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Officials close jailhouse door to Buddhist chaplain

Officials close jailhouse door to Buddhist chaplain   
Published February 26, 2007

Buddhist chaplain Frank Tedesco has instructed murderers to "feel the cool air over the tip of their nose."

He has counseled drug dealers while they "followed their breath" during guided meditations. And by the dozens, inmates at the Pinellas County Jail requested his Saturday afternoon services and asked for literature about the Eastern religion.

But earlier this month, Tedesco learned a valuable lesson in a lifetime full of teaching them: Jail officials stripped him of his duties, citing a breach of contract after three bins of spirituality books found by jail officials
were deemed contraband.

Tedesco, 60, an unpaid volunteer, thinks the blowup stems at least in part from a Christian bias.

Authorities said Tedesco simply chewed up the patience of jail personnel while repeatedly breaking strict jailhouse rules.

Whatever the reason, for the jail’s 3,000-plus inmates, enlightenment will have to wait.

* * *

Tedesco first offered his jailhouse Buddhist ministry in 2005 to Lisa Wright, who was doing time for driving with a suspended license, grand theft and possession of a crack pipe.

She reached out to him after learning he was willing to help inmates with meditation, breathing exercises and counseling. Wright, released in early January 2006 and two years clean, credits Tedesco for her newfound mental clarity.

"The reality is I only have today," Wright said. "It’s not as bad as it all seems to be."

Tedesco would ask inmates, "What happened?" The answers went beyond criminal acts and delved into dark, often abusive pasts. During the sessions, he would bang a small gong, signalling a time to abandon negativity and withdraw into meditation. He also counseled groups and guided them through yoga sessions.

His Buddhist philosophy took root after a string of family deaths when he was a teenager left him seeking more answers than his Roman Catholic upbringing provided. A gifted science student, he returned home from an
educational trip with a head full of new ideas about existentialism and Zen Buddhism, courtesy of Ivy League medical students.

He painted the walls of his bedroom white, installed maroon velvet curtains and sat among hanging plants on a self-made meditation cushion on a bare wooden floor. The 16-year-old had transformed his room into a Zen garden.

"I found tremendous joy and happiness and my depression just kind of disappeared," he said.

In 1966, he undertook a global journey. He sat at the Dalai Lama’s feet in New Jersey, wrote columns for an underground newspaper in Berkeley, massaged the feet of lepers in South Korea, earned a religious studies master’s degree in England and a doctorate in Buddhist studies in Korea.

He landed back in Florida in 2001, in unincorporated Largo, with his wife, Jinsuk, and the couple’s daughter, Serenity, now 14. He worked as an adjunct professor for several area universities. He also spent a few weeks working part time on the obituaries desk in the St. Petersburg Times Clearwater office.

As a chaplain at the jail, he confirmed his feelings that the current justice system is self defeating. He’d like to see inmates do something good for society, like make children’s toys and build furniture for the disabled.

"Instead, they just sit in their cells," he said. "What good does it do?"

Tedesco had hoped his Buddhist program would at least provide inmates with inward spiritual guidance.

An unauthorized pen, some books, and perhaps his own temperament ended any chance of that.

* * *

Authorities point to two documented instances where Tedesco broke the rules in a place where rules can’t be broken.

One involved Tedesco bringing a fine-tipped calligraphy pen into the jail that he let inmates use to sign a class roster.

"I know that seems petty," said Sgt. Jim Bordner, spokesman for the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. "Pens, quite frankly, can become a weapon."

The other breach of protocol involved books – specifically, a series by social justice activist Bo Lozoff and other texts Tedesco described as "Buddhist classics" left over by outgoing inmates.

The books violated an October 2006 contract which required that any literature introduced to inmates be cleared by jail personnel, officials said.

One of Lozoff’s books, titled Just Another Spiritual Book, contains reprints of inmates’ sketches that jail officials said contained "naked men and women posing in various assorted venues." Lozoff called the explanation a "crock and a shame," adding that the tensions between Tedesco and the jail are a misunderstanding.

But books and pens were just part of the problem, officials said. Tedesco often demanded the rules be stretched for him, they said.

"Everything we deal with him is problematic," Bordner said.

Even Lozoff said Tedesco "can come off as a little annoying sometimes when he’s trying to get his agenda across."

Tedesco attributed the ousting to his liberal persona "I’m a cutting-edge Berkeley type in a conservative community", his erudite background ("I’m older than they are and I’m better educated") and his triumphs as a teacher ("Maybe it’s my enthusiasm and my success with the inmates.").

Tedesco also suspects Christian opposition.

"If the book doesn’t look like the Bible, they chuck it," Tedesco said.

Bordner insisted it’s nothing personal or discriminatory, just a matter of protocol. The next Buddhist volunteer will be welcomed with open arms, he added.

But it won’t be Tedesco.

Now, the out-of-work professor wonders what downtrodden group could benefit from his message. Maybe ex-offenders. Maybe the homeless.

"Anyone who wants to learn from me," he said.

Times staff writer Lane DeGregory and news researchers John Martin and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Casey Cora can be reached at (727) 580-1542 or at [email protected].

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