Doing Time by Doing Now: Teaching Mindfulness in Prisons

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By Dr. Gus Castellanos

Prisons are some of the most traumatic places to live. While the threat of violence, sexual victimization, and retaliation for grievances happen enough, it’s the simple things such as bad food, sleeping arrangements, and poor access to medical care that make daily life stressful. Inmates suffer from anxiety, depression, anger, hypervigilance, and difficulty with emotional regulation. Furthermore, witnessing violence behind bars can result in PTSD symptoms. The COVID-19 pandemic only worsened conditions in prison.

I have been offering mindfulness at a State Correctional Facility since 2011. We began with a modified version of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) that we called Mindfully Building a Foundation for Life (MBFL). Since that course, we have held weekly mindfulness sessions in the prison “chapel” - an unadorned, noisy room with large windows through which guards and other inmates watch us meditate and do yoga. Initially, we ran the sessions, but after a few months, the inmates took over. They now lead the practices and inquiry and read from pertinent literature. We offer support, guide discussions, and help as necessary. We call ourselves the “Arrested Development” group. In 2018, we taught MBFL again as more newly incarcerated men had not participated in the first course.

Mindfulness in Prison

Since mindfulness is proven to help with anxiety, anger, emotional regulation, focus, memory, and pain, it makes sense to teach mindfulness to inmates.

Still, it can sound counter-intuitive to live in the moment with nonjudgmental awareness of whatever is present in such a stressful environment, especially while serving a long or life sentence. However, the men know that chasing pleasure, avoiding pain, and mentally escaping do not last and are fundamentally unsatisfying. Through their mindfulness practice, they realized that how they perceive and relate to stressors – not the stressors themselves – determines how they feel and respond. When frustrated or upset, they know to pause to have the chance to choose healthy and wise responses. Over time, responding this way has led to a doing of their time with greater ease. They also suffer fewer health problems and disciplinary actions. Notably, the Chaplain, medical staff, education director, and warden have seen the positive change in the men in our “Arrested Development” group. A few in our group shared that their families have seen significant changes in them since they started mindfulness.

More remarkable are the insights by some of the experienced practitioners, particularly those with life or very long sentences. By being more mindful and less combative and manipulative, they are doing their time more productively and are finding meaning and purpose in their current situation. Since mindfulness trains us to attend to the present moment and to be deeply engaged yet unreactive, it fosters attention to what has heart and meaning. KC, who took on the leadership role of the mindfulness group, noted, “Mindfulness allows me to be free before I am released” (sadly, KC who was serving a life sentence, passed from COVID in March 2021).

Mindfulness, not just the practice, but meeting regularly with like-minded men, has made a big difference in how these men live their lives, how they feel about themselves, and how other inmates, guards, and families treat them. Witnessing their transformation, I have discovered the fundamental nature of all human beings is good regardless of our mistakes and life circumstances. And that we all can be kind, forgiving, and deserving of compassion – qualities that can be cultivated and strengthened through mindfulness.

The benefits of this program extend well beyond the prison fence. A few released inmates have told us how helpful mindfulness is while navigating the re-entry period. Mindfulness also provides social and emotional skills needed to function in society since it helps manage anger, depression, anxiety, and helplessness. We suspect that those who continue to practice mindfulness will have a lower chance of recidivism

While this may seem most evident for those in prison, it does apply to all of us. Whether we are in a physical prison or imprisoned by our life’s circumstances or our own minds, in some way, we are all doing time. Whatever your current situation is, there are always opportunities to take mindful moments to train the mind and heart to benefit yourself, those around you, and our world. How we do our time is what matters most, not what we do for a living, what we own, or who we know.

Mindfulness and Systemic Change

On another note, the men are also helping change the system from the inside out. Making mindfulness available to a critical number of people in prison could lead to system-wide change since long-lasting systemic change is intertwined with personal transformation.

Yet I don’t want to minimize the effects of the broken Correctional System. There were 2.12 million incarcerated people in the U.S in 2020. While the United States represents only 5% of the world’s population, it houses 20% of its incarcerated people. Prisons are overcrowded, and inmates are forced to live in appalling conditions. Recidivism rates range from 40 - 83%. The criminal justice and prison systems need improvement.

Teaching mindfulness in prisons has taught me that we can build a more humane, effective, and sustainable system. But it would require all of us – not just the incarcerated - to envision a radically different approach to justice grounded in mindfulness, compassion, healing, and transformation. One that is a force for healing, resilience, and forgiveness, inside and outside the fence as well as on and off our cushions!

I am deeply grateful to be part of the “Arrested Development” group of inspiring men that come together to practice mindfulness regularly. It is one of the most rewarding things I do.

*All names have been changed.

Gus Castellanos, M.D. is a graduate of the U of Miami Miller School of Medicine, 1980. He practiced Neurology and Sleep Medicine for 25 years. He began practicing mindfulness in 1998 and teaching mindfulness programs in 2009. He is now a full-time mindfulness-based program teacher that is certified to teach MBSR by the University of Massachusetts Center For Mindfulness.

Gus is an instructor for our MBSR course. Click here to learn more and view upcoming classes. 

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