The Dhamma Brothers (2008) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • East meets West in the Deep South. An overcrowded maximum-security prison-the end of the line in Alabama's correctional system-is dramatically changed by the influence of an ancient meditation program. Behind high security towers and a double row of barbed wire and electrical fence dwells a host of convicts who will never see the light of day. But for some of these men, a spark is ignited when it becomes the first maximum-security prison in North America to hold an extended Vipassana retreat, an emotionally and physically demanding course of silent meditation lasting ten days. The Dhamma Brothers tells a dramatic tale of human potential and transformation as it closely follows and documents the stories of the prison inmates at Donaldson Correction Facility who enter into this arduous and intensive program.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • Southern accented male voice over views of prison "We are the highest security prison in the state of Alabama. Death row is here." African American male is viewed narrating. Screen lettering Donaldson Prison Bessemer Alabama May 2002. Female voice over film of men exercising by walking in straight line back and forth with their hands handcuffed behind them "the violence here? this is a breeding ground" she has short salt and pepper hair. Male voice over views of prisoners cell doors opening with the prisoners hands cuffed behind their backs "Donaldson is a pretty dangerous place. Violence and stabbings are a common occurrence." Screen with words: Dr Ron Cavanaugh Director of Treatment for the Alabama Department of Corrections decided to try something unprecedented. View of river, male voice "Alabama is a strong Christian part of the country, with one of the worst prisons in the United States and we were teaching the teachings of the Buddha." View of white haired male. Word screen: for the first time in a maximum security prison, inmates would engage in Vipassana Meditation" over silhouettes of men in profile sitting quietly. Screen words continue: an ancient and rigorous practice based on the Dhamma, the Buddha's teachings. Male voice "no one is telling them what to look at or how to change" white male with medium length curly gray hair is seen speaking "they are getting their insights within themselves." View of roses, staff walking down a set of stairs.

    Male voice with strong Southern accent "life without parole doesn't mean you are being punished, or worked or any of that. It means you are to be warehoused until you die." Inmates are heard yelling, one is seen walking with guards. Male voice continues "this is my home and I'm doing what I can to make it the best place it can be." View of a bank of security cameras observing a prisoner in a cell, hallway. Male with crew cut graying hair continues "I want a nice place to live too." Movie title The Dhamma Brothers over prison bars. Prison bars on door seen closing, observation tower, men outdoors seen through barbed wire and fencing. Male voice "the best way to describe a prison is to think of it as a small city" a man is seen jogging within the barbed wire fence. Luna recording of Fuzzy Wuzzy heard while black inmates are seen playing basketball outdoors. A balding white male is seen "the correctional officers are the police force. I'm the mayor." Officer seen checking that cell doors are locked "gotta green light" another white male officer is seen making gestures with both forearms crossing while yelling "Stand clear. Stand clear." Black male inmate is seen lifting weights. Balding white male is identified as Stephen Bullard, Warden Donaldson Correctional Facility "Just as you have people who are great influence on the street, you have inmates who have great influence with other inmates." Arm tattoos are seen. Warden Bullard continues "you have organized crime inside a prison" men are seen having haircuts, mahjongg tiles are seen being shuffled "that are controlling illicit activities from prostituting inmates, to drugs, to gambling and that's a constant battle" a small opening is seen in a cell door where an inmate has been locked into the cell, turns his back to the door opening and the handcuffs are removed. The door opening is locked. White male officer is seen walking along a hallway to outdoors "what you got here is 500 inmates 4 dormitories with 110 per dorm, and B dorm with 116 down here. That's Tower #4 where any vehicles come in or out." Tower is seen through mesh of fencing, barbed wire and sign Danger Deadly High Voltage Keep Out. Officer continues "All towers are armed."

