“We consistently teach a practice to provide prisoners with a skill to become more sensitive to how they feel in their bodies. When you develop a close relationship with your own sensitivity, you are less apt to violate another. This is empathy. And empathy, when encouraged, leads to compassion. Gradually, the cycle of violence is interrupted.” ~ James Fox
Prison is a very stressful and difficult environment for most prisoners. This is compounded by the fact that most do not have well developed coping skills. In addition, many have suffered from trauma, often experienced early in life such as abandonment, hunger, homelessness, domestic violence, sexual abuse, bullying, discrimination, drug and alcohol abuse, and witnessing crime – including murder. In addition, prisoners frequently suffer from attention deficit disorder. So, prisoners are often ill equipped to engage positively in society either inside or outside of prison.
Yet prison provides a great deal of time for reflection and self-exploration. This is an opportunity for growth and development. So, contemplative practices are well suited to this environment.
Yoga and meditation teach skills that may be very important for prisoners. In particular, they put the practitioner in touch with their own bodies and feelings. They improve present moment awareness and help to overcome rumination about the past and negative thinking about the future. They’ve been shown to be useful in the treatment of the effects of trauma and attention deficit disorder. They also relieve stress and improve overall health and well-being. Finally, these practices have been shown to be useful in treating depression, anxiety, and anger.
So, yoga and meditation would appear to be ideally suited to addressing the issues of prisoners. Over the last several years there have been a number of yoga and meditation programs implemented in prisons. In today’s Research News article “A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Yoga and Mindfulness Meditation in Prison: Effects on Psychological Well-Being and Behavioural Functioning”
Auty and colleagues summarize the research literature that has studied the effectiveness of these programs. They found that the research suggested that these programs are effective in a wide range of locations, from the UK and US to India and Taiwan, with a wide variety of ethnicities and ages, and with both males and females.
They found that the yoga and/or meditation programs almost universally produced improvements in psychological well-being in the prisoners. The magnitudes of the effects were significant and moderate, suggesting that these practices produce meaningful psychological changes. They also found that the longer term programs produced greater change than the shorter, more intense programs.
In addition to the psychological effects the yoga and/or meditation programs the research reports significant improvements in behavioral functioning. Overall, the magnitudes of the effects were significant and smaller than those found for psychological well-being. But, nevertheless the results suggest that these practices produce meaningful behavioral changes. These effects were particularly large for prisoners who had substance abuse problems.
This literature summary suggests that yoga and meditation programs are quite effective in prisons, improving the psychological health and well-being of the prisoners and improving their behavior while in prison. There are some suggestions in the literature that these programs decrease recidivism. It is to the benefit of society to assist the prisoners while incarcerated to improve their skills for dealing with themselves and others, as this would make them easier to deal with in prison and make it more likely that they would successfully transition back into society upon release.
So, yoga and meditation programs should be employed broadly in prisons for the benefit both of the prisoners and of society.
“With the barrage of negativity in prisons, they are unyielding breeding grounds for intense suffering, chaos, noise, overcrowding, violence, ineffective medical care and poor food. But occasionally, every so often, friendship, kindness, compassion and programs of meaningful substance come along. The Yoga program is a life-sustaining and meaningful one that I nurture and value because it is not only positive, it supports my growth and success as a young man. Yoga helps me navigate my life as a good and successful person. This practice is life-changing and will continue to enhance my life.” K.L.
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies