Letter to the Prison Ministry
Posted December 27, 2006
Dear Bhakta Jerry,
Please accept my humble respects and obeisances. All glories to Srila Prabhupada!
I met you at the mangalartika in Chicago earlier this week and I was very excited about your involvement in this Prison ministry.
I was a self-styled outlaw as a youth and youthful adult, and spent a total of 8 years in prisons across the US. I was exposed to this Krishna consciousness movement as a 16 year old back when the Chicago temple was in Evanston, IL, but rather than surrender I chose a life of anger, material-manias, and ultimately crime.
During my years of crime, I always knew I should chant Hare Krsna, and often would visit temples, even staying in some for a week here or there, but could not surrender...
Just as the bank robber holed up with the police surrounding him, refusing to surrender without a fight, I believe that Lord Krsna, Who was witnessing my dilemma, arrested me and forced me to surrender..
In prison, first at Joliet in Illinois, I shared a cell with an old hippie who was so brain damaged from drug use that he could not hold a regular conversation, bt when he heard me quietly chanting one day, he became animated, vocal, lucid and ecstatic... "oh my God! You are here to remind me of Krishna!" For the next couple of months we sat and tried to remember the songs and bhajans and sang our hacked up versions...
Later, in prison in Texas, I stood in line my first day in the chow hall (cafeteria) and when I got to the meat server, I refused. The inmate looked at me and said "are you vegetarian?" I said yes. He asked why, and I said sarcastically "God loves cows and I love God." I was shocked when he said "are you a devotee?" I said "yeah?" as I was forced down the line I looked back and we nodded. The meat man was a devotee?
The next day, after a full day of anticipation and the hope that I could exchange a few words with the meat man, I went through the line and as I got to him, he handed me a tray of beans, rice and bread and said "Hare Krsna... POOF its offered..." [He made a gesture with his hand like waving a magic wand, and to this day everytime I offer prepared foods I end my offering with poof] I ate with watery eyes and was transfered to another facility the next morning...
Finally, I arrived at the US Federal Correctional Center in El Reno, Oklahoma to serve my final sentence. A devotee from the Dallas temple who would send me books and inspiratioanl letters told me he believed there was a devotee at El Reno named Drdhavrata Prabhu and that I should seek him out.
After some time and a lot of effort, I located sriman drdhavrata prabhu by leaving a note in the chow hall near the entrance that said, in huge letters, "HARIBOL from Cellblock X Cell Y" (I forget the cellblock number).
That evening a guard hollered my name and told me some inmates were waiting outside for me. This federal prison was largely open-door, and inmates on their freetime were free to roam the grounds.
I walked outside and was greeted by a wide smile by Drdhavrata prabhu, and several devotees, Bhakta Mike, Bhakta Dave, Bhakta Chris, Bhakta Tony, Bhakta Adil, and Bhakta Blas, and others.
The events that followed simply amazed, stunned, and awed me. I was walking to Drdhavrata's cellhouse as if walking on clouds and the devotees ran in and came out with huge plates of sumptuous prasadam, not just vegetables cooked, but a feast of samosas, uttar paneer, potato subjis, even mango pickle, nan bread and lassi. I was confused, speechless, truly wordless, and we all found a place on the main yard to sit and feast as Drdhavrata prabhu told stories of Srila Prabhupada's pastimes.
THIS WAS NOT PRISON! THIS WAS PARADISE! I WAS NOT BEING PUNISHED FOR A LIFE OF CRIME, I WAS BEING BLESSED!
The bliss was just beginning, and nearly every day brought new revealations and shocks. Drdhavrata prabhu had full use of the prison chapel two days each week for classes on Bhagavad-gita As It Is, Srimad Bhagavatam, and the Srila Prabhupada Lilamrta series. In the chapel, he had and elaborately beautiful foldup altar with poster-size pictures Their Lordships Sri-Sri-Radha-Kalachandji, Sri-Panca-tattva, and His Divine Grace Srila Prabhupada. He had four kartalas, a mrdanga drum, and a beautiful harmonium. He had a bhoga tray with conch, makeshift peacock feather, water bowl cup and bell, and he had a box of temple incense. There were dozens of Bhagavad-gitas, a full set of Srimad-Bhagavatam, and Sri-Caitanya-caritamrta, as well as a collection of other BBT books. As he conducted the "temple program" I was simply overcome with emotion and knew I was there for a reason. I felt so close to Lord Krishna in one way, yet so lowly and undeserving in another.
