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Jail Is Corrosive to a Young Man's Mind

But a tailored mindfulness program may negate the negative impact of imprisonment.

Serving a prison sentence robs you of many things. Your freedom. Your dignity. And, according to new research, a sizable chunk of your cognitive capacity.

just-published study finds significant declines in several key areas of cognitive functioning among teenage boys who are doing time. Given that most prisoners eventually return to society, and ex-cons with poor reasoning ability and/or impulse control are unlikely to go straight, this could have widespread negative effects.

"Are there efforts we can make to keep them at a level of functioning that's as close to normal as possible?" asks University of Pennsylvania criminologist Rebecca Umbach. She reports there are—and one promising strategy involves mindfulness meditation.

In the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior, Umbach and her colleagues Adrian Raine and Noelle Leonard describe a study that featured 197 young men between the age of 16 and 18 who were incarcerated at the Riker's Island prison complex in New York City.

They were randomly assigned to participate in one of two three-to-five-week programs: one that "focused on attitudes and beliefs about substance abuse and violence," or one that combines cognitive-behavioral therapy with mindfulness training.

Those in the latter learned how to "identify personal triggers for anti-social behavior, and direct attention away from those triggers," they write. The sessions included meditation practice, which the inmates were encouraged to also pursue on their own.

Before the program began, and again upon completion, the prisoners took part in a test designed to measure their level of cognitive control (that is, the ability to ignore distractions), plus their skill at recognizing others' emotions, and regulating their own emotions.

The researchers report that, in two of the three categories—cognitive control and emotion regulation—participants in the first group recorded lower scores when they were retested, suggesting an ongoing mental decline. However, those who engaged in mindfulness training had no significant decline.

Scores did decline in both groups for emotion recognition. That's disappointing, in that willingness to break the law has been linked to an inability to pick up on the emotions of fear and terror that crime victims often fear.

So all in all, the results suggest mindfulness provides "some degree of buffering against cognitive decline," the researchers conclude. The evidence isn't strong enough for programs to be instituted immediately everywhere, but they are more than sufficient to warrant further study.

"This study provides even more support for the use of alternative methods of punishment, such as drug courts and restorative justice courts," the researchers write. "Keeping youth out of the system, and protecting them when they are most emotionally and cognitively susceptible to the negative effects of incarceration, may well be the best policy in terms of both efficacy and cost-effectiveness."

But if we do keep throwing them into prison, they add, it is vital that we find ways "to mitigate the negative effects of incarceration." And there's a good chance meditation can play a positive role. When you're living in a mine field, it helps to be mindful.