Meditatio Outreach – Meditation in Prisons

Metanoia, the WCCM theme for 2023 translates as Let your minds be remade. Prison is a huge challenge to mind, body and soul. Meditation provides a way through, transforming the mind and healing body and soul. Prisoners’ testimonies are the most powerful advocate for offering meditation in prisons.

James Bishop, Benedictine Oblate, author, meditator and former WCCM International Prisons Coordinator learnt to meditate in a US prison whilst serving a long sentence. He wrote:

Through the Rule and through meditation, I have come to know that I was in a self-made prison for many years, and when I was finally sent to a physical prison, I became freer than I had ever been in my life’ (1)

Max, a prisoner and meditator at HMP Glenochil in Scotland compared prison to a monastery:

‘Even though this place is a cacophony, it is in many ways a great opportunity. This is my place of practice, my monastery, and I must learn to embrace it fully.’ (2)

In England, Wales and Scotland there are approximately 92,500 prisoners of which 89,000 are male and 3,500 female (3). Prison statistics are grim reading and in the 20 years I’ve worked for and now with the prison service in the UK, the following statistics taken from a report in 2002 depressingly seem to have remained the same:

♦ Many prisoners experience a lifetime of social exclusion.
♦ They are 13 times as likely to have been in care as a child,
♦ 13 times as likely to be unemployed,
♦ 10 times as likely to have been a regular truant from school,
♦ 20 times more likely to have been excluded from school and
♦ 2.5 times as likely to have had a family member convicted of a criminal offence.

Many prisoners’ basic skills are very poor with 80% writing skills at or below that of an 11 year old child and 65% numeracy skills and 50% reading skills aged 11 or below. They also have poor mental and physical health: 60 to 70% were using drugs or alcohol before imprisonment, over 70% suffer from at least two mental disorders. 20% of male and 37% of female sentenced prisoners have attempted suicide previously and 60-70% self-declare learning difficulties and disabilities.

There is also the risk that a prison sentence might actually make the factors associated with re-offending worse, as 1/3 lose their house and job whilst in prison, 2/5 lose contact with their family and being in prison increases dangers to mental and physical health including being introduced to drugs in prison (4). Our WCCM symbol of the two doves reminds us that meditation is the union of contemplation and action yet a recent WCCM survey ‘The Missing Peace’ showed that whilst there about 120 countries in the WCCM and hundreds of community groups, there are just 7 countries with prison meditation groups and only 14 active groups. These are Australia (4 groups), UK (4 groups), USA (3 groups), Trinidad & Tobago (zoom group for 6 prisons), and Italy, Spain and Mexico with one group each.

The prison harvest is plentiful but the workers are few! There are a variety of possible reasons why– it may simply be that you’ve never thought about it, or if you have, it’s a fear of the unknown and possible anxiety about your personal ability to cope. It may also be a lack of experience or knowledge of working with prisoners or within the prison system or not knowing how to approach prisons initially and establish a group.

However, help is at hand! I’ve written a toolkit The only way OUT is IN which is available on the WCCM International Website under Outreach – Social Justice – Prisons section (5). This guide is full of practical information to encourage and equip you with what you need to set up a prison meditation group. Contents include research on the benefits of meditation in prisons, how to decide if running a prison meditation group is for you, types of prisons and prison systems, getting started: how to approach a prison, running a Prison Meditation Group with suggested models of delivery as well as a wide range of further information and resources about meditation in prisons. Also on the website are recordings of the May 2023 International Forums on Meditation in Prisons which feature an introduction by Fr Laurence, input from myself and discussions with experienced prison meditators.

Our aim for 2023 is to break into more prisons in the UK and worldwide! If you have any queries please contact me via my email below. I look forward to hearing from you.

Mary Devane –
International and UK Special Interest Coordinator for Prisons

1. From ‘A Way in the Wilderness: A Commentary on the Rule of Benedict for the Physically and Spiritually Imprisoned’ by James Bishop, Continuum 2012
2. From ‘Peace Inside: A Prisoner’s Guide to Meditation’ edited by Sam Settle, Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2017
3. Sources: Data from UK Government for England & Wales & Scottish Government 2022
4. Ref: UK Social Exclusion Report of July 2002 ‘Reducing Re-offending by Ex-Prisoners’
5. WCCM Prison Toolkit FINAL 8-May-2023

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