Released But Not Yet Free
By Bhakti-lata Dasi
By Lord Caitanya’s mercy, hundreds of inmates come in contact with, appreciate, and start practicing Krsna consciousness. They very seriously take up reading Prabhupada’s books and chanting Hare Krsna. Krsna consciousness becomes the lifesaver they hold on to with great eagerness.
Prison environments are often very precarious. One inmate recently wrote me that in the five years he’s been incarcerated, he has seen more death than in his entire life before that. He is in constant danger and Lord Nrsimadeva plays an important role in his devotional life.
In such unstable surroundings, inmate bhaktas form a strong bond with devotees through the IPM correspondence program. It is not rare that devotees are their only contact with the outside world.
In the privacy of their cell, they create a small temple with an altar of pictures, where they offer their prayers and some of their food. These inmates arrange their schedule in such a way as to accommodate their chanting, getting up as early as mangala arati time; a few told me that they get up when everyone is asleep and sleep when everyone is up in order to practice devotional service with the minimum distractions and/or threats.
Some inmates also have the good fortune to associate with other inmate bhaktas and establish a Krsna program at the chapel, where once a week they gather together to read Srila Prabhupada’s books, chant the holy name, and partake of prasadam fruit or Jolly Ranchers.
In the true spirit of compassion of Lord Caitanya, they try to share the mercy with others by distributing prasadam and books. I send extra books to some of our sankirtan inmates so that they can pass them along to other interested inmates.
There are many serious bhaktas amongst the recipients of the IPM program, some of whom even take up initiation while still in jail.
So what happens when these inmates are released? Where do they go for association? That all depends where they need to do their parole, and in general, inmates don’t get a say where that is. Some are fortunate enough to be on parole in the proximity of a temple. Or sometimes they find a small group of devotees who gather at someone’s house for a Sunday program. But many are far away from any temples or devotees. To make matters worse, they often are not able to bring their books with them from prison. Many stop writing IPM volunteers, often because they feel too overwhelmed by life outside bars. They have to leave the safety and support of their fellow inmate bhaktas and they often feel lost and lonely. If they have spent many years in jail, they now have to re-learn how to live in the “free” world, confronted by all kinds of new and strange technology.
Practicing Krsna consciousness in jail was relatively easy, with the support of partners in devotion, a predictable schedule, and comparatively little distractions. How can they apply Krsna consciousness in their life, now that they are in the big world?
That is where you come in. There is a great need for a support group for serious, Krsna conscious ex-inmates. This support can be on the phone or in person, if you live near enough.
Talking to a newly released bhakta can be a very touching experience. I remember my first phone conversation with an inmate I had corresponded with for over a year. He was overjoyed to hear from me, and in an eager voice, he asked, “Would you chant Hare Krsna for me? I have never heard anyone chant before.”
I helped another navigate the new temptations he faced now that he was free to do as he liked. I pointed out an area where he was playing with fire although totally unaware of it. He was very grateful.
The reason I am reaching out to you is that IPM volunteers have their hands full tending to the needs of the incarcerated. I would like to see a second wave of volunteers who would form this support group for the released inmates.
You can make a huge difference in these bhaktas’ lives by sharing the wisdom and experience you have accumulated through your devotional service. Please contact Mukunda Dasa or Bhakti-lata Dasi if you are interested or if you have any questions. Thank you in advance.
ISKCON Prison Ministry
PO Box 2676
Alachua, FL 32616-2676
Quotes from inmates’ letters
“At this point, I’ve been trying to strengthen my mind and body. I have to sharpen my mind. Without Krishna I believe the world would be lost. When I do read, I like to believe that the books are talking to me and teaching me.”
Daytona Beach, FL
“I am doing really well all things considered. I became discouraged with chanting (even silently) and had some difficulties picking it back up. Yet I am chanting again and feel better. I read the Bhagavad-gita daily and continue to find not only enlightenment on my spiritual soul and its condition, but also help for daily living in its pages, its teachings, and above all Krsna’s love.”
“I’ve always been aware of the religion, but didn’t know much about it. I wrote to a book store asking if they had a resource list for prisoners because I wanted to study metaphysics, universal law, spiritual, etc… And they sent me your address so I wrote to you asking for info and if you had a Bhagavad-gita I could read…Thank you for sending it to me by the way. I’ve just started reading it and I’m just now really learning about Krishna Consciousness from materials you’ve sent to me and the one issue of the BTG magazine you sent. It’s a great magazine by the way.
KC seems to be very spiritual and metaphysical as opposed to a lot of religions which seem very shallow or mainly caught up in dogma, ideology and ritual instead of actually teaching universal law and how to apply it to our lives. I’ve blamed addiction for just about everything in my life. I’ve quit everything now. Two weeks ago I quit coffee because I was also addicted to caffeine. I hope Krishna Consciousness can help me live a better, healthier lifestyle and give me strength, knowledge and peace of mind. I would enjoy writing to a devotee, someone I can learn from. Thank you for your time and help. I do appreciate it. Hare Krishna!”
“Often—not always, but often enough to be disconcerting—I have been crying during my prayers (chanting). Not sobbing, mind you, but tears flow enough to get my shirt wet. I have been getting very emotional about the whole thing and I wonder if it’s normal. I’m in a place where to show weakness is deadly, or can be trouble, so I must go to my cell and be very much alone when I pray for fear of being caught bawling. I hate to admit this, but there it is. Now, I often sing loudly, dance and clay my hands in a “kirtan of one.” I already am getting the rep of being “that crazy Krsna guy.” I am free with my beliefs and tell any who will listen about the Lord. But this crying thing makes me wonder.”
Iowa Park, TX
“Today, we got the big front main area to do our KC program. Although Bhakta James and I were the only ones there, our being in that front area let more people see pictures and hear us chanting so it was very nice.
I’m trying to memorize verses from the Gita and the Temple Bhajan Book. Does it get any better than this in this material world? Haribol!”
Bhakta Gerald Niles
Dayton Beach, FL
“Krsna is letting me feel better about myself ever sice I have been chanting Hare Krsna on a daily basis and by the way I’m reading the Bhagavad-gita; I find it fascinating even if I may not understand what I’m reading and cannot say all of the words but I know that Krsna will find me someone here in Beaumont that can come see me and help me to understand and how to say the names and words that I can’t say or read.”
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