Prison contemplative programs

Prison contemplative programs

Prison contemplative programs are classes or practices — including meditation, yoga, contemplative prayer or similar — that are offered at correctional institutions for inmates and prison staff. There are many stated benefits of these programs - such a stress relief for inmates and staff [Bartollas (1985) p.141] - and some measured and anecdotally reported benefits in studies. These programs are gaining in acceptance in North America and Europe but are not mainstream.

These programs may be part of prison religious offerings and ministry or may be wholly secular. Of those sponsored by religious organizations some are presented in non-sectarian or in non-religious formats. They have had increasing interest in North American prisons since the early 1970's [ [ "An Unlikely Source For Meditative Study", Queens Tribune, Jan 12, 2008] ] . Contemplative practices in prison however date back at least to Pennsylvania prison reforms in the late 18th century [ Pennsylvania Prison Society history] ] [ William Penn biographic note about prisons] ] and may have analogs in older correctional history.

In North America, they have been sponsored by Eastern religious traditions, Christian groups, [ [ World Community of Christian Meditation prison Ministry] ] [ [ Fr. Thomas Keating's Centering Prayer program at Folsom State Prison] ] new spiritual movements such as the Scientology-related Criminon prison program, as well as interfaith groups.


Early Pennsylvania prisons, based on Quaker ideas, [Adamson (2001) pp.35-58] [Dumm (1985) pp. 387-407] used meditation upon one's crimes as a core component of rehabilitation. [Sutherland, Cressey, and Luckenbill (1992) pp.502-503] [Knapp (1834) pp.71-72 [ direct page view] ] When combined with isolation this became known as the Pennsylvania System. James Mease in the early 19th century described this approach involving isolation and meditation and the logic behind it:

" [Repentance of crime is produced by:] (1) a tiresome state of mind from idle seclusion; (2) self-condemnation arising from deep, long-continued and poignant reflections upon a guilty life. All our endeavors, therefore, ought to be directed to the production of that state of mind, which will cause a convict to concentrate his thoughts upon his forlorn condition, to abstract himself from the world, and to think of nothing except that suffering and the privations he endures, the result of his crimes. Such a state of mind is totally incompatible with the least mechanical operation, but is only to be brought about, if ever, by complete mental and bodily insulation.Sutherland, Cressey, and Luckenbill (1992) pp.579-580]

This approach was critiqued in the late 19th and early 20th century, specifically with research showing the isolation it incorporated was causing more harm than benefit. [Smith (2004) pp. 1-25] Modern contemplative programs are voluntary and generally in groups instead of in isolation.

Modern programs

In the 1970's organizations such as the Prison-Ashram Project [ New York Times review of The Dhamma Brothers by Whitney Joiner] ] and SYDA Foundation began programs to offer meditation or yoga instruction to inmates. [Brooks (2000) pp.109, 154] [ 2001 conference description detailing history] ] In subsequent years more religious groups began meditation programs, such as the Prison Dharma Network in 1989.

In India these programs became more well known after a highly publicized set of prison reforms in 1993. Kiran Bedi assumed the role of Inspector General of Prisons which included overseeing Tihar Prisons. She introduced yoga and large scale meditation programs at that prison and these programs were filmed and released as the documentary "Doing Time, Doing Vipassana". Because of her reforms there she received the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1994. [ [ "Tihar Jail is a good model for prisons in India", July 2001, Good News India] ] Four more religious groups have established meditation programs at the prison, and intensive retreats inside the prison are offered each year.

One issue with these programs is finding suitable places for meditation, since prisons might not have appropriate places that are quiet or away from activity. [Beckford and Gilliat-Ray (1998) pp. 11, 51-55, 82]

Programs have extended outside of prisons to include prisoner re-integration into society and efforts to teach to at risk youth. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's Prison Smart Los Angeles Youth Project teaches meditation to gangs.


Generally, modern meditation programs are described as helping inmates deal with the stress of confinement. [Bartollas (1985) p.141] Studies of Transcendental Meditation programs specifically found reduced aggression, reduced rule infractions, and reduced recidivism up to six years after release. [Alexander (2003) pp.169-174] [O'Connell and Alexander (2004) p.27] Anecdotally, in a 1984 Guatemalan prison program that was studied, guards reported less violence and drug use when inmates and guards both took meditation programs. [O'Connell and Alexander (2004) pp.280-282]

In a study published in 2004 authors Komanduri Srinivasa Murty, Angela M. Owens, and Ashwin Vyas conclude the benefits of meditation programs in prisons include:
* reduced drug use, recidivism, violence, anger, and self-destructive and risk-taking behavior
* enhanced employability and balanced life-style
* increased self-awareness, self-confidence, and hopefulness.They further contend that those programs reduced alcohol and substance abuse. [ Murty, Owens, and Vyas (2004) p.237]


