Improve Prisoner Mental Health with Mindfulness

Improve Prisoner Mental Health with Mindfulness


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


It is truly within the reach of anyone to create an environment in which kindness and resilience can flourish. Even the most powerless among us—prisoners—have the ability to live mindfully and treat others with kindness and respect. In doing so, they are able to improve life and build resilience not just for themselves, but for other inmates, guards, and in fact everyone in their community.” – Doug Carnine


Around 2 ¼ million people are incarcerated in the United States. Even though prisons are euphemistically labelled correctional facilities very little correction actually occurs. This is supported by the rates of recidivism. About three quarters of prisoners who are released commit crimes and are sent back to prison within 5-years. The lack of actual treatment for the prisoners leaves them ill equipped to engage positively in society either inside or outside of prison. Hence, there is a need for effective treatment programs that help the prisoners while in prison and prepares them for life outside the prison.


Contemplative practices are well suited to the prison environment. Mindfulness training teaches skills that may be very important for prisoners. In particular, it puts the practitioner in touch with their own bodies and feelings. It improves present moment awareness and helps to overcome rumination about the past and negative thinking about the future. It’s been shown to be useful in the treatment of the effects of trauma and attention deficit disorder. It also relieves stress and improves overall health and well-being. Finally, mindfulness training has been shown to be effective in treating depressionanxiety, and anger. It has also been shown to help overcome trauma in male prisoners.


In today’s Research News article “The Effects of Mindfulness Training on Emotional Health in Chinese Long-Term Male Prison Inmates.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: ), Xu and colleagues recruited healthy prisoners and randomly assigned them to either a wait-list control condition or to receive a 6-week program of a modified version of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). It was modified by replacing depression discussions with yoga practice. MBCT training occurred once a week for 2.5 hours and included practice on the prisoners own time. The mindfulness training involved sitting, walking and body scan meditations, and cognitive therapy that is designed to alter how the patient relates to the thought processes that often underlie and exacerbate psychological symptoms. The prisoners were measured before and after training for anxiety, depression, mindfulness, and mood.


They found that at the time of pretest the higher the prisoner’s level of mindfulness the lower their levels of anxiety, depression, tension-anxiety, depression-dejection, anger-hostility, confusion-bewilderment, and total mood disturbance. They also found that in comparison to baseline and the wait-list control group the mindfulness training group had significant improvements in mindfulness, anxiety, depression, tension-anxiety, depression-dejection, anger-hostility, confusion-bewilderment, or total mood disturbance.


These are interesting results that suggest that Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) significantly improve the mental health of prisoners. This is important as better mental health may lead to better adjustment to life in prison and to life after release. This may lead to lower recidivism.


So, improve prisoner mental health with mindfulness.


“By working with both prisoners and correctional facilities professionals, mindfulness programs systematically transform the impact of our criminal justice system. Through cultivating greater awareness and compassion, mindfulness “encourages a shift away from fear-based and often anti-social or criminal strategies for meeting needs” – Prison Mindfulness Institute


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ and on Twitter @MindfulResearch


Study Summary


Xu, W., Jia, K., Liu, X., & Hofmann, S. G. (2016). The Effects of Mindfulness Training on Emotional Health in Chinese Long-Term Male Prison Inmates. Mindfulness, 7(5), 1044-1051.



Long-term imprisonment can cause severe emotional problems, which in turn can trigger behavioral problems, self-harm, and suicide. Mindfulness-based intervention can enhance emotional health. This study investigated the effects of a 6-week mindfulness training program on the emotional health of long-term male Chinese prison inmates. Forty long-term male prisoners completed a pretest and posttest, with 19 in the mindfulness training group and 21 in the waitlist control group. The treatment group showed a significant improvement in mindfulness level, anxiety, depression, tension-anxiety, depression-dejection, anger-hostility, confusion-bewilderment, and total mood disturbance. Implications and limitations of this study were discussed. These results support the use of a mindfulness-based intervention to enhance the emotional health of long-term male prison inmates.


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