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.
Moreso, 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 in their article “Yoga Practice Reduces the Psychological Distress Levels of Prison Inmates.” They 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.
While there is evidence that yoga had a positive effect on one Israeli prison, the main argument this topic is faced with is that, if this rehab method does work, it might only work for prisons in the USA where we are a bit more lenient with the prisoners’ lifestyles, schedules, etc. However, other international studies suggest that yoga has a positive effect on prisoners all over the globe. While they might not focus on recidivism directly, the following article shows how yoga can benefit any prisoner on a psychological level. A study done in Catalan, Spain provides the necessary psychological research to withstand any rebuttal that this is a situational problem. The 2016 study, “Yoga in Penitentiary Settings: Transcendence, Spirituality, and Self-Improvement,” documented by Mar Griera, states that “modern prisons are institutions founded on the rehabilitative ideal,” meaning the primary prisons of research are moral, and this excludes, from any research, any immoral prisons in smaller, less wealthy countries.
The target penitentiaries are those that allow their inmates free time and their own human rights. Another attribute of this study is that all the yoga instructors were volunteers, so the eight-week program was conducted at virtually no cost. Furthermore, Griera concludes that “yoga, along with meditation, has gained presence in the penitentiary settings of many different countries like the US, Switzerland, Chile, the UK, and many others.” This summarizes only some of the multitude of studies done on this topic. Although, it alludes to the idea that this is an international method of rehabilitation, and therefore recidivism, because prisoners with a relaxed mindset are less likely to be affiliated with criminal activity in their years after release.
To further prove this, in their article “Participation in a 10-week Course of Yoga Improves Behavioural Control and Decreases Psychological Distress in a Prison Population”, Amy C. and colleagues study 167 randomly selected inmates from seven different British prisons. The researchers studied the effects of a ten-week yoga course and compare the results to a control group; Specifically, the inmates’ moods, behaviors, and levels of stress were monitored alongside a cognitive-behavioral test to measure psychological data. The study was considered an “exploratory trial” and the researchers did not take into consideration the possible reduction of recidivism, as they simply wanted to find out the instant psychological results.
In this experiment which was conducted in 2013, there were eight simple yoga positions used without meditation and the results are as follow. Amy C. reported that “prisoners who were randomly assigned to attend a ten-week yoga intervention reported improved mood, reduced stress, and reduced psychological distress… Furthermore, participants in the yoga group demonstrated improved performance in a cognitive-behavioural task.” This proves that yoga has an immediate effect on the lives of prisoners, and even if it won’t change their personalities or convert them into spiritual beings, it does have an effect on their behavior- and that’s something that everyone can agree is beneficial in a prison setting. This article also shows how yoga, an ancient eastern practice, can affect any human regardless of their location or situation. It’s not just an American scheme to make more money/please the public. There have been multiple studies done worldwide that demonstrate how yoga has a positive impact on the lives of convicted criminals.
Lastly, there is a 2019 article called “Lessons in Flexibility: Introducing a Yoga Program in an Australian Prison,” by authors Anthony Hopkins, Lorana Bartels, and Lisa Oxman that conducted research in an Australian prison. In compliance with the Yoga Foundation and the ACT Services (Australian Capitol Territory) they “introduced a pilot yoga program at the Alexander Maconochie Centre” and the results “advocate for the expansion of such programs in Australian prisons,” according to Hopkins. The study partook at the Alexander Manconochie Centre, or the AMC, which is the main housing location for every adult prisoner in the ACT. Hopkins documented in the article from 2019 that a majority of the prisoners were hardcore, they were tattoo-covered and muscular, convicted of high-scale felonies. Again, this research concludes that yoga has a highly positive impact on the participants, and this also goes to show that the use of yoga in penitentiaries is not only effective for common American prisoners convicted with relatively “permissible crimes”, but also for the prisoners who have committed more severe crimes. Of course, no crime is permissible because it breaks the law, but there is a difference between a prisoner whose minor demeanors have accumulated their sentence time and a prisoner who has committed a greater crime that deems them guilty for ten plus years, for example. That said, the use of yoga in prisons can be used on a grand scale and not just for American prisons because it is a psychological concept that can, with the right tools, be used worldwide.
On a broader spectrum, this level of rehabilitation might not seem possible to the average American because we might not know any better. However, there are many different instances where prisons would readily accept yoga class implementations because their prisons are “open”. For example, in Finland there are a number of “open prisons” where “prisoners apply to be there and the facilities don’t have gates, locks or uniforms. Prisoners earn money…and can also choose to study toward a university degree instead of working. Finland realized incarceration is not the answer to social problems,” as deemed by author Natalie Moore in 2021. This might be unrealistic to ask of penitentiaries around the world, since their systems and structures are already established, but it’s an interesting thing to consider. If the United States viewed prison as a more rehabilitative program versus a program of strictly punishment, there would be ample opportunity for improvement.
The idea that yoga will reduce recidivism in penitentiaries is not one that comes without skepticism. However, there have been numerous studies done internationally that refute these claims and offer support that yoga and meditation calm the inmates’ minds, stress, and behaviors, ultimately resulting in the reduction of crime for the foreseeable future. This is not limited to the prisons of America, as this principle has stretched far beyond the border, positively affecting prisoners anywhere from Spain to Australia and beyond.
