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Can meditation foster inmates’ mental health and well-being?

Blog • Psychology • Francesca Cornaglia

The incidence of mental illness and well-being issues among prison inmates is high, higher than among people in the general community. In 2017 in the UK, the figure was 37 % in prison population, versus 25 % for the wider public.  The reasons for this are multifaceted and go back to complex social and personal issues but being in prison can certainly exacerbate poor mental health and well-being.

An issue related to mental illness and well-being is the high reoffending rate. In England and Wales, 46% of adult prisoners were proven to have re-offended within a year of release in the most recent statistics, and as high as 60% for people sentenced to less than a year in prison.  These rates have remained stable for the past decade. It has been estimated that failing to address this issue costs society the staggering amount of up to £13 billion a year.

Ex-prisoners with mental health issues are more likely to commit offences after their release than other former prisoners. The above figures make it clear that if we want to succeed in rehabilitating prisoners and lowering the reoffending rate, their mental health needs have to be addressed.

prison

Our study aims to tackle these issues by properly assessing the causal impact of transcendental meditation on a wide set of health outcomes, with the overall objective to improve prisons inmates’ well-being and mental health as a first step to tackle reoffending. Transcendental meditation involves the use of a mantra, to effortlessly allow the mind to settle down to a state of inner calm.

Why meditation?

Criminological research suggests that current strategies that rely on punishment not only fail to meet inmates’ health and behavioural needs, they also don’t seem to have a significant impact on criminal behaviour. These strategies are based on the erroneous assumption that individuals consider the long-term consequences of their actions before committing a crime. Evidence from psychology and behavioural economics suggests that, contrary to this, individuals’ responses are often a reflex, revealing that no conscious self-control mechanism takes place. In addition, the evidence suggests that fostering self-control may be a more effective strategy to tackle self-harming, risky and criminal behaviour. An example of this is fostering the voluntary regulation of behavioural, emotional and attentional impulses in the presence of momentarily gratifying temptations or diversions. Therefore, there is an acute need for more effective interventions to reduce reoffending.

Moreover, enhanced self-control is also associated with a variety of positive outcomes, including improved health and reduced risky behaviour. There is also sound economic evidence of the important role played by the early years in developing self-control and other non-cognitive skills. The evidence on adolescent and adult traits is more limited, but points to the malleability of non-cognitive skills at later stages and hence supports the effectiveness of later interventions aimed at fostering them.

Developing self-control

So, while rigorous studies are in somewhat short supply, extant findings do support the need for innovative and targeted interventions that support rehabilitation. Studies also point towards the idea that certain ‘therapeutic’ interventions that involve counselling, skill-building (eg behavioural programmes) and restitution and/or mediation can reduce criminogenic needs among juvenile offenders. Our study aims to do exactly this, by providing prisoners with a simple and effortless meditation technique. Meditation fosters generalisable psychological processes that support positive cognitive, emotional and behavioural responses. All these are crucial for the development of self-control.

Current evidence shows that meditation practices are correlated not only with better well-being and self-control, but also with emotional stability and less anxiety, reactivity, and bad behaviour. Studies on the population of inmates also show a positive correlation between meditation practice and lower re-offending rates. However, as not unusual in a new field, these studies are not characterised by robust and sound designs. Due to small numbers of participants, pathological sampling and the lack of random allocation to the programme and standardised measures of outcomes, it is difficult to draw solid policy conclusions. Our project will provide important preliminary evidence – the first of its kind in the UK – to set the ground for implementing a larger randomised controlled trial of the effects of transcendental meditation on inmates’ well-being, mental health and likelihood of re-offending.


Francesca Cornaglia is a Reader in economics in the School of Economics and Finance at Queen Mary University of London. Her project “Fostering inmates’ well-being and mental health through meditation: a prison pilot” was funded by a BA/Leverhulme Small Research Grant in 2018. The team of researchers involved in the study includes Gabriella Conti (University College London), Francesca Cornaglia (Queen Mary University of London), Jonathan Jackson (London School of Economics), Veruska Oppedisano (University of Westminster), Imran Rasul (University College London).

Blog • Psychology • Francesca Cornaglia