Mindfulness in prison

Photo by Matthew Ansley on Unsplash

As I lay in bed the night before, I noticed my mind was agitated and restless. I was nervous. Would they be aggressive? Would there be a prison guard to protect us? Would they just stare back blankly when I asked them a question? Had they committed violent crimes?

I’d looked at the session plan and seen that we were going to be doing an exercise on gratitude, asking them what they appreciated about being in prison. ‘Seriously?!’, I thought. Won’t they be throwing their chairs at us?

About a year ago, I’d tried multiple avenues to get into a prison to teach mindfulness. I thought it would be a challenge, interesting and really needed. All my leads had gone dead and I’d all but given up, when a friend forwarded me an email from someone looking for people to teach mindfulness in prisons.

About six months later, I was all set up to do a trial session. I was met at the entrance by David, another teacher who’d been doing it for two years, so thankfully he knew what he was doing.

I was told not to bring a laptop and was prepared for a full shake-down of my clothes and belongings. In the end, they didn’t check my pockets or even my colleague’s backpack! Lack of staff, I was told.

Because my colleague had security clearance, we could just walk through the prison, unlocking and locking doors unaccompanied, which also made it feel quite relaxed.

It was about as easy to round the prisoners up as it is to pull a group of corporate employees from their desks, but we got there eventually.

‘Are you new?’, one of them asked, curiously.

They seemed like a really friendly group of guys. Mostly in their 20s and 30s. This was the eighth week of the course.

David led an initial breathing meditation, and I was glad to see it was a lot easier than guiding some of the Year 7s I’ve taught. They sat still, one leaning his back against the wall for comfort, eyes closed, totally silent for 15 minutes or so.

At that point, he handed over to me. I asked them what they had noticed in the meditation. Was it possible to stay focused on the breath?

‘I like to daydream’, Replied one of them. ‘Obviously, I don’t want to be here, so I think about something else.’

It hadn’t occurred to me how difficult it would be to be ‘present’ when you are in prison: you are constantly somewhere you don’t want to be.

‘What happens when you do manage to focus on the breath in the body?’, I asked.

‘I feel calmer’, another said. ‘It helps you control your mind.’

How interesting. They had experienced some of the benefits even in those conditions.

After some more discussion and practice, I handed over to David for the gratitude exercise.

He explained that he found writing down things that he was grateful for helped him to be a lot more positive, and he got his family to WhatsApp each other every night with three things from the day.

Then, he asked what things they most looked forward to during the day in prison. I looked on with interest, half expecting him to be stonewalled.

‘Bed! I love knowing that another day is done.’

‘Football and reading.’

‘The food. The food is amazing. I’m obviously joking. I do my own food with the kettle in my cell.’

‘I’m grateful for my life.’

‘There’s a guy in here who’s blind. He had a stroke in prison. I’m grateful for my sight. I had to help him get his dinner once. I thought I was such a good person. Does that makes me selfish?’’Prison actually came at a good time for me. My life was so hectic. Three phones, three businesses, getting up at 4.30am on the weekend to go to the gym. This has given me a break.’

It was quite humbling. They could all think of things, even in that situation. I even asked them if they thought it was a stupid question. They said no, it’s important to focus on the positive.

I’ve had clients with every privilege under the sun struggle to come up with things to appreciate about their lives.

Apparently, the courses have had a huge impact on the number of negative behaviours recorded, and many of the graduates have now been moved to a lower security part of the prison.

It was great to see how many of my judgments were unfounded. They weren’t hostile and disengaged, they were friendly, chatty, relaxed guys, who if you met in a different context you wouldn’t necessarily peg as a criminal.

I’ve now applied to get security clearance so that I can lead the courses myself. And I’m sure there will be a few more stories to tell in future.

My work is all about love. Loving yourself, loving other people and loving the earth. I do that through writing, podcasting, coaching, running workshops.

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