Again, the generic outcome of these international studies has been a positive effect on mood, behavior, etc., but there are some circumstances where the individuals are completely transformed, physically and spiritually. Take into consideration that prisoners are spiritual people. While they may not be peace-sign flashing, gong-ringing, John Lennon sunglass-wearing individuals, they do contain a spiritual side. Every human on this planet is spiritual, in a sense, because our energy is recycled (at least according to Albert Einstein) and we are all part of the Earth, even if some people have not discovered their connection yet. Prisoners are no exception, and with a little time and effort, they can experience peace and tranquility, regardless of their past. Over the last few decades, yoga, an ancient practice of poses, breath control, and meditation, has been implemented into many penitentiaries as a form of rehabilitation. The evidence that yoga stabilizes the inmates’ stress levels and tempers, as well as reduces the likelihood of reincarcerations, is very prominent. However, since these programs are unconventional, there is a stigma behind it, and the practice is seen as “strange” and “useless” in its context. Many institutions refuse to reap the benefits of yoga in prisons because of this, which leaves the future a mystery. Although, with more explanation and promotion of these studies, the right people will be persuaded and yoga will be used as a diversionary method in many prisons in the years to come.
To properly advocate for the discredited practice one must first overcome the stigma surrounding it. In her 2019 article “Beyond Narcissism: Towards an Analysis of the Public, Political and Collective Forms of Contemporary Spirituality”, author Anna Clot-Garrell describes how the “stereotypical portraits of holistic spirituality have usually depicted its followers as narcissistic individuals.” To combat this stereotype, she, with the help of others, put together an experiment consisting of yoga classes at three different Catalan prison locations from 2013 to 2015. Different methods of data collection were used including peer observation, surveys, and in-depth interviews to understand the inmates’ true judgements of yoga before and after the programs, according to Clott-Garrel.
The idea was to minimize the scrutiny by bringing yoga off its pedestal of narcissism, and create a public, communal environment of bettering oneself. These researchers determined that when brought out of the private sphere yoga is encased in, the participants’ opinions changed drastically and the classes were collectively sought after by the population of the experiment. Clot-Garrel concluded that “nowadays” (many years after the experiment), “almost all penitentiary institutions in Catalonia offer yoga classes for inmates, in addition to other spiritual practices such as meditation or reiki. This provision is not exclusive to Catalan prisons but represents a general trend identifiable in several countries ranging from Switzerland, to the United States, Mexico and India.” This demonstrates how, if given a chance, yoga can be an effective medium to diminish the stigmatization of spirituality, and create a desire for self-improvement and tranquility, even for prison inmates.
While these findings are a significant milestone for the yoga in prisons movement, it’s difficult to foresee the future on a national scale. The problems of practicality like cost and time restraints are still hindering the spread of this rehabilitation device. In order to promote yoga in prisons and spark change in the legal system, word must get out about how simple and cost-effective it is to establish these programs in penitentiaries. There are several nonprofit organizations helping to advertise these practices such as PrisonYogaProject, YogaBehindBars, PrisonYogaAndMeditation, and WorldPrem. PrisonYogaProject alone has provided over 75 different prison locations across the United States with yoga courses, and has sent over 33,000 complimentary copies of their book “Yoga: a Path for Healing and Recovery” to incarcerated persons. This organization is an example of the potential popularity of the yoga in prisons initiative.
Furthermore, inmate M.V. of the RJ Donovan State Prison in San Diego, CA, can attest to the healing and transcendental properties of yoga. He/she is an active participant in yoga classes and told PrisonYogaProject officials that “being a lifer at times becomes a bit rough… yoga gives me a mirror that I can see my reflection in all day, every day, to feel and live. I cleanse myself, I heal myself. I put myself together to become whole. It’s different from the ego…The renewal is exactly what yoga seeks, evolution, knowing that change is possible in a way that is organic,” and this is all documented on the PrisonYogaProject website. While M.V. is a ‘lifer’ and therefore cannot be included as an example of reduction of recidivism, he/she demonstrates how these programs can have an everlasting effect on an inmate of any sentence or situation, no matter how useless it may seem at first glance. More so, these nonprofits show how yoga programs do not need to take an economical toll on the legal system, and these concerns are obsolete.
Another feared complication of functionality for yoga in prisons is the time requirement. Most prisons around the world are already dead set on a strict schedule of roll-call, meal time, telephone calls, and retiring/sleeping time, which may convey the impression that yoga simply won’t fit into the lives of the inmates. A document made in 2017 outlining the standard recreational time policies prisons are to adhere to, “Correctional Recreation: An Overview” by author Michael Ryan Alexander, refutes this idea. Alexander emphasizes the importance of recreational time for prisoners, and states that the rulings of the U.S. legal system have “resulted in a general standard that inmates are entitled to five hours of recreation per week.” This is required in every prison in the United States. It may not seem like a big time frame, but if the stigma around yoga vanishes altogether, most prisoners would opt to spend their time relaxing and healing instead of lollygagging around the prison doing their usual activities.
Overall, the future of yoga in prisons is straightforward and the implementation of more programs is achievable. The only obstacles to overcome are the judgements of prison officials; to combat the preconceived notion that yoga is only for eccentric, bohemian people to practice in their private lives. Studies show that yoga does in fact reduce recidivism at impressive rates, it’s just a matter of wardens and officials understanding and complying with the data. It’s unrealistic to predict yoga will be used in every prison institution worldwide, but as for the United States, the facts are all laid out and it’s up to them to make the next move to better their institutions. If this is achieved, yoga will have a substantial effect on not only the prisoners themselves, but the penitentiaries in general by lowering rates of recidivism and, by correlation, helping the country stay safe.
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