    Gray haired white male officer "I have segregation" Lieutenant Glenn Martin Segregation Unit "I put them under detention and lock them up." Segregation cell seen with hands manipulating a panel of buttons to close cell door. Black inmate with hands cuffed behind his back is seen being checked by two officers. Lt Martin continues "we have a lot coming and going. Too many come back get into their old habits when they get back to their old home town and get into the same habits that got them in here the first time." Three inmates seen with hands cuffed behind their backs walking in parallel lines back and forth outdoors. One is much taller and larger than the other two.

    Male southern accented voice "I spent most of my time in segregation. I look at officers as my enemies" African American male with close cropped hair "I felt I had to have this image to survive in this environment. All I wanted was another chance to go back home and go to school. Another chance at life." Black male inmate seen walking with hands cuffed behind his back walking hallway with officer. Electric cell door automatically opens then closes after inmate. Prisoner turns hands back to opening in the door. "Nothing ever happened. It would be like the same path again." Female voice "my son Edward Curby Johnson in his third year at Miles college 3.0 grade average" African American woman Priscilla Wilson Edward's mother "playing baseball. Scouts looking at him for pro." Johnson seen walking by himself outdoors, much taller and stronger than other inmates. His mother continues "he had just made a decision to turn his life around. But sometimes your first impression isn't always your last impression." Male voice "June 7 1991 if my behind had been at home then I wouldn't have to worry about being in prison. I take responsibility for my action, didn't do that at first said they throw me in prison for the rest of my life for nothing. Edward you did something. Accept what you done and let's move on." Edward Johnson gang related homicide life in prison onscreen words. Sirens heard over photos of young children. "I was selling drugs one of the spots I had was a big shootout." Priscilla "one died here and one across third avenue." View of street and Priscilla, Edwards mother biting her lips and tearful "haven't been on this street but once since it happened. I try not to travel this street." View of a white clapboard house, inside a family gathering with children. Edward's brother Burrell Johnson "hit me really hard what Edward's going through. But what about us? I cry a little bit but I don't cry much" biting his lip, eyes filled. Jamarius Gosha Edward's son about 12 "I just wish he could come home."

    View of segregation units, male voices yelling. Dr Ron Cavanaugh Director of Treatment Department of Corrections "as a psychologist at Donaldson I started looking around and came across a prison in India using a meditative technique known as Vipassana" Men seen sitting in silhouette. "24 hours a day meditating for hours on end for ten day period of time that had a calming effect on the population. I thought we could transplant that technique into Donaldson." Officer seen checking doors. Voice "gee you are the first prison in America to do this program is incomprehensible." Mitchell Etheridge Big E Corrections Officer "I heard of Vipassana my supervisor was asking me how do you pronounce that word?" words onscreen Learn more at www.dhammabrothers.com.

    Warden "what does that program do for us? how does anyone do it for 10 days without being able to talk? I have to see the program to know what it's all about." A group of inmates on chairs sitting around the edge of a room in silence, eyes closed. Psychologist Dr Cavanaugh "we had a House of Healing program which taught relaxation techniques. Inmates were receptive to meditative techniques. Vipassana takes it one step further putting you in touch with bodily sensations to realize these sensations are driving your behavior."

    "I'm Benjamin Betaguy Oryang" inmate "everyone calls me OB. I help facilitate all the mental health workshops here. I want to help people. The classes including Vipassana should be used for personal development, personal growth whether one is free or one is incarcerated such work should be done to grow personally."

    Male voice "I been locked up here 16 years, 8 1/2 years on Death Row in that 5 by 8 cell. I isolated myself from everybody I loved, and everybody I loved from me and pretty much wrecked their lives." View of photo of small white girl looking out window of school bus. "I had small children who had to grow up in this community where their father has done this horrific act." They had to go to school with kids "your father is a murder." I had a real good life going and I blew it. Words onscreen Grady Bankhead capital murder/life without parole. White male with gray crewcut speaking. Photo of young Grady. "My mother took me and my brother out into the country to this old deserted farmhouse. She didn't know what to do. She didn't think she could raise us, got us out of car, set us on front steps. "I love you, you be good I'll be back in a little while." She hugged me, hugged Danny got back in the car and left." Photo of two young brothers. "She left us out there to die. She didn't want to live herself is what she told me later. I didn't hear from her again until I got to Death Row. I was so drunk by the time they started stabbing that guy I turned into a coward, didn't try to stop them, I was scared they would leave me there like they did him. My case is rated as capital murder robbery but that isn't what it is. It was a slaughter. The man was stabbed three times in the face, 59 times in the back, his throat was cut 16 times almost decapitated. I would just as soon been killed and left there then the people who matter to me wouldn't have been through what they've been through."

