Prisons, or at least good prisons worth writing about, are constantly looking for ways to improve themselves as establishments. Such ways include, but are not limited to, actively engaging inmates in sports and exercise, improving sanitation for daily life of inmates, having inmates grow food on institution property that they can later harvest and eat for better health, and even authorities and staff implementing cultural practices to give inmates a sense of pride in their backgrounds. These are all relatively new processes that are still being studied, and the one that sticks out is the use of yoga and meditation.
We’ve been brainwashed by popular culture to believe all inmates are hostile and it seems like such a bizarre practice for people who are viewed as barbarians by the general public- could a person leading a violent life of crime really convert to inner peace and spirituality? To evaluate this, and to change our negative perception of prisoners, one must look closely at how yoga affects the prisoners’ lives in and out of the penitentiary. It’s not enough to ease their minds and stress levels, but to really make a difference within them so that they are never imprisoned again. The recent studies on this topic have done a great job of this, which is why one can conclude that using yoga as a diversionary practice in penitentiaries will lower the overall rate of recidivism.
To begin, it’s important to understand that recidivism is the “tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend,” as written by Oxford Languages. That said, to establish a sense that prisons have improved over the last decades and that these programs do in fact make a difference, it’s necessary to explain records from the US Department Of Justice on rates of recidivism from the years 1970, 1978, and 1980. In 1986, authors G Gaes, H Lebowitz, and E Singleton reported that “the random samples of releases, limited to inmates whose sentences were longer than 1 year and 1 day… were respectively 51.4 percent for 1970 , 43.9 percent for 1978, and 38 percent for 1780.” Most of these special programs were established in the 1970s in sort of a hippie/bring-peace-to-everyone act, so it’s easy to see the correlation. Specifically, these programs impact recidivism rates by shaping the inmates’ mindsets and reforming them into peaceful, compliant citizens through means of lowering stress levels and improving mental states.
In the 2005 article “Free Inside: A Program to Help Inmates Cope with Life in Prison at Maui Community Correctional Center,”authors Elizabeth Duncombe, Dawna Komorsky, Evaon Wong-Kim, and Winston M Turner state that there are eight crucial requirements needed for an inmate’s graceful adjustment to prison life, “privacy, safety, structure, support, emotional feedback, social stimulation, activity, and freedom.” Yoga, a practice performed by the ancient Indians since 3000 B.C., has the ability to meet all eight of these requirements in its own way, even in a stressful jail setting. The poses and stretches provide great physical stimulation, but the part that gives inmates the most clarity and relaxation is the spirituality of it all. Yoga has a property that soothes and heals the mind of any stress or negativity; even on a grand scale it chips away at unwanted nerve expression in the body.
More so, in the 2020 article “A Systematic Review of Literature: Alternative Offender Rehabilitation—Prison Yoga, Mindfulness, and Meditation,” author Dragana Derlic establishes the facts that loneliness, trauma, and absence of freedom in the prison are all factors that contribute to an inmate’s mental and emotional deterioration, sometimes resulting in anxiety and depression as they become filled with anger and hatred at the world. Recall the stigma that prisoners are naturally violent and aggressive by nature. Derlic contradicts this by showing how most of the time it’s the bleak day-to-day routine of the prison itself that leads to increasingly angrier inmates, and therefore, inmates that will tend to reoffend. The institutions operate like a food production factory, taking in one-time convicted individuals, grinding them up with the inadequate standards of living, and popping them out on an assembly line even more confused and hate-filled than before. Life without any physical or mental stimulation is so boring and colorless, and it makes sense that it can get inside of and twist the human mind, something that’s evolutionarily structured with a thirst for knowledge and abstract thought, which is incredibly hard to come by in a prison setting. Sometimes all these inmates need is an outlet, a hobby that allows for expression and creativity, just like anyone does, and yoga can be just that.
