How practicing meditation in prison can help inmates cope

meditation in prison

Drew Leder.

For many prisoners, meditation, mindfulness and contemplative practices have proved to be the key to surviving the insanity and stress they encounter every day. And there are several organizations designed to help them in their efforts.

“The single best thing that could happen in prisons around the country is to get prisoners meditating,” says Drew Leder, M.D., Ph.D., a philosophy professor at Loyola University Maryland and prison volunteer. He believes that rather than just serving time, incarceration can be a time for “inner change” and an opportunity for prisoners to create peace not only within themselves but also with the world around them.

Leder has been teaching a philosophy class, which integrates elements of mindfulness and meditation, at the Jessup Correctional Institution, a maximum/medium security facility operated by the Maryland Dept. of Public Safety and Correctional Services in Jessup, Md., for the past eight years. He’s also written several books. The most recent, Distressed Body: Rethinking Illness, Imprisonment and Healing, includes writings by long-term inmates.

Ways meditation can benefit the lives of prisoners

Through his work in the prison and his background as a medical doctor and philosopher, Leder clearly sees the benefits that reflective practices can offer to those incarcerated.

He mentions three ways in particular that meditation/mindfulness can improve their lives. It can:

  1. Lower a person’s level of reactivity and impulsivity. When triggered by an officer or another prisoner, you take those breaths and step away, he says. Detachment and self-awareness are what stop you from getting triggered and can help prevent you from ending up in solitary confinement.
  1. Help them develop a deep spiritual practice. I’ve met prisoners who have a serious meditation practice and go to a deep place, he says. Having access to that spiritual transcendence can help you deal with the wreck that your life is in and the fact that you have to serve a long amount of time.
  1. Provide a calming effect. Prison environments can be very loud, obtrusive, chaotic and potentially violent, and prisoners use meditation as a way to just keep equanimity and lower their stress level physiologically as well as emotionally, he says. Some of them are leaning toward right thinking, in which they choose to reframe things in a more positive fashion. Rather than thinking, “my cell mate is a terrible person,” imagine what terrible things he must have gone through in his past. This is especially useful when you are in a toxic environment.
Ask prison librarian for help

For those people in prisons or jails without meditation/mindfulness classes or programs, Leder suggests talking to the institution’s librarian, if there is one, and asking them to find books or online materials that will outline the steps needed to set up an individual practice.

Prison and jail librarians might also want to check out The Power of Meditation: Finding the Freedom Within, a brochure that Leder has been producing and distributing for 15 years and which he recently updated.

It includes a brief introduction to the benefits of developing a contemplative practice in prison, testimonials from prisoners in several institutions and a resource list of organizations that work with prisoners or supply them with information on meditation and mindfulness.

Organizations that help prisoners develop a mindfulness/meditation practice

Leder says that, of these organizations, two in particular stand out in terms of their dedication to serving the prison population:

  • The Prison-Ashram Project of the Human Kindness Foundation – This organization, based in Durham, N.C., sends out free personal spirituality practice books to inmates all over the world. It receives about 400 letters from inmates each week, and volunteers answer every single one of them.
  • The Siddha Yoga Prison Project – Operated out of the Siddha Yoga Ashram in Oakland, Calif., as part of the SYDA Foundation, it provides its Siddha Yoga Home Study Course to prisoners free of charge; donates other books and CDs to prisoners and prison librarians; and trains volunteers to conduct workshops within prisons.

In addition to Loyola University’s website for the project, which includes The Power of Meditation: Finding the Freedom Within brochure and links to the copy for its individual sections. Leder has also sent out more than 1,300 hard copies to prison and jail librarians.