    Male voice "gate!" view gate opening. Jonathan Crowley teacher Vipassana Meditation Center, white male medium length curly gray brown hair "I was really nervous to go to a Maximum Security Prison it was so heavy and oppressive like Shawshank Redemption." View of towers, barbed wire. Dr Cavanaugh "what happens if you bring these teachers in, with no experience in corrections? how is that going to work if you turn over part of the prison to these people coming in off the street?" Warden "they wanted to live inside the prison with the inmates which I found was nonsense." White haired white male Bruce Stewart teacher Vipassana Meditation Center British accent "we had to get ourselves established. There was an open toilet and a sink." View of Bruce settling into a cell. "We set up a curtain for as much privacy as we could get. It was rudimentary. That place became our haven." Shows both teachers Jonathan and Bruce, unpacking, with a case full of tapes. "Here we are in worst prisons, with lofty teachings of the Buddha, mind boggling we were here. We had good reason to be scared."

    White male medium curly hair begins first day orientation "we require a strict moral code of conduct, acclimate them to the course to let the course requirements sink in so that if this is not for them, they can leave before the course actually begins." He speaks to the inmates "follow a strict schedule of meditation, meal times and breaks. Very regimented day. It is stricter than your normal daily prison schedule. How many of you are religious or spiritual?" Warden "it is teaching meditation that was born there. If you tried to teach against Christianity it would be a real problem here." Inmate sweeping pipes in the gym. Bruce "West gym is locked down, inmates will not be able to go out." Inmate washing the floors with a mop. Bruce "this is a monastic prison within a prison." Jonathan teacher "OB was instrumental in setting up the course." David Oryang OB's brother "told me he started meditating. I asked what's going on?" Blue tarps and white sheet walls being set up to create an enclosure in the gym. David Oryang continues "OB explained it was to relax you, help you in controlling your emotions. I was just concerned about his well being."

    Male voice "what I noticed about OB was he was calm, seemed to have a sense of purpose" short brown hair white male "it is like stepping into the abyss to attend Vipassana. You're in here you have already harmed humanity. What is it I haven't dealt with yet? There may be things I uncover I maybe never even glimpsed" Rick Smith first degree murder without parole. Photo of young boy in cowboy hat. "I went to this business" street view of store "this woman came out from the back. I told her to lay down on the floor. That didn't satisfy me. I told her to get up, when she walked by me, I stabbed her to death many, many times." Multiple photos of Rick Smith as a child. "You really don't feel. You got this place where things are not real, until you get stopped by life itself and you got to stop and take note, what you have done, what's going on with you, then you just continue." View of store front.

    Inmates sitting on stools, at tables within the tarp enclosure within the gym. Men filing in for final orientation. Clothes all white with Alabama Dept of Corrections stenciled on back of shirts and pant legs. Each man carries a pillow into another enclosed area. Bruce "this is to get you used to the environment you will be in. Each group sitting will start off with chanting. To create a good environment for you to sit in. I will play the beginning of the chanting." Bruce is sitting at the front facing the men seated on green pillows on red carpet. "Then I'll play the end of it" deep male voice with throaty chant heard from boom box.

    Rick Smith "for someone as talkative as I am, shutting up for`10 days that's critical, silence is enough to drive you to hysteria by itself. What's that going to do to your back? no matter how much yoga I've done or other things, the circulation in your legs gets cut off. Like going in the Army boot camp, it was ok you realized what the purpose was for or you didn't." View of men sitting eyes closed on pillows, on red rug listening to the chanting. Bruce "I wish you success these ten days. It won't always be easy. Keep trying you will be successful."