In 2018, researchers Doctor Sfendla and colleagues incorporated voluntary yoga into the daily routine of a random sample of prisoners and found that there was a significant decrease in “paranoia, suspicion, and fearful thoughts and had a positive effect on obsessive-compulsive disorder,” as well as a “significant improvement in both positive and negative psychotic symptoms in participants with schizophrenia.” This undeniably supports the idea that yoga is a benefactor in mental health disorders as well, which attributes to a big percentage of those incarcerated today in prisons rather than mental institutions because they do not receive the proper testing or treatment. Going back to Derlic, in her article she explains how the main goal of the program she studied was to “help inmates adjust to the environment around them and to provide them with the skills necessary to be successful upon release.” This measure of success is how they live their lives after the fact and whether or not they resort to their old ways, getting tied back up into a life of ongoing crime.
This holds true for inmates with severe mood issues like mental health illnesses, however, the argument that yoga in prisons will lower the rates of recidivism might not hold the same weight when dealing with mentally stable prisoners who were simply born into the wrong circumstances and were forced to use crime as a crutch. Again, Oxford Languages tells us that recidivism is the “tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend,” and a specific study documented in 2020 by authors Shaked Kovalsky, Badi Hasisi, Noam Haviv, and Ety Elisha demonstrates this without focusing on the mental statuses and spiritual transcendence of the prisoners, but simply the recidivism rates. It shows not only the correlation between implementation of yoga programs and the reductions of recidivism, but the causation between them through solid evidence. The article, “Can Yoga Overcome Criminality? The Impact of Yoga on Recidivism in Israeli Prisons,” shows the exact findings and conclusions of an experiment between released prisoners who voluntarily participated in yoga classes during incarceration compared to a control group of released prisoners who had no yoga experience during their time in jail. The credibility of this experiment was ensured by creating a “propensity-score matching system,” and a statistical follow up of over five years. The study found that after the first year the control group had a reincarceration rate of 15.91% while the group that practiced yoga had a rate of only 5.67%. Additionally, for the results two years later, the control group had a rate of 26.57% as compared to the yoga group of 4.77%. For the third year, the results were 31.30% and 4.42% and for the fourth year it was 37.10% versus 4.42%. Amazingly, logged over five years post-release, 40.72% of the control group was incarcerated while only 4.66% of the group that practiced yoga was.
This is groundbreaking data that supports the idea that yoga leads to reduced rates of recidivism, and not just immediately but over extended periods of time. Mood and stress levels are things that fluctuate constantly and if yoga solely helped to ease these factors, it would not have an effect on an inmate’s mood five years after being released from jail because it obviously would have changed. This study also goes to show that yoga doesn’t only affect the mentally ill, because it had significant results on the population that was not a random sample; The participants were specifically picked out to be studied based on a propensity-score matching scale to eliminate any bias or sources of error. The definition of pure recidivism is foggy and misused often, but this research demonstrates that using yoga in prisons does more than rehabilitate the inmates, it diverts them away from violence and crime altogether to be reformed in physical, mental, and spiritual ways.
“Oxford Languages and Google-English” Oxford Languages. (n.d). Web 2 November 2021.
“Recidivism Among Federal Offenders” US Department of Justice. G G Gaes, 1986. Web 2 November 2021.
“A Systematic Review of Literature: Alternative Offender Rehabilitation—Prison Yoga, Mindfulness, and Meditation” Sage Journals. Dragana Derlic, 15 September 2020. Web 25 October 2021
“Free Inside: A Program to Help Inmates Cope with Life in Prison at Maui Community Correctional Center” ResearchGate. Elizabeth Duncombe, Dawna Komorsky, Evaon Wong-Kim, and Winston M Turner, December 2005. Web 2 November 2021.
“Yoga Practice Reduces the Psychological Distress Levels of Prison Inmates” NCBI. Anis Sfendla, Petter Malmström, Sara Torstensson, and Nóra Kerekes, 3 September 2018. Web 2 November 2021
“Can Yoga Overcome Criminality? The Impact of Yoga on Recidivism in Israeli Prisons” PubMed. Shaked Kovalsky, Badi Hasisi, Noam Haviv, and Ety Elisha, 14 April 2020. Web 25 October 2021.