RIC professor teaches meditation techniques to ACI inmates

When Jill Harrison, assistant professor of sociology, isn’t in class at Rhode Island College, you might find her teaching meditation to inmates at the state’s Adult Correctional Institutes. To the layperson it might sound strange, but according to Harrison, it makes a lot of sense.

Meditating Inmates (Photo: Courtesy of the Prison Dharma Network)
Harrison said meditation is especially beneficial for inmates because of its effect on impulse control. Many sociologists think a lack of impulse control causes deviant behavior and criminal acts. Meditation acts as a cognitive behavioral tool that can help the inmates manage their emotions and reduce stress and anxiety, Harrison said.

But sociological theory isn’t the only evidence that suggests meditation could be beneficial for inmates. Research findings indicate that meditation can change brain chemistry, with effects like increasing serotonin levels that can enhance well being. One research study conducted by a group of scientists from Harvard, Yale and MIT found data that suggests meditation can also increase the size of your brain.

Harrison, a longtime meditator herself, said, “It’s not a fancy tool like a drug. It’s self-taught and self-effective; you can take it anywhere you go.”

The benefits aren’t limited to people in the program. “There is a contagion effect,” said Harrison. “The inmates in the program have a calming effect on other inmates.”

Artwork is encouraged by Harrison as an outlet for inmates.
(Image: Courtesy of the Prison Dharma Network.)
Several correctional officers, who Harrison said were skeptical as a group, have approached her and thanked her for teaching the class because it makes their jobs easier. “There is a ripple effect with everyone the inmates interact with,” said Harrison.

The program began in 2006 with 20 inmates, all of whom had an interest in meditation prior to the classes. Now the program has grown with classes offered in multiple prison buildings, for both men and women, with double the enrollment. Harrison estimates that approximately 120 inmates have participated thus far.

One reason the enrollment doubled is that the inmates can receive "good time," a reduction in sentencing for positive behavior, by attending the program. Inmates reduce their sentence by two days for every four classes attended. Classes consist of two 20-minute periods of combined sitting and walking meditation, yoga, book discussion and other exercises.

Jill Harrison
The program is now entering its fifth year of operation and is revising its curriculum with assistance from the Prison Dharma Network, a nonprofit organization that recently relocated to Rhode Island, which works to provide a support network for prisoners, prison volunteers and correctional employees. Harrison said the program will incorporate exercises to allow inmates to develop their emotional intelligence and cognitive reasoning skills.

One such technique Harrison described is called “Who am I?” It begins with inmates writing down phrases about themselves on 10 strips of paper, which they prioritize and assess through guided exercises. Exercises such as this one, along with meditation, are mechanisms that allow inmates to examine sensitive subjects such as violence, child abuse and neglect, issues that Harrison says are common among inmates.

Harrison said one of the most difficult aspects of the meditation project is recruiting new volunteers to work with inmates that are sex offenders or have severe substance abuse or mental health issues. “You need a special kind of person to work in that environment,” added Harrison.

Since 2007, Harrison has been conducting stress-anxiety research in tandem with her work at the ACI. Her original pilot study goal was to establish a relationship between meditation and its effects on stress and anxiety. At the end of the 11-month study, her research indicated that after attending weekly meditation classes, inmate stress-anxiety test levels had declined from the scores of a highly stressed inmate to that of a normal working adult.

Going forward in 2011, Harrison plans to keep expanding the classes offered at the ACI. Harrison says she is organizing one for correctional officers. She also wants to explore her research findings in subsequent studies, which could provide justification for others to run similar programs in prisons across the country. “The program is a lot of work,” said Harrison, “but I think it’s really important.”

Joe, one former inmate, would agree. “I am a new man, a man who sits with himself daily, who understands and appreciates the total beauty of life and who has found freedom.”