Bessemer, Alabama (Agencies): It is a crowded room and the men sit in lotuc position, eyes closed, in silence. It is not a S.N. Goenka session in India or abroad. The men are  convicted killers, robbers and rapists who undergo meditation everyday in a prison here.

Their everyday routine is just outside in the hall — a sound mixture of clanging steel doors, yelling and feet thumping along cold concrete floors. The noise never really ends; peace is at a premium in Alabama's most notorious prison.

Despite a history of violence at the William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility, which is named for a slain corrections officer, the prison outside Birmingham has become the model for a meditation program that officials say helps inmates learn self control and social skills they never imbibed in the outside world.

Warden Gary Hetzel doesn't fully understand how the program called Vipassana, propagated by S.N. Goenka, can bring changes in violent inmates, turning them into calm men using contemplative Buddhist practices.

But Hetzel knows one thing.

"It works. We see a difference in the men and in the prison. It's calmer," he said of the course that about 10 per cent of the prison's inmates have undergone.

Vipassana means "to see things as they really are," which is also the aim of the dense 10-day program using the meditative technique that dates back 2,500 years.

The courses start with three days of breathing exercises — where the prisoners learn to concentrate on bodily sensations. Students are asked to not speak to each other.

Outside the room, volunteers guide their way along with recordings of chanting and instructions.

Students are forced to face their innermost selves. Some men have been brought to tears; a few have thrown up. It's not unusual for half of the students or more to quit or be sent back to the prison population for disobeying the rules.

Those who finish come out changed, so claim prison officials.

Convicted murderer Grady Bankhead said the hours of meditation had forced him to accept responsibility for the wrong he had committed and helped him find inner peace. Bankhead, who's serving life without parole, radiates calm.

Vipassana is taught in Indian prisons for decades and began in 2002 at Donaldson. The program was shut down when some Christians said that Vipassana was some sort of evangelical Buddhism — it's not, teachers and prisoners insist — and it restarted in 2006.

"It's medicine for the mind," said Timothy Lewis, 45, serving life without parole for robbery and assault.

A Department of Corrections study of about 100 inmates who completed the program and were still in custody in late 2007 found they had 20 percent fewer disciplinary actions after the course, Cavanaugh said.

Vipassana courses have also been taught at a few other lockups in California, Massachusetts and Washington, but ended for reasons including space limitations, safety concerns and funding.

While the warden said Vipassana helps officers and administrators control Donaldson, the lockup is still considered the state's roughest.