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September 4, 2011

Should all prison inmates be offered meditation classes?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this article appearing the the Houston Chronicle. The piece is headlined "Meditation helps inmates reach 'natural awareness',"and it begins this way:

Barefooted, eyes closed in reverie, bodies folded into lotus position, the men in white chanted the ancient Seven Line Supplication to Guru Rinpoche, who brought Buddhism to Tibet in the eighth century.  As their voices swelled, their leader, Galveston artist Terry Conrad, swayed with the cadence.  Pe ma gey sar dong pol la.  Yam Tsen chog gi ngo drub nyey.

This could have been a scene from a 1960's love-in, with college-age acolytes - decked out in exotic garb -- paying fervid homage to the wisdom of the East.  But these men were not students, and their attire was anything but exotic.  They are inmates at Beaumont's Mark Stiles state prison; their duds, functional prison whites.  And, under Conrad's gentle guidance, they were here to meditate.

Now in its eighth year, the weekly program offered through the prison chaplain's office, is designed to help prisoners, some guilty of the most heinous offenses, achieve "natural awareness."

"Meditation," Conrad said, "is not about creating a certain state. It's just an opportunity to be present to whatever is going on.  Sometimes that's quiet and peaceful, other times the mind is going 100 mph."  Such awareness can help the individual "become who they truly are -- innately good and wise and compassionate."

"How has this changed me?" said John Harrup, 39, of Magnolia, who has been part of the class since its inception. "I was a different person when I came in here.  It has taught me to be more patient, how to deal with people. In laymen's terms, how to communicate better, how to understand another person's viewpoint, to realize that my way is not always the right way."

September 4, 2011 at 05:58 PM | Permalink

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Comments

Since this program of focused activity appears to have the benefits, or potential benefits, of
a) helping inmates cope better with prison life
b) aiding a process of mental self-healing
c) contributing to the aims of rehabilitation
d) costing little
I would think it a very worthwhile program to encourage and expand, alongside others.

Posted by: peter | Sep 5, 2011 5:44:11 AM

Inmates should have all mainstream religions available to practice. Despite being a devout atheist, I do not bash religion. I support its teaching people with an IQ below 125 why they should work to support their families, why the full time Roman orgy lifestyle is not for them, and why they should obey the rules to prosper. Religious societies are prosperous. I am a Weberian, in that sense. Max Weber studied Calvinism and Protestantism as engines of prosperity. I can see the fantastic achievements of ancient Egypt and the Incas, all in the name of their religions.

In Egypt, the Nile floods for 6 months, so there is no farming to do for 100,00) men. You can imagine if the entire male population is unemployed and has nothing to do. So probably a lawyer, calling himself a priest, says to Pharaoh, who has untold wealth from military domination, he says, "You want immortality? You have to build a pyramid with a hole very precisely lined up with the stars for your spirit to pass through. You take all your beloved possessions, relatives and staff with you. We will kill them , and pack them for your voyage." It worked. Recent excavations show that many middle class families thrived, with nice homes, around the pyramids. These pyramids continue to generate $5 billion in tourism, today. Very few objects from 4000 years ago still function to that great extent.

I respect that kind of greatness.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 5, 2011 7:25:30 AM

Peter,

So you have no problem with state institutions promoting religious practice?

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Sep 5, 2011 11:32:36 AM

Tar
I have no problem with inmates being given opportunities for religious expression. In fact of course, most penal institutions have that in one form or another, if only access to Christian chaplains. I have known inmates who have taken advantage of that, and others who have not and would rather not. I do object to imposed programs, which have been muted in some areas of the US. The particular instance discussed in this thread seems especially noteworthy given that meditation can be regarded as much a secular activity as a religious one. Anything that promotes a greater and healthy understanding both of self and of one's place/role in human society is surely a help to us all.

Posted by: peter | Sep 5, 2011 12:38:45 PM

(JAG)
Offer ? — Yes
Force ? — No

Posted by: Jim Brady | Sep 5, 2011 12:46:52 PM

I've never really seen meditation as a religious practice. There's no dogma or any sort of higher power associated with it, at least with the forms of it that I've practiced. It is, in fact, an entirely secular practice.

Posted by: Guy | Sep 5, 2011 4:54:56 PM

I've never really seen meditation as a religious practice. There's no dogma or any sort of higher power associated with it, at least with the forms of it that I've practiced. It is, in fact, an entirely secular practice.

Posted by: Guy | Sep 5, 2011 4:54:56 PM

Not to be old fashioned about it, but the huge majority of people I know who live lawful, peaceable lives have never done a lick of "meditation," and instead just get a normal job, don't expect to make a fast buck, control their tempers, stay away from drugs and practice the Golden Rule. No New Age fancy stuff needed.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 5, 2011 6:22:25 PM

"No New Age fancy stuff needed."

Meditation has been in practice for thousands of years and a part of every religion. Nothing new age or fancy about it. Why knock something that (a) you have never tried, and (b) is beneficial to people who have tried it?

What is your deal, Mr. Otis? Who are you?

Posted by: Jay | Sep 6, 2011 1:00:01 PM

If "c) contributing to the aims of rehabilitation," includes "potentially reducing recidivism by helping participants learn to emphathize with others and by helping them redirect their behavior into more constructive channels after release," then it would be difficult to see the objection, provided that there's no coercion to participate. If it costs very little, then even relatively small benefits in terms of better post-release behavior would mean that the program is "paying its way," so to speak.

