by Gabriela De Golia
“Getting locked up in jail is the reason I first began meditating.”
Gus Marks-Hamilton's foray into mindfulness wasn’t like that of most practitioners. Sentenced to seven years in prison at the young age of 25, it was only after he’d been incarcerated that he realized the way he’d been living wasn’t working for him.
“When I got locked up, I had to reevaluate how I was making decisions and think about the consequences of my actions up until that point,” Gus said. “That’s how I became interested in mindfulness, contemplation, and meditation.”
During his first three years inside the jail, Gus developed a meditation practice of his own which he followed diligently nearly every day. He was eventually released early, but a probation violation brought him to Hartford County Correctional Facility for six months in 2017. It was there that he heard about a mindfulness course for inmates run by Copper Beech teachers Brian and Miranda Chapman.
“In the time between when I’d first left jail and when I went to Hartford Correctional, I’d unfortunately lost much of my practice,” Gus said. “So when I came back in, I was glad to see a meditation class. I joined, and it became extremely therapeutic for me during the six months I was in jail again.”
For Gus, the highly structured nature of prison life was incredibly conducive to his practice of mindfulness. Given that many choices were taken away from him – such as what he could do during the day or when he could eat, he was left with much more headspace than he’d had on the outside where he had to constantly make decisions about all facets of his life. He decided to use this new internal spaciousness to dedicate himself more fully to his practice.
“It’s a bit ironic, but in some ways you have more freedom inside prison than outside,” Gus said. “Because so many choices are taken away from you, you can focus much more of your attention on what you want to, like meditation. It’s quite freeing to have that structure, funnily enough, and I honestly miss it at times because it really reduces the stress of everyday life.”
When other inmates asked Gus about his mindfulness practice and the class, his response was usually met with confusion.
“When I told guys that we just sat in silence for thirty minutes, people often raised their eyebrows,” he said, “but it also had a strong appeal because of how noisy it is in prison. Finding thirty minutes of peace and quiet is very valuable for an inmate, so a lot of them came to learn how to meditate.”
On average, ten to fifteen inmates would attend the class each week and once they started coming they rarely left. Brandon and Miranda’s dedication to the inmates was hugely influential on their willingness to stick with the course and their practice.
“Their willingness to volunteer their time to be with inmates was impressive,” Gus said. “All of us are stuck there, so to have someone come in and work with us meant a lot to the inmates. And the inmates don’t typically drop out of Copper Beech’s mindfulness class unless they leave the facility, which speaks to how much they enjoy and benefit from it.”
Now that Gus is out of prison, his meditation practice has to be very flexible. As the manager of a Subway, his daily schedule shifts constantly between working late nights, early mornings, and everything in between.
“In prison, the challenge is finding a space to meditate and step away from all the distractions,” Gus said. “Outside of prison, the challenge is finding the time. I try very hard to find thirty minutes to meditate at least five times a week, because I need it.”
Reflecting on how the Copper Beech prison program has changed him, he spoke of the imagery Miranda used in class about how meditation creates a wider space between one’s self and one’s reaction to things.
“It’s so important for me to make sure my mind doesn’t create the types of traps I fell into earlier in life and that landed me in jail,” Gus said. “Mindfulness offers you the opportunity to observe, evaluate, and choose your responses to situations, and it has helped me learn about myself and my tendencies and change how I react to situations in ways I’m much happier with.”
Because of the impact mindfulness has had on his life and that of fellow inmates, one of Gus’s goals is to offer mindfulness courses in prisons, much like Copper Beech’s program.
“I’d really like to give back by doing something similar and want meditation groups to be far more prevalent in jails,” Gus said. “Given my personal experience, I think teaching meditation to inmates is one of the best ways to reduce recidivism and help people stay out of jail. It literally changes how people behave and go through life.”
Learn more about Copper Beech Institute’s outreach in the community here.