We followed a temple style aratik as much as possible and Dhrdavrata's kirtanas were ecstatic to the extreme. He involved everyone, grabbed wide-eyed new bhaktas to their feet to dance and chant, passed the mic around for others to lead, and this went on for nearly an hour before his class.
After class, as the newer bhaktas wandered out of the "temple" the regulars, the core group of devotees who greeted me at my cellhouse the first time, laid around on the floor and discussed the business at hand. PRASADAM DISTRIBUTION and the art of smuggling food items out of the kitchen and into Drdhavratas building where guards were silenced and cooperative by bribes of sumptuous plates of prasadam expertly cooked in Drdhavrata's little cubical. It was a constant theme, to find better ways to get spices, and foods in large quantities out of the kitchen, past guards and into his building without gettng caught.
Other business included lawsuits to obtain a prasadam kitchen facility, and other rights to religious expression. Bhakta Tony was a stellar attorney from Canada. And Bhakta Adil, a natve of India, was expert in the art of filing grievances and complaints.
Once a week, Sankarsana Prabhu, from the Norman, Oklahoma ISKCON center would come to the prison and lead an ecstatic kirtana and give class. Sometimes he brought other devotees from the Dallas temple with him, and he brought HH Tamal Krishna Goswami Maharaja on a few occasions, which, because of his entourage and the things he brought in with him, it would practically cause the prison to shutdown while guards monitored and searched through everything.
After six months, HH Tamal Krishna Maharaja (srila gurudeva) initiated two new devotees into the chanting of Hare Krsna, Bhakta Mike became Maitreya Dasa and I became Janardana Dasa after the full fire sacrifice befitting any big temple anywhere. I still use the same japa beads he handed me inside the federal prison...
As this is getting lengthy and I really only wanted to relate the shorter version, I'll end it with my favorite antecdote from Drdhavrata prabhus prasadam distribution program. It was Janmastami, 1985. Drdavrada prabhu wanted to distribute 250 plates of prasadam to prisoners, and we set our smuggling program into high gear. Drdhavrata approached me and told me to go into the kitchen and that there was a large flat push cart filled with brocolli, cauliflower, potatos, tomatos, peas, carrots, gallons of milk and plain yogurt, fruits, rice, and more. Approximately 75 lbs of food, and he epected me to simply push it out of the kitchen, past guards, down a long sidewalk one way, then past a guard station and down another sidewalk, to his building. "Prabhu! No disrespect, but why me? Why not you!?!?" I pleaded. "Because I am the cook and I do the classes and I knew Srila Prabhupda. I tell the stories!" was his answer, with his signature grin. Then he instructed me "just chant the Lord Nrsimadeva prayers and don't look at anyone."
I was scared. I knew I would be caught. I was caught for everything I did. I was not a good crook. I sucked as an arch criminal, and this was James Bond-esque at its best. I resolved that if I got caught, all they can do is put me in solitary and I would read and chant. Not so bad. As I arrived at the kitchen. a devotee, Bhakta Chris, pushed the cart to the door for me, said HARIBOL, and off I went.
These prison carts are old, metal mammouth structures on small metal wheels. Walking the length of the first sidewalk, every crack making the loudest clank in the universe, I chanted "namas te narasimhaya..." walking past curious inmates, "prahladahlada dayine..." looking back to see if the door was still open and I could abort the mission - it wasn't...
"hiranyakasipor-vaksaha sila-tanka-nakhalaye.." Rounding the corner of the guard station, I see two young guards and a white shirt "brass" officer in deep conversation watching a group of inmates who were gesturing aggressivle to eachother indicating possible trouble. "Ito nrsimhah parato nsrimho, yato yato yami tato nrsimhah..." I pass them without them even glancing my way. I spy Drdhavratas building entrance, and a rotund guard standing on the steps looking at me. "bahir nrsimha hrdaye nrsimho.." I continue forward, ignoring his stares. No sense in stopping now. I'm either busted, or not. "nrsimham adim saranam prapadye..." A sack of potatos falls off from a bump in the sidewalk. I stop and just KNOW everyone was staring. "tava kara kamala vare nakham adbhua sringham..." louder, more deliberate. "dalita hiranyakasipu tanu bhringam...." Re-situated, I stop when arive in front of the building. Numb. No care or even feeling... then I hear the fat guard anxiously say "come on! get this stuff in here!" "keshava-dhrta-nara-hari-rupa,,," and as Drdhavrate and others come out to help, "jaya jagadisha hare" I sat down on the stairs letting them do the work, and I felt like I could die right there and be happy.
