The fence was movie-perfect – at least 12 feet high and wrapped in two layers of curling razor wire and rigged with electrical current up along each of the heavy metal fence posts. Linda and I had flown to Arkansas to meet Roy. Prison rules prevented us from seeing anyone else.
As our rental car neared the box-like security building of Tucker’s Maximum Security Unit, I heard birds singing, but I couldn’t see them. Some might have been roosting underneath the guard tower, or in the well-trimmed shrubs. Past the end of the parking lot, prisoners dressed in white walked single file back toward the prison. On the heels of every dozen prisoners was a black-clad guard on horseback.
We reached the waiting room through three locked gates. The spurs on the boots of some of the guards gave Linda chills. Two guards escorted Roy, who used a cane for support, to his place in the visitation cubicle. He could barely stand, but weak though he was, he gave us a beaming smile. We immediately reached our hands up to the thick glass. He touched a hand from each of us. Both Linda’s and Roy’s eyes were tear-filled and it was hard for Roy to even look at us for a while. We were silent for several minutes.
The no-contact visitation room had eight institutionally pale green cubicles on each side. We were the only ones in the room. There was a thin screen below the window that looked as if it was painted over to close up the sound holes. It was hard to hear, and sometimes we had to bend down to hear Roy’s words. Roy’s personal guard, Ms. Johnson, was responsible to listening to the conversation to make sure we did not discuss escape or smuggling in cell phones or drugs.
It seemed every time we tried chanting a scripture for Roy, there was either a crowd of guards talking and laughing around the corner from the visitation area, or filling the rows of vending machines in the nearby hallway with soda pop. Once we began chanting The Scripture of Great Wisdom, the distracting noises fell away as the scripture took on unusual significance.
In spite of his sunken cheeks, Roy’s face was expressive and his smile engaging.
Linda described the warmth and light from his brown eyes as palpable. His salt and pepper hair was thinning just at the crown. At about 5’ 7 in., he was thin, maybe 140 pounds. He was embarrassed at not having his top teeth in, which caused his upper lip to curl over his upper gum. Both arms were nearly solid black and dark blue from a multitude of tattoos, including the wheel of life on a forearm, six primary symbols from Tibetan Buddhism found on a gong Linda brought back from Nepal, Chinese characters for Buddha on the inside of his left wrist, and on the back of his left arm a picture of the Buddha in meditation with a baby Buddha sitting on his lap with both sitting on a lotus flower. “Noble Silence” was above written above his right wrist. He showed us part of the scar from his back surgery. Pain from his feet makes it difficult for him to wear shoes and walk.
Roy had been looking forward to our visit and was so excited that he hadn’t slept the night before we arrived. We chatted for a few minutes about the size of the prison, about the size of his cell, which has two four-inch mattresses instead of one because of his back problems, and about his handicapped cell. He answered Linda’s question about the location of the hole. He said there were actually 30 holes, all with an extra door and no air-conditioning. Some prisoners in the hole have mental illnesses and, as punishment, are given more and more days in the hole, some with a total of over 1,000 days. He showed us the slight swelling on his hands and a couple of small scars on his face given to him by his father when he was 10 years old. We meditated together for 20 minutes, all of us very still in this formal, uninviting, no-contact visitation room.
Roy shared some of the teachings he had recently read. For example, one reading said smiles require no maintenance, do not cost anything to give and at the end of the day the supply is still endless. Another was WOW—wishing others well, especially when anger arises toward those you are with. The guard who brought Roy to the cubicle was often angry and mean, probably, according to Roy, because she was bi-polar. Roy said the guard’s daughter, on the other hand, was pleasant and professional. Roy had recently had an encounter with the guard; he responded to her angry attacks with smiles and wishes for her well being. By the end of the exchange, she said thank you to Roy.
Roy brushed away a fly. “I don’t kill them so my cell is full of flies.”
A friendly guard came over and asked us to encourage Roy to eat more so he would stop losing weight. Roy replied that he had not eaten meat for about a year. I asked Roy how he was getting protein, given his digestive bone disease and problems with loss of use of many of his muscles. Roy said that Tucker offered protein in a form other than meat maybe a couple of times a week. I explained that many Buddhists ate meat and even Buddhist leaders in vegetarian Buddhist traditions ate meat if their heath problems required meat in their diet. Roy said that the meat and other food were usually terrible. I reminded him of the description of the Burmese monks I had sent him; they ate whatever they were given, including meat. They were not allowed to cook because they would likely cook food that they liked, strengthening their attachments to certain tastes. It was easy for me to give advice: I don’t know I would have fared eating prison food.
After talking about the need for protein for his muscle strength, Roy showed us the exercises he was doing to regain the use of his hands and retard the loss of his ability to walk. These were also the exercises that helped bring him out of his depression.
We talked about the need for Buddhist materials written simply for two prisoners who had low levels of reading and comprehending. Roy was remorseful that he had not realized that a prisoner whom he had sent maybe 20 Buddhist books was not able to read and comprehend them. We read a kite that prisoner had sent Roy about wanting so badly to understand what was in the books—heartbreaking.
Linda was impressed with the large number of books Roy had read and his recommendation that all the partners read Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of Buddha’s Teachings to give those who would be going through lay ordination an excellent foundation of all the essential Buddhist teachings. Linda wants to read the two books Roy mentioned that Thich Nhat Hanh wrote about Buddha and Jesus: Living Buddha, Living Christ and Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers. I asked him about the book The Shack, which a Christian minister told me was very helpful in teaching prisoners about the Christian faith. Roy said the book was really not about Christianity per se, but he felt the book gave the reader a rationale for being positive.
In a recent letter, Roy asked me if hope, defined as expecting or wanting something, suggests that the present moment is lacking and instead the person looks toward the future. I told Roy that I agreed with his point, in that hope can undermine mindfulness practice. When I am focusing on the future with hope, I am not fully attending to the present moment.
As our visit drew to a close, Roy was not able to find a way to stand or sit, so he quickly agreed to the suggestion to sit, which allowed him to handle his pain. After sitting we again joined palms and bowed to each other. The uncertainty of Roy’s health made the parting painful. Linda told him she was honored to have met such a wonderful teacher of the dharma, and cried. Linda felt like she was in the presence of a monk with a twinkle in his eye.
To leave, we again had our driver’s licenses electronically verified, our picture taken and our left index finger inked. As we walked the cement path back to the outer security building and then out its door, Linda had the feeling at the back of her neck that she was being watched, as though by a cougar.
We cautiously drove out of the area, always following the speed limit.
After we returned to Eugene, I was driving home from running errands and thought of Roy. And I thought of his letters, where he gives his return address as PARADISE, and I cried.