The Calming of Incarcerated Minds

Meditation can improve inmates’ mental health better than traditional care, which is why it’s being reintroduced in some prisons.
by | November 2015
Meditation is taught to prisoners in Beaumont, Texas. (AP)

Back in the 1970s, thousands of inmates in such forbidding maximum security prisons as California’s San Quentin and Folsom were introduced to meditation. The positive psychological impact on those prisoners was documented in a number of studies. But enthusiasm for prison meditation programs eventually died down as private funding faltered and a more punitive approach to prison management took hold.

Now there’s a resurgence of interest in meditation programs for both adult and juvenile offenders. It can be chalked up, in part, to the rebirth of New Age thinking. In mainstream culture, all the meditative disciplines, from “mindfulness” to Transcendental Meditation, or TM, to the ancient Buddhist technique of Vipassana, are being inundated with new disciples. But a larger part of the push to reintroduce meditation to the incarcerated can be traced to results.

A recent study at two prisons in Oregon spells it out. The study, financed by the David Lynch Foundation, which promotes TM, and with the cooperation of the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC), looked at 180 inmates at two prisons in Salem -- one a maximum security facility and the other minimum security. The inmates, who volunteered to participate, were randomly divided into two groups and given a battery of psychological tests. One group learned TM, meditating twice a day for 20 minutes. The other group was given standard mental health care. The inmates were tested again four months later. The results were significant: Among the meditating inmates, there was a marked reduction in psychological distress, anxiety, depression, and anger and hostility. The tests also revealed improved vigor and an increase in inmates’ sense of spiritual well-being. For the inmates who had received standard care, there was little change. “If we could create an environment of healing,” says Tom O’Connor, director of research for ODOC and a co-author of the study, “the public could save a great deal of money and we could create a better society, a more humane prison and a much more effective prison.”

While it wasn’t part of the research study, some prison staff members were also invited to learn TM. The feedback was positive. Melanie Merriss, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner, says meditation “changed my life in a powerfully positive way.” She thinks that making the program available to staff could reduce stress-related illnesses and deaths among employees.

Most of the prison meditation programs so far have been implemented at adult facilities, but now they’re also being extended to juvenile centers. Sam Himelstein, a behavioral health clinician at the Alameda County, Calif., Juvenile Justice Center, has published studies on the effect of meditation on troubled youth. He finds that youngsters are receptive to the techniques as long as meditation is approached as a joint venture. The benefits he sees with the young people he’s worked with are improvements in self-regulation, anger management and emotional intelligence. “They’re able to calm themselves down,” he says. “They’re not as likely to get into fights.”

There aren’t numbers on how many juvenile facilities have adopted meditation programs, but anecdotally, Himelstein says, he sees growth. “I get calls all the time. A few weeks ago a colleague called about bringing meditation to a juvenile hall in Akron, Ohio.” A prison meditation program in the progressive San Francisco Bay Area is one thing. But Akron’s interest may be a real sign of spreading acceptance.