Prison contemplative programs attract controversy when seen as religious missionary work. And some Buddhist groups do use contemplative practice programs as a way to promote Buddhism to prisoners. [Queen (2000) p.347] Prisons have sometimes asked religious groups to explicitly offer non-religious programs. [Queen (2000) pp.363-364]

Not all prisons allow contemplative programs. Some inmates or organizations have used religious freedom provisions as a way to secure programs in prisons.Queen (2000) pp.355-357] In the United States prisoners are allowed to hold any religious beliefs, but the courts have decided that prisons have some latitude in deciding which religious practices occur. Prisons are allowed to consider include inmate safety, security, and operations of the prison when considering a religious program. [ Carlson and Garrett (1999) p.117] But court actions recognizing Zen Buddhism as an "acceptable religion" secured meditation programs in New York prisons. Author Christopher Queen feels that funding in the United States for prison contemplative programs was hampered in 1997 by the repeal of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. [Queen (2000) p.365]


Two documentaries depicting prison meditation programs have received significant review. "Doing Time, Doing Vipassana" released in 1997 documented a large scale meditation program at Tihar Prisons in India with over a thousand inmates. [ [ SFGate review of Doing Time, Doing Vipassana by Mick LaSalle] ] [ [,gonnerman,65606,20.html Village Voice review of Doing Time, Doing Vipassana by Jennifer Gonnerman] ] [ [ New York Times review of Doing Time, Doing Vipassana by Stephen Holden] ] [ [ TV Guide review of Doing Time, Doing Vipassana by Ken Fox] ] The results of the program, organized by the Burmese Buddhist group lead by S. N. Goenka, were considered very positive. [ [ Tihar Prisons Rehabilitation web page] ] That program and film brought greater attention to prison contemplative programs.

"The Dhamma Brothers" released in 2007 documented a smaller scale, optional meditation program implemented at Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer, Alabama. That film depicts controversy as the meditation program is perceived by residents as missionary and anti-Christian. [ [ movie review of The Dhamma Brothers] ] [ [ New York Times review of The Dhamma Brothers by WHITNEY JOINER] ] [ [ New York Times review of The Dhamma Brothers by Jeannette Coutsoulis, April 11, 2008] ] [ [ TV Guide review of The Dhamma Brothers by Ken Fox] ] [ [,tracking-3,404106,20.html Village Voice review of The Dhamma Brothers by Julia Wallace] ]

See also

* Prison reform
* Prison religion



* Adamson, Christopher (2001) "Evangelical Quakerism and the Early American Penitentiary Revisited: The Contributions of Thomas Eddy, Robers Vaux, John Griscom, Stephen Grellet, Elisha Bates, and Isaac Hopper." Quaker History 2001 90(2): 35-58 24p.
* Alexander, Charles Nathaniel (2003) "Transcendental Meditation in Criminal Rehabilitation and Crime Prevention" ISBN 0-78902-037-8
* Bartollas, Clemens (1985) "Correctional Treatment: Theory and Practice" ISBN 0-13178-328-9
* Beckford, James A. and Gilliat-Ray, Sophie (1998) "Religion in Prison: Equal Rites in a Multi-faith Society" ISBN 0-52162-246-8
* Brooks, Douglas Renfrew (2000) "Meditation Revolution: A History and Theology of the Siddha Yoga Lineage" ISBN 8-12081-648-X
* Carlson, Peter M. and Garrett, Judith Simon (1999) "Prison And Jail Administration: Practice And Theory" ISBN 0-83420-867-9
* Dumm, Thomas L. (1985) "Friendly Persuasion: Quakers, Liberal Toleration, and the Birth of the Prison" Political Theory 1985 13(3): 387-407 21p.
* Knapp, Samuel Lorenzo (1834) "The Life of Thomas Eddy" [ Full version]
* Murty, Komanduri and Owens, Angela and Vyas, Ashwin (2004) "Voices from Prison: An Ethnographic Study of Black Male Prisoners" ISBN 0-76182-966-0
* O'Connell, David F. and Alexander, Charles N (2004) "Self-Recovery: Treating Addictions Using Transcendental Meditation and Maharishi Ayur-Veda" ISBN 1-56024-454-2
* Smith, Peter S. (2004) "Isolation and Mental Illness in Vridsloselelle 1859-1873: a new perspective on the breakthrough of the modern penitentiary" Scandinavian Journal of History 2004 29(1): 1-25 25p.
* Sutherland, Edwin H. and Cressey, Donald Ray and Luckenbill, David F. (1992) "Principles of Criminology" ISBN 0-93039-069-5
* Queen, Christopher S. (2000) "Engaged Buddhism in the West" ISBN 0-86171-159-9

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