Zabuton cushions made in WNC help prison inmates practice mindfulness

SIT A SPELL: Keenan Phillips, left, and Mari Ohta-Weir demonstrate the use of Carolina Morning-produced zabuton meditation cushions. The company has designed similar mats to meet the requirements of correctional institutions for use in prison-based meditation and mindfulness programs. Photo courtesy of Carolina Morning Designs

Surrounded by concrete walls, confined by steel bars and subjected to near-constant noise, people serving time have little respite from the unforgiving prison environment.

Prison-based meditation programs provide an island of calm amid the hard surfaces and echoing clamor; advocates say the programs help reduce inmates’ levels of stress, encourage reflection and develop coping skills.

To help inmates along the path of personal change, a local woman-owned business supplies zabuton cushions — a type of meditation mat — to create a space for contemplation and rest inside the prison walls. Carolina Morning Designs, located in the Toe River Valley south of Burnsville, has modified its products to meet correctional facility requirements.

“I’ve used a meditation mat since I first began meditating, and it makes me feel grounded and stable,” local inmate David (whose name has been changed to protect his privacy) writes in a recent letter. “It helps me quiet my mind and find peace.”

Institutional design

When Sherry Geno wanted a meditation mat for her son, Adam, who had been confined to a prison, she ordered from Carolina Morning.

While every prison has its own rules, mats generally must have no openings and be no more than 3 inches thick. The first zabuton Geno ordered measured at 4 inches deep. That didn’t fly, so Carolina Morning sent a second, thinner mat, but it got rejected as well.

“When Adam got the original mat and had it overnight, guys came to visit it like it was a pet,” Geno recalls. “Besides Adam, two other guys had tears in their eyes when the guards took it away.”

Carolina Morning founder Linsi Deyo, a former Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, doesn’t give up easily. So the company began designing anew, flattening and adjusting the fluffy stuffing, pounding and shaping and figuring out how to eliminate the zipper from the mat’s cover until the team had created a mat that passed muster with the prison system.

“Linsi’s compassion, her 18 months of dealing with me — in tears, happy, frustrated, furious — and her determination to find a work-around for my son and for the other guys was astonishing for me,” Geno says. “I thought she would say it was too much and they would not redo manufacturing processes for such a small group, with so little profit. Instead, she and her team made a priceless gift, both reproducible and affordable.”

Benefits during and after incarceration

Adam has changed prisons three times, and he has kept his zabuton. His mother’s gift has inspired him to continue his spiritual practice as a Wiccan, and he now leads a group of 12 practitioners, she says. On holidays, as many as 40 prisoners attend.

“Adam has changed so much that he’s almost unrecognizable as the man who went in there,” Geno says. “He’s peaceful inside now and gentle in a way that he wasn’t. He’s thoughtful now. Meditating on that zabuton gives him a way to step outside of where he is and imagine better things in a way he never could do on his bunk or on the floor. When he sits and meditates, he feels surrounded by positive feelings of love and concern. I believe that zabuton was made with every bit of care and concern that I would have put into it.”

Burnsville resident Bob Repoley, who died in September, founded a weekly meditation group at the medium-security Avery-Mitchell Correctional Institution in Spruce Pine. In 2012, Lee Horsman began participating in the sessions as a volunteer. At that time, he recalls, “The men were using folding metal chairs and were seated during the sessions.” Soon, however, Horsman made a discovery: Many sets of zafu and zabuton cushions made by Carolina Morning for a Zen center in Asheville were sitting unused following the center’s closure.

“When I came to know of the cushions in storage, I inquired about their availability, and permission was obtained through AMCI for eight sets to be brought in and stored near the chapel in the administration building,” Horsman explains. “They are brought out weekly for the sessions and then returned to their locked closet.”

Receiving the mats marked a turning point. “It went from being a bunch of guys slouching on chairs and on the floor to a group of men ready to learn and grow. Having those zabutons meant the men had a physically defined place to honor bringing inner peace into their lives,” Horsman says. For the past several years, following the retirement of Repoley and other volunteers, Horsman has led the program at AMCI, which has a capacity of over 800 inmates.

A study published in 2015 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health faced difficulty in creating consistent conditions to evaluate the efficacy of prison meditation programs, but concluded that the “low-cost treatment approach offers potential utility for use in correctional settings and may lead to cost savings in treating stress, anxiety and depression in this population.”

In addition to improving prisoners’ lives during their incarceration, learning to focus on the present moment can help former inmates avoid repeating negative patterns of behavior when they return to the general population after completing their sentences, Horsman says.

“Meditation helps me clearly see the pitfalls that lie in wait for those who are not mindful and aware, and those pits can be very dark and very deep,” David says. “The more I discover about myself, the more I change, hopefully for the better.”

While the benefits can be many, reaping the rewards of practicing meditation takes time. “Meditation is about peeling away that which does not allow you to think, feel, speak or act from your true self,” David continues. “We are trying to rid ourselves of unwanted fears, opinions, thoughts, oppressions that hinder us from seeing life and the world as it truly is and acting accordingly. It takes years to peel those things away.”

Sew it goes

The crew at Carolina Morning strives to embody mindfulness in every part of the company’s manufacturing process. Each piece of fabric, each strip of hook-and-loop fastening tape, matters and gets placed carefully by hand.

“Over the years, we learned to make the processes more efficient,” says Robert Silvers, production manager. Silvers finds the sewing to be meditative, a time when his mind can drift as he gets into the flow of the work. He knows every aspect of how to make the products, from cutting to stuffing to sewing, and he maintains the machines. His brother, Jonathan Silvers, often works by his side.

“I could work locally in other places, but here, I get to work as I live, caring about people,” says Bethany Rountree, a poet and customer service expert. “When people call, they talk to a person, not a machine. I like being able to help people solve problems and find the comforts they need.”

“At its core, meditation is a way to see clearly and to end suffering,” says Deyo. “As we heal our own inner wars, we contribute to the healing of outer wars as well. It’s quiet, yes, and revolutionary.”

“What place has more suffering than prison?” she asks. “We always will offer a discount to prisoners.”

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