Saint Badass is a story spanning six years worth of letters and growing friendships between four prisoners and author Doug Carnine. Each prisoner faces various crises in prison including disabling illness, a brain tumor, a prison gang attack, family betrayal, medical abuse and harsh punishments for mild offenses. Each prisoner in his own way achieves transcendence through his crisis using mindfulness, meditation and the blessings of kindness. Juxtapose the destructive forces of an abusive childhood, a criminal adulthood, life without parole in prison with their incongruously continuous acts of kindness. Contrast the horror of the prisoners’ upbringings- with their growing concern for the wellbeing of others. Their voices are raw and honest, and at times inspiring.
The work documents letters exchanged between the author, the founder of a Buddhist priory in Eugene, Ore., and four Tucker Max inmates. The title comes from Roy Tester, the earliest of the prisoners to write to Carnine; locked up for life for the murder of parents he describes as abusive, Tester found himself attracted to Buddhist teaching after a fellow inmate pressed a book on him and taught him the peacefulness of deep breathing. Intrigued and eager to leave drugs behind him, Tester wrote to Buddhist organizations seeking more information. Carnine responded, and in the remarkable letters collected here readers can glimpse the flowering not just of enlightenment but also of trust and mutual respect.
Tester brings other Tucker Max inmates into the discussion, and their stories, all self-written, prove engrossing, harrowing, and moving. Readers should expect to learn dark truths about sexuality in jail and life in the hole. Tester, touchingly, gets sent to solitary for shoving a guard to spare the life of a cricket. Carnine’s organization of the material lacks a strong narrative throughline, but the prisoners’ letters pulse with power and insight.This book will move and inspire readers.
Takeaway: Carnine’s collection of letters from prisoners movingly illustrate how humans can find Buddhist transcendence in the most harrowing of conditions.
Great for fans of: Joshua Dubler’s Down in the Chapel: Religious Life in an American Prison, David Sheff’s The Buddhist on Death Row: How One Man Found Light in the Darkest Place.
Design and typography: A
Marketing copy: A
Saint Badass: Personal Transcendence in Tucker Hell by Doug Carnine is based on a series of letters which were exchanged between the author and four prisoners at Tucker Maximum Security Prison in Arkansas. Doug is a meditation teacher and lay minister in the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives, and he began writing to the prisoners when his daughter – who was already in communication with them – asked if he would mind answering a few of their questions about Buddhism.
More than 700 letters were exchanged over a period of seven years, and Saint Badass is based on that wealth of communication, presenting many direct excerpts which allow the reader to hear the experiences of the prisoners – Cody, John, Roy and Tad – in their own words.
Those experiences are not always easy to read about. The four prisoners were sent to Tucker Max for incredibly serious crimes – three of them for murder and one for an alleged rape – and their letters to Doug don’t gloss over very much. On the contrary, they openly describe not only how they came to be in Tucker in the first place, but also how difficult prison life is for them.
Whilst their individual stories are quite different, the four prisoners all look to Buddhism to try and find some peace in their lives, and later, to try and spread that peace to other inmates. Doug supports them in those efforts, not only by offering compassionate guidance about the Buddhist path, but also in very practical ways, such as by sending supplies to help them develop and share their practice.
Over the course of this narrative, the tone of the letters slowly changes. The prisoners, who initially have so much guilt, shame, regret and personal pain, discover in the practice of Buddhism a peace which enables them to transform their lives despite being incarcerated. Doug’s life is also changed by the ongoing relationships with the prisoners, and he emerges with an even deeper appreciation of the transformative power of compassion and kindness.
Make no mistake, Saint Badass is an incredibly gritty read which is often uncomfortable, but that is also its great strength. No punches are pulled, the prisoners are allowed to speak their minds without censorship, and that makes the resulting transformations even more compelling – and inspiring – than they would have been otherwise.
Whilst readers won’t always like what they read in Saint Badass, they cannot fail to be transformed by it. We commend Doug for the encouragement and guidance that he has given to his Tucker Max correspondents, and we thank him – as well as Cody, John, Roy and Tad – for sharing their experiences in this book