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A Popular Form of Meditation is Helping Inmates Chill Out

Nearly 80 percent of female prisoners saw benefits in a recent study.

by Kristen Dold
Jan 17 2017, 6:17pm

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Prisons looking for innovative ways to help rehabilitate inmates may have a new option worth exploring. 

According to a study published today, Transcendental Meditation, which is a trademarked meditative practice traditionally taught through a series of fee-based classes, can significantly reduce trauma symptoms in female prisoners. If you're new to Transcendental Meditation, the gist is that you sit quietly for 20 minutes and recite a mantra—usually a meaningless word from your teacher—to help free your mind from conscious thought.

The pilot study of 22 inmates instructed half the group to practice Transcendental Meditation for 20 minutes twice a day, while other prisoners—the control group—were placed on a 'wait list.' At the end of four months, 80 percent of the meditating inmates showed a clinically significant reduction in trauma symptoms, which included feeling jumpy, having disturbing thoughts, memories, and dreams, as well as having trouble falling asleep and concentrating. 

The research was carried out by affiliates of the Maharishi University of Management, an institution connected to the founder of Transcendental Meditation. (So yes, they had some vested interest in the results.) The findings match a previous study that found Transcendental Meditation reduced symptoms of trauma in men. Both studies were funded by the film director David Lynch's foundation, which offers Transcendental Meditation training to veterans, victims of abuse, and other at-risk populations. 

The growing interest that prisons seem to be showing in programs like "TM," as it's more colloquially known, fits into a larger pattern of wellness offerings that are becoming more commonplace in corrections facilities. Organizations like Heart to Heart, for instance, now offer meditative training to inmates in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. In New York, Liberation Prison Yoga provides "mindfulness exercises and meditation as part of a trauma-conscious class."  

It's also worth noting that "TM," as it's more colloquially known, is not the only form of meditation that shows potential benefits to the inmate rehabilitation process. In a five-year study from 2008, for instance, researchers at Duke and the University of North Carolina found that inmates who were taught Amanda Marga yoga showed lower rates of reincarceration. (Participation in that study, however, was voluntary, and the inmates were not randomly assigned.) In 2011, the William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility in Alabama found that offering Vipassana yoga—a more intensive, ten-day meditative program—helped improve behavior problems. 

Still, given that women make up the fastest growing segment of the prison population—they've increased at double the rate of men since 1985, according to the ACLU)—the news of another promising option comes at a welcome time.