Monday, September 05, 2011

Does meditation promote prisoners' rehabilitation?

The Houston Chronicle on Sunday published a feature on a Buddhist prison ministry teaching meditation to Texas inmates at the Stiles Unit in Beaumont for the last eight years. The story opens:
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."
Reacting to the story, Doug Berman asks "Should all prison inmates be offered meditation classes?" but IMO that question is premature. Like many privately run programs by religious groups in Texas prisons, the problem is nobody has kept data on participants' recidivism or disciplinary records, compared them to outcomes from a control group, etc.. Past research on meditation in prison appears promising but the cost-benefit claims seem overstated and too good to be true. While it may seem intuitively like a good idea, there's no way to tell definitively whether the meditation program at Stiles "works" to rehabilitate offenders.

That's why I'd like to see the Texas program studied - particularly since it's been going eight years and so has a substantial pool of participants to analyze. Until that social science work is done, programs like this will remain oddities and outliers in the system. It's one thing to implement a program aiming to help prisoners, and quite another to produce documentation proving that outcomes improved. The former motivation is enough to inspire such work by do-gooder prison ministry types, but to justify scaling up the idea on an institutional level, you'd need hard data to show substantive, real-world improvements in recidivism and/or in-prison behavior. It's not enough to try out-of-the-box ideas; the results must be measured and tested for such thinking ever to spread beyond the fringes of the corrections system.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

My son experienced Terry's ministry at the Terrell Unit in 2006
and credits it with his turn for the better. He says Buddhism taught him to be alone in the midst of the chaos that is prison. Ultimately, it lead him back to his Christian faith and his rejection of the life that sent him to prison. Paroled in 2010, the doors that have opened to him are exceptional and remarkable and he is flourishing. Faith based dormitories and programs such as this are truly a Godsend to the system where there is precious little "rehabilitation" going on.

sunray's wench said...

I think with any study like you propose Scott, there would be a danger to draw conclusions from one thing and attribute them to another. For example, an inmate might really benefit emotionally from this kind of programme, but find himself still homeless, jobless and with little option but to comit more crimes upon release. These two things, although happening to the same inmate, are in no way related, yet could be used to suggest that the programme did not aid the inmate upon release.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

SW, you're right that there are a lot of variables to consider, but social scientists can do multivariate regression analysis to identify which of several variables is responsible for the changes witnessed. Certainly there are a lot of different aspects to take into account, but without such an analysis it's impossible to argue credibly for expanding the program.

Prison Doc said...

Grits, you are being too technical. From what I see, anecdotally, unless an inmate is involved in and adopts some type of faith-based program, reoffending is going to be rampant.

I don't want to see these comments degenerate into a my-faith-is-better-than-your-faith argument, but unless the faith-based program actually promotes violence and evil, that program should be welcome and encouraged. And it should be free or at least at very minimal cost to the state.

No faith = no freedom. People have to believe in something bigger than themselves.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Prison Doc, religious folk can and will offer whatever prison ministry approaches they like, within the limits of TDCJ rules. My point is, if meditation actually improves outcomes, it might be worth pursuing more widely throughout the system as a non-religious tactic. One needn't be Buddhist to engage in yoga or meditation, and if it really reduces recidivism, improves discipline, etc., it may be worthwhile in and of itself, not just as an expression of religious freedom. You can't know for sure, though, unless you measure outcomes.

DeathBreath said...

Years ago, during the Ann Richards reign, I was approached by a teacher of the Transcendental Meditation group located on Chaucer in Houston.

This person wanted me to pitch a proposal to prison authorities. So, I agreed.

I was armed with bound material consisting of various newspaper articles and professional journals concerning the efficacy of the TM technique. In addition, I was given access to a VHS tape depicting radical changes in prisons abroad as a function of teaching the method to offenders. Reportedly, the frequency of violence significantly reduced in other countries. So, why not Texas?

Well, I walked into the Senior Warden's office at Ramsey II. I presented my proposal. The Warden agreed that this might be something to consider. He was interested. I could not believe it. However, when I presented the second part of the proposal, that the instruction would cost TDCJ-ID $1500.00 per offender, the Warden doubled over with a belly laugh. I can still hear his laughter.

So, I am pleased to hear that some offenders are getting to meditate. Prison can be a zen experience. Deprivation is already present.

But, I am sure that some Christians will whine about how this activity being the work of old Scratch.

God, help us.

Anonymous said...

I suggest we look at attitudes, values and habits.

sunray's wench said...

Scott, I agree with you on the need for evaluation, I'm just very aware of the audience in Texas.

DEWEY said...

@ Prison Doc: "unless an inmate is involved in and adopts some type of faith-based program,..."
I am not of the Christian (or Bhuddist)faith. I did a lot of meditating while I was in TDC. I have been out almost 22 years. It is not the "faith based" program, but the meditation itself.

Ted said...

I was part of a group that took NA meetings into Travis County jail in the mid 80's- the woman who handled our security was named Barbara Lightheart- she turned me on to a guy named Bo Lozoff who had been teaching meditation in state prisons for 10 yeasr at that time- he had published a book called "we're all doing time" and distributing it free to institutions all over the US- look at the dog programs in other prisons- an idle mind is the Devil's workshop- kindness, compassion- they can be taught to at least some- others are too hopelessly damaged and need to be locked away for our protection - but so many are highly salvageable-this is not news!!!! this is where the money should be going

Stephanie said...

I was excited to read in the first line that the Buddhists are teaching mediation too. Guess that was a typo but think both would be very useful.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks Stephanie! :) Fixed it.

Crime & Punish-less!; said...

Grits, I attended three of Terry Conrad's classes when I was on the Powledge unit of TDC. I would have liked to attend more, but he had to make the trip from Galveston, over 200 miles.
My first three years in prison were spent on death row. My death sentence was commuted to life as a result of the Supreme Court's decision in Furman v. Georgia/Branch v. Texas. In all I sserved forty years before making parole in June of 2010.
From a personal perspective, research on how ex-cons fare on the outside after seriously practicing meditation on the inside is irrelevant. More important is what effect meditation has on people period, inside prison or out. Numerous studies have been conducted by universities, medical clinics and various psychology institutes. All of them concluded that meditation was beneficial for many reasons, chief among which, is as a stress reducer. It has been said that stress kills more people than all the other diseases combined. If it had not been for my practice of meditation I doubt that I could have survived my forty years in prison.
In closing I'll add that there is no doubt in my mind that meditation transformed my thinking and freed me from a self-defeating, self-destructive belief system. I have no fear of ever recedivating.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Begin slow clap for Crime & Punish-less ...

Great comment, thanks for sharing it. Congrats on getting out, and good luck.

Fred said...

In the 1980s, at the Ellis I unit, there was a sign over the entrance to one wing. It said "Meditation."

That wing was for solitary confinement.

Crime & Punish-less!; said...

I spent many long years on the Ellis I unit, and remember well the "meditation" sign that marked Solitary Confinements door. I meditated therein for many, many days. Too bad they didn't an enlightened instructor to go with the sign.

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Bill C. said...

There is a lot of meditation-in-prison work going on in California, and it is mostly done by volunteers. So the cost analysis is this: cost = $0.00, benefit tangible but hard to quantify. With cost of zero...

Of course, the volunteer-based system has a big location problem. Prisons near population centers have strong programs, remote prisons have none.