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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

As they walk into the stark gray room at the Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala, K.C. Walpole greets each inmate with the grace of a mentor and the sternness of a soldier. Dressed in all black, his head shaved smooth and his broad shoulders fit into perfect posture.

"Are you full of fire and brimstone?" he asks a woman as a smile dimples his aging face.

She nods at him.

"Is there anything we can do to fix that today?"

She points to her head, grabs an imaginary object from it then tosses it away.

"Yeah, let's get rid of those thoughts," Walpole agrees.

Walpole, 66, visits the female inmates at Lowell every Friday at 9 a.m. He teaches them to sit for 15 minutes or more without moving, talking or thinking - the Buddhist practice of meditation.

Walpole, who leads monks at the Gateless Gate Zen Center in Gainesville, has held about 1,800 meditation and Zen programs for inmates at 25 of Florida's prisons. In a state where the inmate population nears 100,000 and where one-third of released inmates are jailed again within three years, his programs aim to reduce the number of inmates who end up back behind bars.

He uses meditation to help the prisoners develop self-discipline and impulse control to reveal the reason they first entered prison.

"If people are at peace with themselves, then they're at peace with the world, and they can handle the world," Walpole said.

Walpole founded the Gateless Gate in High Springs in 1997. At his first meditation session there, a man brought a letter from an inmate at Marion Correctional Institution asking for someone to teach him. Walpole agreed, and within a year or two, he was visiting prisons.

Walpole didn't always live the meditative life of the Buddhist faith, though. He served in the military for nearly 25 years, working in the mid-'70s and early '80s as a Green Beret, training commandos in El Salvador as the country erupted with violence.

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When guerrillas assassinated one of his closest friends, a life filled with grief, violence and paranoia caught up with him.

"I guess you could say I was enjoying some of the aftereffects of military service in the fast lane," Walpole said. "You could call it [post-traumatic stress disorder]."

He turned to yoga and meditation and retired from the military in 1985.

"Twenty-fours years of soldiering was enough," Walpole said.

Marcia Frazier, who attended a meditation program at Broward Correctional Institution, said Walpole is a "stealth bomber" when it comes to teaching her life lessons.

"He gets in exactly where he needs to be without you even knowing it," Frazier said.

Sitting at the mom-and-pop bagel shop where she works as a cook, Frazier rolled up her sleeves and twisted her stringy, long brown hair into a bun as she recalls her first meditation practice.

"It was hard, man," she said as she tapped her pack of Marlboros on the table. "Meditation for me is very, very difficult. I can't even sit still here."

During her first meditation, the instructor told Frazier to stay present with the moment, but she couldn't.

Her sentence had just been reduced, and she could see the finish line. She didn't know where she would go or how she would get her life together.

She tried to stop thinking and focus on her breath. She heard a guard outside yell, "Inmate, get in line!"

"Oh my God," she remembered. "I'm in prison."

She still can't achieve a clear mind during meditation, she said, but Walpole calms her. He tells her everything is as it should be, and we are all perfect in this moment.

Frazier met Walpole at a ceremony at the prison where she vowed to live a wholesome, ethical life.

He walked in with his "Obi-Wan Kenobi" robes, his Buddha statues and some incense. He called her name, then whacked a wooden stick and startled her.

But it was during the end of the ceremony, when she was supposed to receive a burn on her hand, that Walpole showed his true colors.

The department of corrections didn't allow the burn.

"It was considered destruction of state property," Frazier said. "I have never in my entire life known such compassion, total compassion, he had in his eyes when he told me that he was taking my burn for me."

Walpole burned himself once for Frazier then 11 more times for the other inmates at the ceremony.

Two years ago, Walpole visited any prisoner who asked.

He bought cars, drove them until they nearly broke down, then traded them for new ones. In three years, he clocked at least 100,000 miles a car.

But two years ago, Walpole had stents put in his heart, and his doctor told him he had to cut back on his prison service. Then, about a year ago, Walpole had an aneurysm and came back with three more pieces of metal in his heart.

Now Walpole only visits two programs and helps run five others.

He has to start paying more attention to himself, he says. The wall of a tiny blood vessel in his heart has stretched and ballooned to the point where it could burst, and he could bleed out before any help could get to him.

He doesn't know when it could rupture. It could be tomorrow, or it could be in 10 years.

"I have to focus on developing leadership potential so that the place will survive if I don't," Walpole said.

Walpole says he will do whatever he can until, as he likes to call it, he stops "sucking air."

"I haven't half-stepped any part of my life up 'til now," Walpole said. "No point in starting."

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