A New Approach to Prisoner Treatment

Statistics about America’s prison system are disturbing.The United States has the highest prison population rate in the world; as of 2008, it was 756 inmates per 100,000 people. There were 2,310,984 inmates in American prisons and jails as of June 2008.  This number has quadrupled since 1980, due not to an increase in violent crimes but rather as a result of the “get tough” movement, which included such policies as mandatory sentencing, ‘three strikes’ laws, and a reduction in the use of parole, and has resulted in striking increases in arrests for drug possession. As Scott Turow has noted, “these days, you can get life in California for your third felony, even if it’s swiping a few videotapes from a Kmart.” In light of such startling figures, it is important to consider why we lock people up.

The goals of incarceration are various and can run counter to one another. Retribution, deterrence, and incapacitation are all reasonable purposes of incarceration, and the American prison system seems to have embraced such approaches.  But rehabilitation is also a legitimate goal. And there are a variety of programs attempting to improve the lives of those convicted of crimes. These include efforts outside of prisons, such as drug courts, which give non-violent substance abuse offenders the opportunity to choose treatment over jail time. They also include programs inside of prisons, such as ‘restorative justice’ which is based on the idea that all sides would benefit if offenders could come to terms with what they have done and try to make amends with those they have harmed.  A 2007 documentary explores one intriguing effort to make the goal of rehabilitation a reality.

The Dhamma Brothers, directed by psychotherapist/anthropologist Jenny Phillips, shows the remarkable and profound effects a silent meditation course has on a group of inmates, including rapists and murderers, at Donaldson Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Alabama, in 2002. Over the course of ten days, the inmates learn Vipassana meditation, an ancient Buddhist technique which originated in India and was transmitted and preserved in Burma for centuries. Vipassana has in recent years seen somewhat of an explosion in the West; there are many centers throughout the world, including throughout the United States and Canada. The course is rigorous and challenging. Participants meditate for 10 hours per day, starting out with breathing exercises, and around the fourth day switching to a focus on bodily sensations. Meditators pledge to maintain ‘noble silence’ until the final day; and no activities are allowed other than meditating, sleeping, walking, and eating; this means no reading, no writing, no exercising.

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Published in: on November 13, 2009 at 11:41 pm Comments Off on A New Approach to Prisoner Treatment
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