What are prisons for? Are they correctional institutes designed to punish those who have damaged society, or are they rehabilitation centers that can transform the inmate and reintroduce them as a viable citizen? Why not both?

The idea of convicts practicing forms of meditation in their prison cell may be a curious thought, but it is one that has the ability to completely redesign the landscape of incarceration.

What is Meditation?

Some have confused meditation with the idea of focused concentration on a specific subject. In reality, meditation is being in a state of thoughtful awareness, the ability to still the mind and calm the soul, and to be present in a state of total presence, no matter what position the person finds themselves in.

Most people think meditation is all om sweet om, but the truth is it sharpens the awareness of our own mind to better deal with everything happening in both our external and internal world.

How Can it Help Inmates?

Since many inmates find themselves behind bars for a certain length of time, the temptation is to spend that time brooding over past mistakes or developing bad habits. Meditation allows the individual to exist in a place of calm and tranquility amongst the chaos that is incarceration.

Meditation allows the inmates to reflect back on what they did and where they went wrong and wrestle through the guilt, transforming the mind for an eventual reentry into society. Fleet Maull, founder of the Prison Dharma Network, calls this “transformative justice” as opposed to “punitive justice.”

Buddhism in particular is especially known for self reliance. With teachings in cause and effect (karma) you learn that you are the captain of your own ship. Even though experience may not always be pleasant, karma shows us that we are capable of making whatever change we wish. Not because of some magical benevolence, but because we wish to be better.


Is It Effective?

Though meditation has found its way across prison systems throughout the U.S., many argue that it is simply a ploy used by criminal defense lawyers to lighten the sentence on the ones they represent. One person who disagrees is Ron Cavanaugh, director of treatment for the Alabama Department of Corrections, who plans to develop an open space for inmates who want to meditate, claiming that they have seen lower levels of violence amongst those who practice it.

Conflict management is a critical part of prison systems, and one in which many guards struggle to maintain control. Meditation has helped to soothe some of these ailments, with inmates staying calm and collected despite the world around them.


Though the debate is far from settled in this area, meditation has devoted supporters amongst those who practice it and those who have observed its transformative impact on the ones who do. This leads many to ponder the significance of prisons: if it is a place to simply lock people away, then by all means, restrict meditation. But if a life can be changed for the better, and reintroduced to society as a capable and upstanding citizen, it could be all worth it.

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