Meditation: Healing Prisoners' Body and Mind

Meditation has been used by people, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, for years to help relieve stress. What place could be more stressful than a prison? Meditation has made its way into the New York State prison system as part of a prison contemplative program. These programs are available to both prisoners and staff and could include many different activities such as meditation, yoga, or prayer.


Meditation in Prisons is Not Just About Religion

Since the 1970s, alternative practices like meditation have been becoming more popular within the prison systems of both North America and Europe. These programs were, at one time, only offered by religious organizations, but now, they are being offered by many different groups both religious and non-religious.

Within the New York prison system, the inmates who participate in the meditation programs have been shown to have an easier time dealing with confinement than those who do not take part. For prisoners who take part in meditation programs, recidivism is lower, they are less likely to repeat their bad behaviors, and they have been shown to have fewer aggression issues both inside and outside of the prison environment. These prisoners are also less likely to get involved with drugs and show increased self-awareness and self-confidence in the real world.


The Prisons Decide if Meditation is a Religious or a Therapeutic Practice

Though these programs have been proven effective by multiple studies, there is still some controversy that surrounds meditation programs in prisons. To some, meditation programs are seen as missionary work. For this reason, they are not considered to be therapeutic programs. Many prisons are given the right to decide what does and does not constitute a real religion on prison grounds. In some prisons, Buddhism is not seen as a valid religion and therefore, is not given funding for programs within the prison.

Thankfully, Zen Buddhism is now being recognized within the New York prison system as a valid religion. Now, meditation is being taught more openly within these prisons, and the prisoners are able to reap the benefits. For more information on how meditation can change the lives of inmates, check out the 1997 documentary Doing Time, Doing Vipassana and the 2007 documentary Dhamma Brothers.

Doing Time, Doing Vipassana follows a meditation program that was implemented at Tihar Prisons in India. Over one thousand inmates took part, and one can observe the changes that take place in the inmates who are learning the art of meditation. The results were compiled by the Burmese Buddhist group and show a positive connection between meditation and the lives of the inmates.

The Dhamma Brothers takes place at Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer, Alabama. This documentary does a great job of showing how difficult it can be to start a meditation program in a facility, populated by a majority Christian population, that sees meditation and Buddhism as a threat. Learning to overcome these objections is the only way to spread meditation as a therapeutic aid throughout the prison systems of the world.