml - Star Tribune

Finding the freedom within

  • Article by: Jeff Strickler
  • Star Tribune
  • November 19, 2007 - 2:00 PM

Sister Mary White is on a mission to set every inmate in the Stillwater prison free. She's not talking about an across-the-board pardon or orchestrating a mass escape. But she is convinced that if a prisoner will give her 75 minutes every other week, she can teach him how to find his own private freedom.

White, a Benedictine sister at St. Paul's Monastery in Maplewood, is introducing inmates to an innovative form of prayer-based meditation. Her approach is based on Locked Up and Free, a program that has been heralded for reducing anger and frustration among inmates at Folsom Prison in California.

"Even in prison, people can go to a place inside of them that is free -- not only from external forces, but from their own conditioning," she said. "So much of this is in our mind."

Her program blends her religious background with her training as a psychotherapist and her fascination with meditation. It's called centering prayer.

"It teaches people how to go to a place in themselves that is wise, stable and infinitely spiritual," she said. "People who have been wounded in life often react violently unless they know that there is a place they can go to not carry out behaviors they have learned and automatically produce.

"Once they have that grounding, no one can pull them away from it. As their inner self grows strong, they are less able to be influenced by other people's agendas because they feel more solid. Through my own meditation, I've seen people grow more tolerant of diversity and more passionate about seeing beneath the surface."

She approached the Rev. Greg Skrypeck, the prison's religion coordinator and chaplain, hoping she could persuade him to approve the program. It turned out that no persuading was necessary.

"I'd already heard that it had been met with a good response at Folsom," he said. "This is a very, very successful program."

The cornerstone of it is meditative prayer. Because meditation is strongly associated with Eastern religions, some Westerners overlook its importance, she said.

"We've been taught that prayer involves talking to God," White said. "It's also important to pay attention to the other side of the conversation, which is listening to God. There are a number of passages in the Bible in which Jesus pulled away from the busyness of the day to go commune in silence."

Finding that silence turned out to be the tricky part.

"There is very little silence in prison," she said. "It is a very noisy place."

She uses the chapel for her biweekly sessions, but for most inmates, that's it in terms of peace and quiet: an hour and 15 minutes on the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month. And even that isn't soundless.

"We haven't been able to find a room that is totally quiet," she said. "They have to learn that they can pray in the middle of chaos."

Two brief sessions a month might not seem like much, but it is, Skrypeck said.

"One thing I've learned in 30 years of working in prisons is that little things are huge," he said. "And the results can be immediate. You never know when something like this is going to give someone the spark they need."

White also has to change many inmates' attitudes about religion.

"In many cases, these men have an image of God as something to fear," she said. "It's an image modeled by authority figures to control their behavior. I don't think that they've heard nearly enough about the love of God. People need to know that they are good, and that God is on their side. ... We talk more about unconditional acceptance and less about sinfulness."

She has a response ready even before a visitor can ask the followup question.

"I'm not saying that we go soft on crime," she insisted. "I'm not telling these guys that they didn't do something wrong. I'm saying that if they ask for help, we need to quit focusing on the guilt and shame and offer them hope."

Even though she was optimistic about the program, she's been surprised by the reaction just five months into it.

"I taught an introductory class in which 30 men sat in a circle for 2½ hours without moving," she said. "Of course, it's a voluntary program, so the ones who are there want to be there. But for the most part, they've been gracious, positive and open."

She believes that centering prayer can reach the core of the participants, and that's where change takes place.

"We like to tell the prisoners that no matter what they did that put them into prison, there is always a way back, but it requires a change of heart," she said. "They can change their behavior. They can change their thinking. If they sincerely open their hearts to the divine as they know it, they will be moved toward loving action."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392

Jeff Strickler •

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