IPBYS Prison Program
IPBYS (International Pure Bhakti Yoga Society) Outreach is a non-profit organization dedicated to the spiritual and personal development of inmates, delivered through an interactive educational program on Gaudiya Vaisnava philosophy and its meditation practices.
With over 15 (just a fraction) of our spiritual teachers’ books in over 600 prison libraries around the US, inmates have the opportunity to explore the philosophical principles of truth, non-violence and empathy, which lie at the foundations of the philosophy. Beyond these stabilizing ideas, aimed at a healthy and balanced person and society, the Gaudiya Vaisnava teachings – also known as bhakti yoga – delineate a deep spiritual understanding that draws one’s consciousness into a mood of devotion, tolerance, humility and service. With an ultimate goal of loving service to the Divine, bhakti yoga encourages students to take responsibility for their actions through an awareness of karma, to release one’s anger in favor of acceptance, to develop positive and hopeful outlooks on the future, and to practice love and compassion to all living beings.
One of the core tenants of bhakti yoga is the uplifting practice of kirtan, in which one sings the names of the God and Goddess of Love, either collectively or individually, out-loud or silently in deep meditation. A magnificently therapeutic process, kirtan is described in sacred literature as the method through which one is able to clean the heart from unwanted qualities, from that which causes us pain and leads us to cause pain to others. In connecting to the idea of an eternal soul beyond this temporary body, to the idea of a spiritual journey and the goal at the end of that journey – transcendental love – all those involved in kirtan are encouraged to transcend the conditions of their environment, find peace in this meditation practice, as well as new ways of relating to the world around them.
What We Offer
These lessons are presented to inmates through the detailed and enchanting books of Srila Bhaktivedanta Narayana Gosvami Maharaja and Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, as well through a monthly course and newsletter. We also run a pen-pal program in which inmates can write to other bhakti yoga practitioners with their questions and points for discussion. All of our books are donated, and as well as community library copies, inmates can request as many personal copies as they like. When facilities allow it, we also send wooden mantra meditation beads to those who request them.
Our endeavor with this project is to create a community-centered space where the inmates themselves are involved in the development of the program, but for that we don’t have to try very hard. It was the inmates who first wrote to us, requesting more information, and course participants sign up of their own accord, having either found our address in a book, or having heard of its merits from a fellow inmate. The monthly lessons are determined and written by a current inmate who has several years of experience with the philosophy, and aside from supplying extra reading material, the newsletter provides a space in which inmates can connect to each other by sharing their art, poetry, letters, essays and questions. Some of our members are lucky enough to create reading and kirtan groups within their facilities with other interested inmates, but there are also many who feel alone in their practice and the newsletter acts as a community space for those who are physically or spiritually isolated. We always invite inmates to send us their suggestions for how we can better service their educational and spiritual needs.
2015 saw our first visits to correctional facilities with the purpose of sharing the experience of kirtan. Our visit to Snake River Correctional Facility in Oregon was especially exciting and very well received as we performed with members from the kirtan groups: New Braja Kirtan and the highly acclaimed Kirtaniyas. This was a deeply fulfilling experience for all of us with only great feedback from the inmates and we hope that this is an experience we’ll be able to bring to other facilities in the future.
Nothing could tell you more about IPBYS Prison Program than the inmates themselves, as it is entirely their own engagement with us, and their own enthusiasm for the program, that keeps it running. In reading their heart-warming letters and their stories of how the philosophy and meditation practices have helped them transform their own lives, we are so frequently humbled by the gravity of their life experience and the wisdom it has gifted them. Their unique circumstances of enforced confinement lends itself to a contemplation on the value of life, not just for them, but for anyone open to hearing their perspectives. We at IPBYS Prison Program recognize that while we make various sources of education available to our members, they too have the ability to teach us a great deal with regards to our spiritual and personal development.
As such, we have aspirations of putting together a short film in which our members will have the opportunity to voice their own experiences of the prison program, of practicing bhakti yoga, and of their own journey in this life. For now, until that’s released, you can read some of their own words here.
For all that we’re doing and for all the ways in which we hope to continue and develop our service, we need your support. The inmates themselves have told us with great sincerity of the wonderful effect the IPBYS Prison Program is having on their lives, an effect that is noticeable in their interactions with others in prison, as well as in their hope for a changed and better life in the future. Many of our members speak of wanting to continue this practice after their release, and of rejecting the lifestyle, environment or attitudes that led them into prison in the first place.
We believe in the strength of bhakti yoga (and any meditation, yoga or philosophical/spiritual practice for that matter) in tackling the outrageously high recidivism rates in the United States. We seek to encourage all those who, in times of great need or otherwise, are asking themselves life’s most important questions and seeking to connect to their higher self, breaking patterns of destructive behavior and building new spaces of relation and responsibility within themselves.
Funded entirely by those who are also inspired by this project, and with all of our staff working on a voluntary basis, we are always in need of donations and your support. All donations we receive go directly towards the distribution and postage of books and educational material, as well as facilitating special visits and in-prison kirtans. If you prefer to support us by other means, then please do get in contact and we’d be happy to discuss your involvement.
IPBYS Prison Program, a branch of the non-profit organization IPBYS Outreach, began showing signs of life in the summer of 2010 when Vasanti Dasi, a staff member at Gaudiya Vedanta Publications (GVP) was approached with a request to donate some of the company’s books to correctional facilities around the U.S. She happily complied, having stamped the company’s address into the front of each book.
A steady traveler, Vasanti was out of the country for most of the year and it was only months later that she finally received the mail piling up at the GVP warehouse. In her hands lay dozens of hand-written letters from the inmates who had stumbled upon those books in their libraries and simply needed to know more. As their letters and questions (and eventually poetry and art) continued to arrive, Vasanti arranged for sets of 15 Gaudiya Vaisnava philosophy books to be sent out to over 600 prison libraries around the United States.
Many of our readers were discovering these books and their philosophical truths for the first time, allowing them to explore new perspectives on the condition of their lives and new avenues to spiritual and social healing. For others, it presented the opportunity to reconnect to practices of meditation, devotion and service that had given them strength in the past. One of these readers was an inmate in Florida named Rupa who had spent several years of his life in contact with Gaudiya Vaisnava philosophy and now, re-inspired by the arrival of Srila Bhaktivedanta Narayana Maharaja’s books and the deep reflection that detention can conjure, he offered his services to the rapidly growing IPBYS Prison Program.
With the encouragement of senior Vaishnavi and spiritual artist Syamarani Didi, Rupa began writing an introductory course to bhakti (the spiritual practice of devotion) called Journey to Prema. The lessons are hand written and sent to his son, who types them up and emails them to staff in North Carolina, where they are then proofread and mailed out each month. News of the course spread, often by word of mouth, and its popularity grew. Within time, a monthly newsletter accompanied this course and the huge increase in inmate correspondence demanded the arrival of a pen-pal program.
Sometime during all of this, an office was established in Alachua, Florida, where brilliant, tireless and entirely voluntary staff work hard to fund and distribute the books and newsletters, whilst managing the program’s logistics and their very busy lives outside of the program (we’re very grateful – thank you!) In 2015 staff members hosted two kirtan events in prisons in Florida and Oregon, and began the long and arduous process of achieving permission to interview and film inmates, in the hopes of making a short film (our request is still being processed).
Despite zero advertising within the prisons, each month sees the arrival of new members and a greater need for more pen-pals. That’s how we got here, in very fluid and sometimes-surprising ways, and we’re very excited about where the future will be taking us.