    Edward Johnson eyes closed meditating voice over "I wrestle with myself I decided to take this, to see what's going on. But it's are you ready? are you ready to deal with life? Am I scared to deal with life?" inmate placing pillows on red carpet in rows. Taped sign "no shoes beyond the line" on floor. Equipment being rolled in. Ceiling view of individually demarcated cubicles with sheets for sleeping within one half of the gym, walled with blue tarps. And the second half of the gym open, carpeted with rows of pillows.

    Inmates packing belongings. Officer blows a whistle "all Vipassana inmates get your stuff" men seen carrying bedding to hand trucks. New Order audio singing "Ceremony" as inmates file out toward the gym. Sign on door "meditation in progress" view of barbed wire fence surrounding prison in the early morning dark. Bell rings.

    "I hear a sound I'm not used to and it means its time to get up." Grady Bankhead "I would come to hate that sound." OB is rhythmically striking a Burmese flat bell with a wood mallet while walking around the sleeping enclosure. Bruce "the most challenging discipline we have is noble silence for 9 days students cannot talk."

    Black officer laughing "it was so quiet I hadn't heard anything that quiet since kindergarten. They are used to action at all times. They are not used to clearing their minds, meditating, listening to people tell them how to meditate, how to express themselves." Men are filing out of the three sided sheeted sleeping enclosures to the other half of the gym, removing their shoes before entering the meditation area. Edward Johnson "The first three days was the rough part. Sit hours and hours the first day. Ok I can do this, I can do this." Men seated eyes closed meditating. Silence.

    Bruce "Vipassana means to see things as they are. See the reality deep inside yourself as it really is. It is not a very pleasant experience initially." Thunder, group seen from the back, meditating. Grady Bankhead "I wake up exhausted and am concerned about making it through this day. The day we are to ask to be taught Vipassana, a thunderstorm starts and continues through the entire duration of the session." OB "I went in way too serious, I'm going to do this. And I'm going to do it, then things kept getting in the way. I found myself getting angry for things getting in the way." Thunder.

    Bruce "every student will face what we call a storm, a deep sense of fear, anger, depression will come up. The purpose of Vipassana is to work at that depth that all that stuff comes up."

    OB "I knew I had to let things go, realized I was holding onto things too strongly. Then I started laughing at the way I was holding onto things. I started laughing and in the midst of the laughter it changed to tears. Whoa you a big man, what if somebody sees you cry? I let go, let the tears roll. I didn't know what I was crying about but it felt good to cry." OB Benjamin Oryang murder, attempted murder 3 life sentences and fifty years. "We used to go out hunting. I had a friends his mother had a lot of land. We used to go out there target practice, stuff like that. I used to ride around with the gun in the car with me." OB's brother "I wept over it, it is hard to conceive of driving down a highway and suddenly being shot randomly." OB "One person killed, one injured seriously, lot of publicity." Archived film taken at the time of OB's arrest. OB's brother "to this day he says he wasn't he one who pulled the trigger, but these were his friends and if you are in the company you are responsible for it."

    OB "I was a stupid kid. Twenty might not seem young, but that is 10 years ago for me, when I look back" photos of young OB "I wanted to fit in. To be looked up to, to be accepted by this society here." Photos of group of African American males holding similar hand and arm gestures. "Without that personal work, I might have been like I was described in the newspapers A ruthless mindless animal from Africa." Film of OB speaking with his lawyer in the original courtroom.

