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Mindfulness Behind Bars

Prison Cropped “A black wall comes over me like before—rage.”

Sandy’s chest is heaving and her voice rising thinly as she remembers a confrontation she had the previous week. Sandy is no stranger to rage. It’s why she has landed in the Lowell Correctional Institute for Women in Ocala, Florida, where she’s serving a 40-year sentence for murder.

Lowell C. I. is where I met Sandy, a participant in the Mind-Body Stress Reduction program that I and others have been teaching since January of 2007. Our program has adapted Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program for the ever-changing circumstances of a penal institution. We have now completed 11 eight-week voluntary classes, with roughly 120 women in each class, from this prison of 2,800 inmates, where the average education level is 6th grade.

In the program, women are introduced to mindfulness practices such as sitting and walking meditation, mindful yoga, and focused attention on their breathing. They also participate in group discussions about the challenges of these practices, the multiple effects of stress, and how to respond less impulsively to the stresses in their lives. They are learning to meditate in rough circumstances. Most are in noisy dorms, doubled-bunked with more than 80 other women—a mix of violent and non-violent offenders—and lack air-conditioning even in Florida’s hot, steamy summers.

And yet the women report significant changes over the course of our program: an ability to pause before acting, a greater awareness of their body and emotions, and the ability to manage anger, anxiety, and panic more effectively, often choosing to walk away from altercations and even de-escalate highly charged situations. We also hear repeatedly from participants that the program helps them fall asleep more easily, feel less tension in their bodies, experience more moments of calm and peace, become more accepting of themselves and others (even those who are often “in their face”), and focus more on education in prison. Their accounts echo the results of a 2007 study published in The Prison Journal, in which researchers brought MBSR into the Massachusetts prison system and found significant improvements in inmates’ self-esteem, as well as lower hostility and mood disturbance.

The benefits of a program like ours extend well beyond the prison walls. In a system where incarcerating women costs Florida taxpayers about $20,000 per head annually, and where more than 40 percent of women released from a Florida prison will be convicted of another offense within five years, we desperately need effective and economical strategies for reducing recidivism rates. Our observations so far suggest that the program may not only help women manage feelings of anger, depression, anxiety, and helplessness in prison; it may provide the social and emotional skills they need to function in society after their release. Also consider that of the 116,000 women in state or federal prisons nationwide, over three-quarters have children under 18, whose chances of ending up in prison themselves are high. We are offering tools that women can use not only in how they relate to themselves, but in how they relate to their children.

The classes are not a panacea. We are gardeners sowing seeds that may take years to grow. Yet the results so far are unmistakable. Sandy, for one, has reported moments of happiness for the first time in years. Now when she talks about the rage she feels toward someone else, her story has a different ending. “I remember my breath,” she says, “and know that whatever I am feeling has nothing to do with her. I can back off.”



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