Posted by: guest | Sep 6, 2011 4:20:43 PM

@ Bill:

"Not to be old fashioned about it, but the huge majority of people I know who live lawful, peaceable lives have never done a lick of "meditation," and instead just get a normal job, don't expect to make a fast buck, control their tempers, stay away from drugs and practice the Golden Rule. No New Age fancy stuff needed."

Okay, but as you know, the prisons are filled with people who don't have much of a plan and do not "control their tempers . . . and practice the Golden Rule," like you and I do, which is why they are where they are. If some significant number of inmates are willing to try to retrain themselves to learn the kinds of things that we usually hope are learned by kindergarten (empathy -- a reasonable amount of impulse control), and if this can be accomplished at reasonable cost, it's hard to see the objection. We both know that there are plenty of people in prison whose behavior won't change no matter what you do in prison and that, for those people, prison will accomplish incapacitation and maybe some general deterrence, but not too much else. Even you could get even an additional 5-10 percent of prisoners to change their behavior significantly upon release from prison, the benefit to society would be great.

Posted by: guest | Sep 6, 2011 4:31:55 PM

Jay --

I notice that you don't dispute a single word in my first sentence. Do you disagree with any of it?

"What is your deal, Mr. Otis? Who are you?"

I'll be happy to answer that question provided you furnish the same information you ask of me, starting with your full name. Agreed?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 6, 2011 4:35:37 PM

"but the huge majority of people I know who live lawful, peaceable lives have never done a lick of "meditation," and instead just get a normal job, don't expect to make a fast buck, control their tempers, stay away from drugs and practice the Golden Rule."

Mr. Otis, there is nothing to dispute in what you write. I only ask why you demean the practice of meditation as "New Age" or "fancy" when many people benefit from meditation and it is scientifically proven to be a beneficial practice? If it is beneficial to an individual, if it makes a person a better human being, why knock it? Many people with normal jobs, peaceable lives, who don't do drugs or even alcohol, who are law abiding, who practice the Golden Rule, also meditate.

I have been reading this blog for many years. I know you only through your blog posts. You seem to demean viewpoints/practices/beliefs different than your own, without exploring their value.

The primary question is not who you are. It is: Why knock something that (a) you have never tried, and (b) is beneficial to people who have tried it?

I will not give you my name, as my name is irrelevant.

Posted by: Jay | Sep 6, 2011 5:02:35 PM

Jay --

"The primary question is not who you are."

Then why did you ask? Your exact words were, "What is your deal, Mr. Otis? Who are you?" Now, after I ask you who YOU are, you discover that such is irrelevant.

So why was it relevant for me?

The problem with the proposal for meditation for prisoners is that it's a seductive dodge. The reason people wind up in prison has next to nothing to do with their lack of meditating. It has to do with greed, unwillingness to get money through a normal job, recreational involement with drugs, self-centeredness, lack of empathy, and a number of other things.

Now you might respond that some of those can be the subjects of meditation, and you'd be right. The problem is that the proposal for prisoner meditation focuses on process (the meditating) to the exclusion of substance (the character flaws that produce criminal behavior).

There is a sort of thinking, seen frequently here, that delights in talking all around the problem while avoiding the problem itself. Thus we hear that the issue is incarceration (not the rancid behavior that gets people incarcerated). We hear about government programs to "rehabilitate" (not that the key to rehabilitation is a change of heart that the government cannot possibly bring about). Etcetera.

The proposal for meditation is like that. Taken in isolation, it seems unobjectionable, perhaps even helpful. But it cannot be taken in isolation. It is part of a pattern of dodging a frank discussion of the real problem, that being criminals' greed, self-centeredness and manipulation. Prison classes, whatever their content, might be a catalyst for turning these things around, and if so, fine. But first there must be an acknowledgement that they're there, and that the criminal -- far from being the victim -- is the fellow who creates victims.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 6, 2011 6:54:55 PM

I don't see any problems with the inmates doing meditation. and also i never seen meditation as a religious practice. Doing yoga is not a compulsory for the Inmates but still we can offer it to them. what they need is to get to that place of strength and leave it to them if inmate must do meditation or not.. I respect that kind of greatness.

Posted by: Cherry The Miami Meditation Guru | Sep 13, 2011 12:08:21 AM

i have worked as a therapist, psychologist, and researcher in many different prisons (min to max security) throughout the states of NY & CA for over 20 years. mr. otis, you could not be more incorrect about the reasons why people "wind up in prison." i am sure your wisdom will be evident when you comment on that which you know by experience, but unfortunately any wisdom remains entirely absent in your comments on that which you do not know but about which you have clearly made many assumptions (based, presumably, on inaccurate pop/mainstream sentiment?). it is a shame that your posts have perpetuated antiquated stereotypes, especially when there is so much excellent empirical data available in response to this issue.

in the meantime, i will redirect your attention to the point that you missed. the purpose of offering meditation practice to prisoners is not to prevent them from "winding up in prison" (they are already there!) - its purpose is to reduce violence and criminality (criminal thinking, criminal practice) in prison, and thereby reduce the same for these prisoners' upon their release. obviously, such a reduction increases safety for everyone (in and out of prison). these effects have not only been empirically proven, but they are also common sense.

it is my hope that with patience and education you will be able to better understand the purpose and potential benefits of meditation in prisons, and thereby offer more informed contributions to this forum. i wish you peace on that journey.

Posted by: mims | Oct 2, 2011 2:08:49 AM

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