    Bruce sitting meditation "you can't expect the men to give anything. Our job is just to give. The results are up to them. Grady Bankhead "It was horrible. I spent 8 1/2 years on Death Row, this was harder, the worst thing I ever been through. All the stuff buried down deep, they come up gradually. You recognize it, you look at it, you move on. But I never felt anything like that fifth day. It was hard to keep composure stay on the mat.I always justified some of the things I did during that crime. On day five I couldn't get away from myself, I had to actually see it. Things don't just happen. Your behavior causes the actions you get into so I am guilty. It hit places in me I didn't even know was there any more." Film of men meditating eyes closes, sitting quietly. "Like your first child gets old enough to talk and looks you straight in the eye and tells you I love you daddy and you know he understands what he is saying and he means it. Those kinds of places. And after 16 years locked up in here I wasn't sure there were any places like that in me any more." Film of men meditating. "That's why 10 day course. They don't have you come in 6 hours each day meditate and go home. No they want you here long enough that you actually have to deal with your stuff." Bruce "awareness of breath."

    Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director, Equal Justice Initiative "I think Grady Bankhead is someone who doesn't have to be incarcerated for the rest of his life to be appropriately punished for the crime he committed. I disfavor sentences that have hopelessness as their framework." View of men meditating eyes closed sitting on the floor. "Where there is life, there is hope. This is a human being, we shouldn't give up on them."

    Grady Bankhead "I thought my biggest fear was growing old and dying in prison. In truth my biggest fear was not knowing myself." View above the entire gym, sleeping cubicles.

    Edward Johnson "That day I was straight meditating, didn't take breaks just straight meditating. I dreamed of my daughter the third night I was in Vipassana. I still don't want to deal with this, my daughter dead, my baby girl. Putting my baby in a casket I'm going to lock this up, not going to deal with this. I told the teacher, he said Good Edward, you are dealing with it."

    Jonathan "he was head of a gang within the facility and was quite feared and respected, he came to me with so much pain on his face saying I don't know if I can do this I'm a really angry man." Photo of young girl maybe 2 years old. Priscilla "playground apparatus on the playground like a bridge, girlfriend knocked Ebony down, she hit her head, went to hospital couple days before she passed." Photo of girl. Edward "she was standing before me with white dress on. She laid in my arms said daddy it's all right. I accept that she is in a whole different place but she will always be with me. And that was the last stress lifted from me about her." Film of men meditating. "I didn't believe this meditating was going to work to be honest with you. But it worked. It really did. It worked."

    Grady Bankhead "last day after meditation and instructions we break Noble Silence. I am proud of our group, my Dhamma Brothers." Film of men congratulating one another, shaking hands, hugging.

    Dr. Cavanaugh "once they graduate with skills, techniques, values they also graduate with a sense of accomplishment. For many inmates that is something they are feeling for the first time in their lives."

    OB "one of the things I miss so much personally is bonding." Folding hands bowing. "It is unusual for guys to go around hugging, shaking hands, touching." Edward "The next group will be even bigger, the I love you will grow bigger." Men folding tarps, cleaning up the gym enclosures.

    Warden Stephen "we have a term here fake it til you make it. Is this something they can fake to get something positive in their file? Is this truly life-changing? Not after a month, show me after 5 years, after you get out of here, you changed your life, then I would say this is awesome."

    Men filing outside. "Throwing up blood and no one doing nothing about it."

    Edward "I had to tell the gang I was part of I was pulling out, that ain't me no more. You go your way and I go mine. And hoping I don't catch no repercussions behind it." Edward is seen speaking with an officer. Edward towers over the officer. "This I know Vipassana worked. When you call me a Tom. Call me a nigger. I breathe a little bit and I was cool. Administration don't tease me now. Vipassana taught me that and that was cool."

    Sergeant Joel Gilbert Correction Officer "Noticing how faithful the guys are coming to meditation each morning. Something is working somewhere. They are more relaxed, easier to get along with, don't cause as many problems."

    OB "they gave us an hour a day to sit meditation together. Encourage to meditate on their own time. Not everybody would show up every time but there was the opening. Unfortunately, one day we were told we could not meditate any more." Words onscreen: In 2002 the Vipassana program was shut down. The Dhamma Brothers were forbidden to meet or meditate.

