By Andrew C. Whitman, ACLR Featured Online Contributor

The people in prison are us. They’re not monsters. And, more importantly—whether we want them to or not—they’re getting out. So do you want them to come out angrier and meaner?1

This year, 700,000 people will return home from prison.2

“I’ve always justified some of my behavior during that crime, and on Day 5 I just couldn’t get away from myself. I had to actually see it.”3 So said Grady Bankhead, a man currently serving a life without parole sentence for capital murder at Donaldson Prison in Birmingham, Alabama. “Day 5” refers to the midway point of a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat for prisoners, recorded in the documentary The Dhamma Brothers.4 It is an example of the growing number of prison meditation programs.5 Such programs are typically justified as a way to rehabilitate prisoners and ease suffering. Meditation is indeed a powerful method of rehabilitation, but programs also further two other major philosophical justifications for punishment: retribution and deterrence.

Mr. Bankhead discovered something meditators around the world already know: meditation can provide a window into how one’s past experiences and decisions influence present circumstances. It also provides a variety of benefits directly tailored toward improving peoples’ ability to cope with difficult circumstances. On a hormonal level, studies have shown that meditation increases serotonin6 and decreases cortisol,7 resulting in less stress and more happiness. It may also decrease neuroticism8 and addiction.9 Moreover, the practice’s ancient roots have inspired essential texts and millennia of anecdotal evidence. The movement toward using meditation in prisons mirrors a larger movement encouraging the same in many other stressful settings. Veterans have seen a 40-55% reduction in PTSD symptoms10 and improved quality of life. Even law students and lawyers have been meditating in increasing numbers.11 In each of these fields the same basic principles come to bear: meditation is a way to observe one’s thoughts, feelings, and emotions in a non-judgmental way, leading to improved awareness of everyday life and the practitioner’s response to it.

Rehabilitation—the view that incarceration should be used to improve the individual to return him to the mores of society— is the most common justification provided for prison meditation programs. The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines explicitly recognize the importance of rehabilitation,12 and it was once a ubiquitous justification for punishment.13 While the rehabilitation paradigm largely gave way to the retribution paradigm in the 1980’s,14 rehabilitation is beginning to return as an important use of and justification for incarceration.15 

Meditation directly furthers rehabilitation goals. Prisoners are often individuals who struggle with their control over emotional responses and ability to cope with circumstances;16 meditation empowers them to take control of their lives. As one researcher explains, “Mindfulness-based programs may . . . enhance self-management abilities.”17 An internalized locus of control, along with meditation’s tendency to reduce aggression, stress, and addiction, helps prisoners improve their lives and develop the skills necessary to return to society.

Meditation can also allow prisoners to cope in a very stressful and difficult environment, allowing other rehabilitation efforts to succeed. For example, in juvenile prisoner educational programs, a study showed that the incorporation of mindfulness meditation slowed the rate of attention degradation.18 Meditation can also help with addiction: “participants in the [Vipassana Meditation] course, as compared with those in a treatment-as-usual control condition, showed significant reductions in alcohol, marijuana, and crack cocaine use.”19 Taken together, the various benefits of meditation are directly tailored toward life skills that prisoners need most.

While the benefits of meditation programs are relatively clear when viewed from a rehabilitation paradigm, not everyone agrees that this is the proper way to view punishment. Many believe that sentencing should be primarily retributive—we punish prisoners because they deserve it. Proponents tend to see rehabilitation as elitist and paternalistic. From this perspective, making excuses for behavior—or implicitly doing so by using rehabilitation to “bring someone up” to society’s standards—demeans the criminal's status as a free and responsible moral agent. Efforts to improve the prisoner’s condition directly contradict the purposes of punishment in the first place. As a local civilian in The Dhamma Brothers says disapprovingly, “they should have meditated before they committed their crimes.”

While this may be true, it’s too late for that. Even those who subscribe to this vision of punishment can find solace in the fact that meditation often raises empathy and consciousness of one’s past decisions, and helps the individual feel self-responsibility for them. Instead of rationalizing behavior, they are forced to face their demons directly. Grady Bankhead, the prisoner who experienced painful self-reflection, also said, “I spent 8 ½ years on death row and this was harder.” Instead of saying, “it’s all in the game,” prisoners are forced to dwell on the consequences of their actions. If forcing prisoners to develop empathy for their victims isn’t a form of punishment, I don’t know what is.

In addition, meditation programs improve deterrence—the “act of making someone decide not to do something.”20 From the pure retributionist perspective, using incarceration to deter is impermissible because it is consequentialist; the punishment is performed to achieve a certain outcome, like influencing behavior. Those who accept deterrence as at least a partial justification for incarceration, however, can enjoy the enormous impact that meditation programs have had on recidivism. For example, three studies examined by Samuel Himelstein demonstrate that meditation reduces recidivism by up to 43.5% fifteen years after release from prison compared to matched controls.21

This effect might be partially influenced by the fact that mediation aids other rehabilitation efforts. Studies have showed that meditation, in addition to improving self-reported psychological measures—depression, neuroticism, sleep disturbance, suspicion, hostility, aggression, and assault—also improve “hard” measures like reduced prison rule infractions and increased participation in educational and recreational programs.22

Lastly, meditation programs can help decrease overall crime because prisoners do not live in a vacuum. Even if there is no opportunity to deter the particular prisoner—because he is serving a life sentence—he may have family and friends over whom he still wields an enormous amount of influence.

There is substantial evidence that meditation programs in prisons help deter behavior and rehabilitate inmates up to community standards. By helping prisoners develop empathy and self-awareness, moreover, we can more comfortably say that they are suffering in an appropriate manner for their crimes. While it is beyond the scope of this article to prescribe exactly what meditation programs might look like, allowing non-profits to provide programs inside the prison and providing for a quiet space is a start. For those prisons who want to aggressively attack recidivism, a combination of a mindfulness program and educational opportunities seems to be very effective. As the warden in The Dhamma Brothers admonishes, “[w]e have to be willing to be progressive and willing to take risks—and the risks are very small. The only failure is the person who didn’t try.”