Buddha behind bars – interview with Sabra Williams

Ignore what you might read on Wikipedia or IMDB, my fellow SGI member Sabra Williams is much more than an actress and TV presenter. I first met her on a Buddhist summer course in the UK nearly 30 years ago, when she was an energetic and focused Lilac (Byakuren) Chief inspiring half a dozen other young women to care for 200 SGI members on the course. I knew that since then she’d swapped London for Hollywood, finding her professional feet with The Actors Gang, a theatre company run by Tim Robbins (of Shawshank Redemption fame). So, why the move from London to LA? “We were too comfortable,” says Sabra, referring to herself and husband Yogi, “We wanted to shake our lives up, so we sold everything and jumped on a plane!” That’s the first answer I wasn’t expecting…

SGI Buddhist actor Sabra Williams
SGI Buddhist actor Sabra Williams

So much wisdom pours from Sabra’s lips that it’s hard to know where to start. So let’s rewind to the beginning of her own Buddhist practice in 1985. “I was a crazy off the rails teenager from Notting Hill Gate, London. I felt so frustrated that I often wanted to put my fist through a wall. And although I was a talented dancer, I was doing too much cocaine. Two of my dance teachers introduced me to Buddhism. They told me I had bags of potential but would waste all of it if I carried on the same way. They just said ‘chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. To be honest I thought they were taking the piss. But then I thought, what the heck, it’s free and I’ve got nothing to lose, why not give it a go?! And the first time I chanted, everything fell into place, it all just fitted. And I’ve never missed Gongyo since, not even when I was in labour!”

Before our Skype call last week I was aware that Sabra used her performing skills with prisoners in California. I assumed this meant she and her fellow performers giving inmates some respite from long hours in their cells and perhaps spotting future Thespian talent, people who might tread the boards after release from jail. But I’m wrong on both counts and Sabra is quick to correct me (actually she does everything at top speed):

“Not at all,” she says, “the Prison Project is incredibly hard work. My students think they’re coming in for a bit of fun and quickly discover it’s the toughest thing they’ve ever done. And no, we’re not turning people into actors. This is a mental wellbeing programme, using theatre to teach people with no voice how to manage their emotions healthily when they’re released.”

Definitely not about ‘hugging a thug’

Sabra continues: “At first many of our students find it terrifying, it’s physically very intense – four hours at a time with no break – and we have incredibly high expectations of them, of people who are not used to anyone expecting anything of them. So this is definitely not a wishy-washy ‘hug-a-thug’ programme.” That’s another answer I wasn’t expecting.

Sabra and Tim Robbins in action in prison

Why so physical and why no break? “So that they can come out of their own heads and learn to empathise with their fellow prisoners, people of different gangs or races whom they could well be trying to kill if they were outside the prison walls,” says Sabra. And the approach is working. There’s been an 89% drop in offences between prisoners in prisons where Sabra has run the Actors Gang Prison Project and a significant drop in recidivism.  No wonder The White House is sitting up and taking notice (more of which in a future blog post).

A joyful struggle 

Sabra says the most important Buddhist principle she uses in her work is the teaching that ‘everyone’s a Buddha’. “Most so-called criminals in the US are people who made one bad choice on one bad day,” says Sabra, “so to walk into a room of people who’ve been discarded by society and then see them blossom has been an immense and unexpected joy. Even the struggle is joyful. That’s because I’ve based all my actions on daimoku, on the Gohonzon and on the mentor-disciple relationship. It’s really vital that I leave my ego outside the room, I don’t want the students to connect with my personality, I want to link them to the process, to the work. When you leave ego aside and use the Strategy of the Lotus Sutra, love fills the room. Working with incarcerated people is the deepest joy and greatest privilege. It’s made me a better actor and a better human being.”

And does her own ‘wild youth’ help her relate to her students in prison? “No, what helps me relate to them is their own humanity and courage,” (another answer I wasn’t expecting), “You have to understand that normally in prison, anger is the only acceptable emotion. Anger or numbness, both of which mask deep pain. Whereas in our classes we improvise scenes where all sorts of bottled-up emotions can bubble to the surface, where a black man who is a member of a Gang such as The Bloods could be looking into the eyes of a white man who identifies as a White supremacist and learn to empathise with him or an incarcerated individual can empathise with an Officer who treats her badly.  And vice-versa. That takes courage. That takes humanity. And the empathy is invaluable because they start to see the suffering behind the other person’s fear or anger. They might even wonder, the next time a prison officer shouts at them, whether he is suffering in his home life. So you see, this programme can actually change the whole culture of a prison.”

Blood brothers

Sabra adds that the cross-racial friendships formed behind bars are taken back onto the prison yard, so the black man and the white supremacist can become blood brothers (I wasn’t expecting that, either…)

Sabra has squeezed me into a hectic schedule and after one hour (that feels like ten minutes), my time is up… a Congressman is holding on the other line, waiting to discuss her recent meeting with President Obama.

Sabra Williams @ The White House
Sabra Williams @ The White House

So, how to sum up this whirlwind of a personality? Straight-talking and sassy? Yes. Surprising? Definitely. Still acting in films and on the stage? Yes. But most of all Sabra Williams, once an ‘off the rails’ kid from North London, is now making her mark on Capitol Hill as a passionate criminal justice reformer. You will have gathered by now that I ain’t no Nostradamus, but I wasn’t expecting that…

Love and Light, NMRK,


PS. In my next post about Sabra later this month, find out what happened when she met President Obama at The White House!

PPS. For more inspirational stories from SGI members, check out my book, The Buddha in Me, the Buddha in You. Available from Amazon.com on Kindle and from Amazon UK in paperback or Kindle.

PPS. Thank you for reading this far 🙂 !! Are you an SGI member who like Sabra, is helping to transform the spirit of the age? Are you bravely carving out a path that nobody has trodden before? If so, I would be interested to discuss sharing your story on here. Just contact me here.


One Reply to “Buddha behind bars – interview with Sabra Williams”

  1. Deepti says:

    This is incredible. Such thoughts and actions are that of a buddha. It’s wonderful to know how one can create value. I am deeply inspired.

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