Prison yoga. It’s not so new. Heck, it’s even one of the subplots of the new women’s prison-centered Netflix series Orange is the New Black. (You didn’t have to watch all 13 episodes of the season over the weekend to meet inmate ‘Yoga’ Jones, but you could have, and there’s definitely nothing wrong with that. Nope, nothing at all.) But as studies on yoga are rapidly increasing so are the findings that the practice and meditation are beneficial for the body and the mind for everyone. Yes, that include prison inmates.
This particular study, reported in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, took place in a women’s prison and a young offender institution in the West Midlands region of England. It was conducted by researchers out of the Departments of Experimental Psychology and Psychiatry at Oxford University, supported by the Prison Phoenix Trust, an Oxford-based charity that offers yoga classes in prisons. Studying the effects of yoga on mood, stress and behavior, the researchers found positive results.
‘We found that the group that did the yoga course showed an improvement in positive mood, a decrease in stress and greater accuracy in a computer test of impulsivity and attention,’ say Dr Amy Bilderbeck and Dr Miguel Farias, who led the study at the Departments of Experimental Psychology and Psychiatry at Oxford University. ‘The suggestion is that yoga is helpful for these prisoners.’
Inmates of varying ages were randomly assigned to 90 minute weekly yoga classes for 10 weeks, or to a control group. Each inmate took part in standard psychology questionnaires (before and after the classes for the yoga group) that measured “mood, stress, impulsivity and mental wellbeing.” There was also a computer test that measured attention and behavioral responses to visual cues. The results showed that the yoga group had less stress, better moods and did better at controlling impulsive behavior than the control group.
Bilderbeck is quick to advise that yoga is not meant to replace, but to supplement:
“We’re not saying that organizing a weekly yoga session in a prison is going to suddenly turn prisons into calm and serene places, stop all aggression and reduce reoffending rates,” study researcher Dr. Amy Bilderbeck, of Oxford University, said in a statement. “We’re not saying that yoga will replace standard treatment of mental health conditions in prison. But what we do see are indications that this relatively cheap, simple option might have multiple benefits for prisoners’ wellbeing and possibly aid in managing the burden of mental health problems in prisons.”
Also, it’s way cheaper than meds and other mental health interventions:
Dr Bilderbeck adds: ‘This was only a preliminary study, but nothing has been done like this before. Offering yoga sessions in prisons is cheap, much cheaper than other mental health interventions. If yoga has any effect on addressing mental health problems in prisons, it could save significant amounts of public money.’
While this is great news for tax payers and the prison staff who have to deal with rage and aggression, let’s not forget the prisoners who have to serve their time within the confines of cell walls, physically, mentally and emotionally. Instead of picking up bad habits in prison only to be released back into society more ill-equipped than when they left, yoga can be one more tool these folks can use to help make peace within the prison and perhaps within themselves. This could translate to less repeat offenders, less return visits and more consciousness.
Sam Settle, director of the Prison Phoenix Trust, says: ‘Almost half of adult prisoners return to prison within a year, having created more victims of crime, so finding ways to offset the damaging effects of prison life is essential for us as a society. This research confirms what prisoners have been consistently telling the Prison Phoenix Trust for 25 years: yoga and meditation help them feel better, make better decisions and develop the capacity to think before acting — all essential in leading positive, crime-free lives once back in the community.’
I’ve only watched the first 4 episodes of this show so far, but am enjoying it very much. I also read the book it’s based on a couple years ago, which illustrated one of the problems with yoga in prison: when the teacher, who was also an inmate in this case, gets released, the remaining practitioners are left in the lurch. I think they end up making do with an old Rodney Yee video, but most lost interest and stopped practicing.
In the book, Piper also relies on running the prison “track” regularly to help keep her sanity.
This sounds like a great program! I know yoga helps me a lot in my life, I don’t see why it can’t help inmates as well!
If this program begins to gain some steam I could only see it as a positive thing for the inmates. Some of these guys are actually trying to better themselves while incarcerated. Saving taxpayers money over the long term is also an excellent side benefit.
There’s no down-side to a strong programme of well-supported rehabilitation and education in prisons, especially when it extends to support once outside.
It is weirdly difficult to persuade some people that justice demands taking into account what happens when someone leaves prison. Revenge may feel briefly satisfying, but it essentially says, “No, I not only don’t care about this person, I don’t care about the people they come into contact with and the communities they live in once they’re released.”
Restorative justice has been shown to help victims of crime and criminals to move on in positive ways, and it can be interwoven with good rehab programmes to make communities safer in the long run.
Another example of psychiatry’s “pseudo-science” based evidence. Self reporting and looking at images is hardly evidenced-based science. “Instead of picking up bad habits in prison only to be released back into society more ill-equipped than when they left, yoga can be one more tool these folks can use to help make peace within the prison and perhaps within themselves. ”
Humm…was it not their “bad habits” to begin with that landed them in jail in the first place? And “these folks” are criminals. Nice sugar coating. However, all that would have to be done to calm the masses is simply removing sugar and processed foods. Though that would no doubt cause a riot.