    Dr. Cavanaugh "after the graduation, people associated with traditional religions became threatened. The chaplain called the Commissioner of Corrections directly and said these guys are turning my inmates toward Buddhism. So the Commissioner calls the warden and says shut the program down." Film of men meditating.

    Male voice narrating a letter "Dear Bruce, I understand this letter may take some time to get to you. 4 cell block is now the worst cell block in Donaldson. Blessed indeed are we who hate no one, who live among those who hate, let us dwell without hatred." Bruce narrating response letter "Please let it be down we are always happy to hear from any Donaldson Dhamma Warriors, we are all disappointed you have lost the right to hold your group sittings. I know how much this has meant to you all. I was encouraged and impressed that you did not express any negativity."

    Rick "All the Dhamma Brothers are hanging in there for sure. Grady, OB and I just had a birthday 6th of September. I am still sitting morning and night as I have always done. Be happy, be peaceful, be liberated."

    OB "lately I have not kept a regular schedule of sitting. We still meet under the auspices of another scheduled class and that gives an opportunity to share our bond with each other. I wonder what would happen if we were caught."

    2003 Edward Johnson was relocated to a lower security prison. Another Dhamma Brother Charles Ice is later transferred to the same facility. Words onscreen. The two men talk.

    Charles Ice "when I first got here they told me Ed is here. Are you still meditating?" Edward "been going through a lot, not being around people that know what Vipasssana is and know what I been through dealing with myself. Leave Donaldson where there were a lot of us to where there are none? That was a hard transformation for me, allow myself to slip like that, within these bounds" tears falling down his face. Charles "This too shall change, don't let that break you down, you can always go back and get it back. It is not to point its not retrievable, you can go back and get it."

    January 2006 four years later. Dr. Cavanaugh "To get Vipassana back, there was a change in administration, warden and chaplain services." Bruce and Jonathan say hello the the Dhamma Brothers "It was like a homecoming very emotional, very touching." Dr. Cavanaugh "I always maintained hope. You need to do treatment"

    Rick "The murder I committed was January 12, wonder what if feels for the family who do not have a loved one on that day. The pain is daily. " Bruce "you can't hide any more, this is a lifelong effort." "I got life without parole, I was seeking to escape, violent, life in constant turmoil. This is like freedom I appreciate you coming."

    Denise Brickie Drug Treatment Counselor "Rick handles things way better, is way ahead of me. Grady is nowhere near as angry as he used to be." Grady "I got a visitor today. I haven't had a visit in 3 years, you coming back after 3 years is a visit to me. Don't work me too hard. Was watching TV, guy said my daughter in newspaper, she was murdered, that's my daughter. My first reaction if I get my hands on this cat. Only lasted few minutes. What are you talking about?I can't think like that. It makes me physically ill think what my daughter went through, still got to love the guy, don't like what he did, hope he don't do that to anybody else ever again, but he is a human being. if I believe anything about what I said then I gotta believe it. It is a choice. Vipassana, I can choose how I want to react."

    Bryan "everyone is more than the worst thing you have ever done."

    Bruce "Know this people outside have tremendous compassion and love for you guys for what you do."

    Big E "this program is lock up but in a good way. 18 guys away from hostile environment can think about things." OB "last week someone was killed, week before that so many stabbings. Hopeful this course is a good sign, we still don't know. If 100 more people like dhamma brothers in here would make a difference."

    Faces with outcomes on follow up. Edward misses his Dhamma Brothers and remains in prison. Grady Bankhead took a night shift sweeping so that he could meditate. Rick Smith practices Vipassana and writes and teaches courses in Men's Work. OB Oryang teaches self-help groups and organizes Vipassana group sittings. He was denied parole in 2005.

    Credits run over film of the tower, sign of prisoners at work, faces of men meditating. Words onscreen to purchase DVD www.dhammabrothers.com or check $24.99 to The Dhamma Brothers PO Box 1084, Harriman NY 10926 1-800-343-5540 over silhouette of men meditating.

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