In the UK, 90% of prisoners aged over 16 years suffered from a mental illness, addiction or a personality disorder, and 70% of prisoners had two or more such problems (1).
Prisoners tend to have poorer physical, mental and social health than the general population. Their lifestyles are more likely to put them at risk of ill health. Many inmates have had little or no regular contact with health services before entering prison. As such, offenders are likely to face heightened levels of anxiety and stress, especially where experiencing relationship breakdown, job loss, homelessness, increased isolation and loss of support networks. Good health and well-being are therefore key to successful rehabilitation and resettlement. However, usually this is not fully achieve in the current criminal justice system and ex-offenders return to the streets with their health issues unaddressed.
Teaching mindfulness in prisons can have a huge payoff both while offenders are behind bars and when they return to the community. Meditation programs in prison have been the subject of research since the 1970s. Evidence on the effectiveness of mindfulness interventions in prisons has been gathered mainly in the USA. However, In the UK this approach is gaining interest in the criminal justice system. For example, in HM Prison Brixton a Mind/Body workout group was established to help individuals to develop their own mindfulness practice. Similarly, some mindfulness organisations have developed programmes adapted to the criminal justice system. For instance, the Youth Mindfulness is working on a project with the Scottish Prison Service to implement and evaluate the impact of mindfulness in young offenders. Likewise, the Prison Phoenix Trust has worked with over a third of UK and Irish prisons implementing yoga and meditation classes.
While there are hopeful projects throughout the country where mindful practices are being integrated into the criminal justice system, there is need for a widespread movement to make mindfulness a standard practice not only in prisons but also for related professionals.
“One of the possibilities to facilitate rehabilitation is the teaching of meditative practices in prisons. Research suggests that meditation-based programs may increase psychological well-being as a result of an increase in positive psychological states, such as hopefulness, optimism, and positive mood.”
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is an adaptation of Buddhist meditation. Supported by over 40 years of research across a number of sectors and applications; Mindfulness is the practice of purposely focusing your attention on the present moment and accepting it without judgment. It can be cultivated by a variety of mindfulness awareness practices which all share common procedures. Yoga and sitting-meditation are the most common methods taught. The meditator sits in an erect posture, either on the floor cross-legged or in a chair, and places attention on the in and out flow of the breath, focusing on either the out breath at the nostrils or on the rise and fall of the abdomen. When attention wanders, the meditator simply notes the distraction and returns to the breath. This is repeated throughout the meditation session. After some stability has been attained, the meditator may let go of the focus on the breath and simply note whatever experience arises with an attitude of openness, acceptance and without making judgments or elaborations on their significance.
Why Mindfulness in the Criminal Justice System?
In the last decades an increasing number of studies have offered strong evidence that meditative practices have great value in health-care and mental health as well as improving well-being in general. In line with these findings, mindfulness meditation has been successfully applied in the international prison system. In an
important study in the US, a modified mindfulness program was offered to over 2,000 inmates in the Massachusetts correctional facilities, including one women’s prison, four medium security men’s prisons and one minimum security facility. A reported 1,350 inmates completed the program. Results showed that participants experienced less hostility, improved self-esteem, and better emotional control.
Meditation programs have only recently been introduced in British prisons. So far the experience has been more than rewarding. Results suggests that mindfulness training can help inmates develop greater emotional intelligence and self-regulation abilities. For example, a study found that after 10-week yoga programme in 7 British prisons participants showed increased positive emotions and reduced stress.
Mindfulness meditation has been shown to be effective in helping people improve their self-regulation skills by increasing their capacity to manage their emotions and reduce the use of maladaptive coping strategies. This is the most common need across all offenders’ populations.
Mindfulness for Justice Related Professionals
Not only current offenders can benefit from mindfulness practice but everyone involved in the criminal justice system. Only in the UK, mindfulness practice has been adopted by around 115 MPs in the British parliament. Such is the relevance of mindfulness for the justice related profession that well-known law schools such as Yale and Harvard teach mindfulness to their students. In October 2010, around 180 members of the legal profession participated in the conference named “The Mindful Lawyer” at the University of California’s Berkeley Law School, sitting together in meditative silence.
On the other hand, the prison is a special setting. It is both an institution where people may live for long or short periods and a workplace. Prison staff have several roles, with a focus on control and security within a high-risk environment balanced with care for people with complex characteristics and problems. Often, prison is a stressful and hazardous place to work, and the need for staff to be aware of and to maintain their health is, therefore, strong. Similarly, police officers have one of the most stressful and difficult jobs. Mindfulness can help reduce that stress. If police officers learn to meditate for a few minutes before starting to work every day, they would be more alert, less stressed and more effective. In consequence, more mindful criminal justice professionals may be less likely to display anger and aggression in response to threats, insults, and other forms of social rejection, and more likely to offer constructive, compassionate, optimistic responses to the unpleasant and offensive aspects of their work.
Mindfulness and Rehabilitation
Successful prison systems ensure safe custody and good order for detainees, but also opportunities for rehabilitation and reintegration on release back into the community. However, in the UK around 46% of adults are re-convicted within one year of release. And over 67% of under 18 year olds are re-convicted within a year of release. Then, what happens to offenders if they do not get the services they need? Further offending and worsening mental health problems. The two are interlinked. While the offending may have been a risk factor for mental health problems in the first place, it has long been understood that mental health problems in turn go on to be a risk factor for continued offending.
One of the possibilities to facilitate rehabilitation is the teaching of meditative practices in prisons. Research suggests that meditation-based programs may increase psychological well-being as a result of an increase in positive psychological states, such as hopefulness, optimism, and positive mood. This improvement in psychological well-being could enhance inmates’ ability to engage in rehabilitation and other types of treatment. Given that one major evaluation of rehabilitation programs in correctional settings is recidivism outcome, meditation- based programs have proven to be worthy treatment interventions.
Adapting Mindfulness for the Criminal Justice System
The notion of mental health recovery is gaining greater credence in many countries as the ultimate goal. It provides a radically new way of thinking about mental services and care, moving away from professionalization. It is not one and the same as clinical recovery; indeed it is recognized that some people with mental illness will continue to experience the symptoms of their illness. Mental health recovery is much more about social recovery and supporting the sufferer in overcoming many social deficits, thereby improving their quality of life. Such recovery is self-defined. Professionals cannot “recover” their patients. Recovery is something that can only be achieved by the person experiencing the mental health problem.
In this context, several barriers exist to developing meditation programs as a widespread intervention for people in prisons. Correctional facilities vary in the training and skill levels of their treatment counsellors. Rehabilitative programs are largely didactic, such as programs to address criminal thinking and anger management, and can be taught by anyone with knowledge of the content. In contrast, for mindfulness techniques, the trainers are expected to have a mindfulness practice themselves. As such, one potential approach to increase interest in mindfulness practices within the criminal justice system is to link meditation to, for example, 12-step recovery programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous.
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