For the next 12-14 hours, Dhrdavrata prabhu worked magic in his makeshift prasadam kitchen made from 5 gallon buckets converted to steamers, using nickel rods connected to electrical cords for boiling. Occasianally he would smuggle some of us into his building to help, and he easily recruited helpers from the eager inmates of his building who couldn't help but smell the blissful creations for Lord Krishna's appearance day.
When all was done, we walked the yard with large bags of stacked plates of pakoras, samosas, three or four different subjis, halavah, beautifully arranged on each plate.
Shortly after Janmastami, Drdhavrata prabhu got the most exciting news of his life. The High Court of California had reversed his conviction based on procedure and tainted evidence, and the DA would not re-try the case. Drdhavrata left El Reno a free soul. Sadly, it was reported in the book Monkey on a Stick, that Drdhavrata soon passed away from a drug overdose. I tend to believe he is hiding somewhere chanting and dancing and telling Prabhupada stories. But I will always be indebted to him and his beloved relationship with Srila Prabhupada - however limited - which was the source of inspration and salvation to countless prisoners and lowly wretches such as myself.
Bhakta Dave Mahoney was a lifer but was transfered to FCC Oxford, an easier facility in Central Wisconsin.
Prime Minister Gandhi of India interceded on Bhakta Adil's behalf and he was released to be deported back to India. His family was influential, and we mused that the federal government was all too eager to comply to get rid of their chief grievance writer.
Bhakta Tony was released and quickly fled back to Canada.
Sriman Maitreya Prabhu, my new Godbrother who was initiated into Krishna consciousness beside me, was serving life and was originally an Alaska state prisoner housed in federal custody while the state built its first big maximum security facility. He was transfered back to Alaska where he continues his sentence.
I was transfered to FCC Bastrop because my original intake questionnaire stated I was interested in persuing commercial arts and a spot in that program opened up. I was released in the Spring of 1986, began associating with devotees in Chicago, and although I fell away from active devotional service and mixed with various break-away devotees, I had never committed another crime and had married, raised a family, became a school district administrator, and now am divorced and running an online news service. After nearly 20 years away from Lord Krishna's devotional service, I have met and am involved with a woman who has become a devotional inspiration and we have driven to Chicago for mangalartika and for the Sunday program, and are becoming more involved again. We have radiokrishna.com or other MP3's and Rwal Audio Bhajans, kirtans or lectures running 24 hours, and are starting to do our rounds,
All I can say is, once a devotee always a devotee. I was teary and shaking at last weeks Sunday program as His Holines Indradhyumna Maharaj led such an ecstatic, super-charged and extended kirtana, and to see the shear amount of devotees there singing Hare Krsna at the top of their lungs. There is a new energy and new life in ISKCON, the next generation. Didn't we all know, or wish this would happen?
A final thought: Srila Prabhupada writes in Nectar of Devotion that Lord Krishna is death personified to the thieves of Vrindavana. As a prisoner, I could realistically take on the title of the lowest of the lowest of the lowest in human condition. After all, even the greedy materialist karma-brokers of society separate prisoners out and say "we don't want you even to be on our streets or in our alleys." Yet somehow, we were given the most matchless gifts and eternal blessings while in hell. I don't know beyond what I describe above what the condition of the El Reno Yatra devotees is today. I suspect each of them still look back fondly and appreciate their matchless gift.
All glories to Srila Prabhupada, the one who truly liberates prisoners and the lowest of the lowly! hare Krishna. All glories to your Prison program, and if there's any way I can be of use, please just say the word. Hare Krishna!
Your Servant, humbly and sincerely,
PS: The day I was initiated, Srila Tamal Krishna Goswami Maharaja asked me "So, Bhakta John... when was the last time you smoked cigarettes? I know it is your addiction." I looked away and stammered. I knew he knew. "I hid in a corner and smoked my last one as you were coming through the gates Srila Gurudeva" I admitted, staring now directly into his eyes fearing what he'd do or say next. His reply was simple, shocking to me, and wholly unexpected. "Let this chanting of Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare, and Srila Prabhupada's books be your addiction now and replace the nicotine Sriman Janardana Dasa." And he continued the fire sacrifice. I never saw His Holiness again nor did I take instruction from him or serve him upon release. I went my own way into the material world of work, commerce, success and failure, and I continue to smoke cigarettes to this day despite countless attempts to quit. His words come back now as they had not sunk in then. I believe it will be easy now as I start chanting and reading and hearing. POOF
janardana-dasa (john n)
please accept my humble oberisances...