Meditation in prison.

When a person is released from prison the chance they’ll be rearrested within the next three years hovers between 62% and 78% depending on a number of variables. It’s no wonder, when you consider that, instead of offering enough programs that prepare an individual to re-acclimate to life on the outside, they foster an environment of tension and hostility. That’s no fault of prison officials, who struggle with low budgets and the problem of dealing with homicidal psychopaths on a daily basis, but the issue has forced many of them to find creative solutions that actually help inmates examine their own behavior.

Enter meditation. So-called corrections centers across the country have begun adopting different kinds of meditation in an attempt to help convicts shift their focus from taking a shiv in the mess hall to just chilling out.

Amanda Abrams, whose spent years practicing and studying mindful meditation, wrote in the Washington Post that she volunteered at a Washington DC area jail intending to help inmates notice “thoughts, emotions and sensations that arise without judging them — a deceptively difficult practice. In recent years, scientists have shown that meditation switches on genes linked to immune functioning, increases gray matter in the brain, rewires neural pathways — not to mention boosts happiness, lowers stress, improves concentration and leads to increased compassion.”

She describes working with instructor Craig Ehrlich, who asks an intimidating inmate known as King to tell the newer inmates what they can expect from the class.

King — a.k.a. Cappuccino, a.k.a. Harvey Washington — is, with several months in the group, its longest-standing member.

“Meditation is about learning to observe yourself,” King explains. “You focus on your breathing, or on something else like your body or the sounds around you, and you get out of the cycle of being caught up in your thoughts. It helps you see things more clearly — you get to know yourself better.”

Only a fraction of the more than 2 million incarcerated Americans participate in these classes, either because of their own behavior, there isn’t enough room, or prison administrators won’t allow it. The William E. Donaldson Correction Facility has proven to be an exception to that rule. The prison located outside Birmingham has the reputation of being the toughest in Alabama, although a growing number of inmates have used meditation to harness their impulses.

From a 2011 article by the Associated Press:

Warden Gary Hetzel doesn’t fully understand how the program called Vipassana (which is pronounced vuh-’POSH-uh-nuh) can transform violent inmates 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 percent of the prison’s inmates have completed.

The word Vipassana means “to see things as they really are,” which is also the goal of the intense 10-day program using the meditative technique that dates back 2,500 years.

The courses begin with three days of breathing exercises – the prisoners learn to focus on bodily sensations so intently they feel the exhalations on their upper lip. Students are required to not speak to each other.

On Day 4, students are told to begin letting their deepest thoughts percolate up through their consciousness so they can sense the effects on the body, like tension or anger. The ultimate goal is to learn not to react to those sensations.

Students are forced to grapple with their innermost selves. Some men are 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.

There seems to be evidence that the various kinds of meditation are helping convicts. The question is a frustrating one for volunteers though in part because there is still so little understanding. Amanda Abrams was able to speak with Fleet Maull, the founder of the Prison Mindfulness Institute, which provides resources to nearly 200 groups that teach meditation to inmates.

“There are more and more people on the outside who are getting interested in taking meditation programs into prisons and jails,” Maull says. Out of the 2.4 million people incarcerated, he estimates the number of offenders taking meditation at 50,000. Getting an exact figure is difficult; many of the organizations that lead courses are small and don’t keep robust records, he says.

The answer to whether the courses have long-term effects is tricky. Research has shown a decrease in substance abuse and negative emotions among offenders, and a concomitant increase in self-esteem and well-being. But the most important information doesn’t exist.

“Recidivism data” — that is, numbers showing how many offenders return to jail within three years — “is obviously the gold standard, because that’s the goal,” Maull says. “But it takes time: You have to work with people who are getting out soon, and you have to follow them.” His group is applying for funding to make a long-term study of offenders after they leave prison.

There’s no doubt in Maull’s mind that meditation has the capacity to turn people around. “We have huge amounts of anecdotal evidence,” he says. “We’ve seen people move from lives that are in chaos and out of control to ones where they have a sense of agency; they’re able to be skillful in their relationships and to move forward in their lives.”

One powerful ally they’ve found is director David Lynch. Lynch is probably as well known for his dedication to transcendental meditation (TM) as he is for freak show movies like Eraserhead and Blue Velvet. His foundation, which has the support of Paul McCartney, George Stephanopolous, and others, has campaigned to bring TM to schools, the military, and now prisons.

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