There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the high rate of incarceration in the United States. Often enough young women, including many imprisoned for minor offences, are getting stuck in a system that does nothing to effectively improve their chances at a better future. In an October NY Times article by Maurice Chammah about new approaches to correction and rehabilitation for women prisoners, he writes:
Despite their names, state “departments of correction” in the United States aren’t known for correcting much. More than seven of every 10 prisoners, according to some studies, are arrested again less than four years after they are released. And while recent years have seen the beginning of a national decline in the number of male prisoners, the situation has not improved much for women, who remain incarcerated at stubbornly high levels.
Fortunately, some forward-thinking individuals, organizations and nations are developing programs to address the rehabilitation of incarcerated women while restoring their well-being and dignity. To accomplish this, it’s necessary in part to understand the reason these women exhibited bad judgement and tendencies to immoral, anti-social, or violent behavior in the first place. Restoring a woman’s self-worth should mean restoring her to a healthy experience of herself.
A big part of this picture requires an examination into howthe brain functions. Violence, lack of impulse control, lack of moral judgement, and rehabilitation can be understood in terms of brain functioning because the brain originates and mediates all human behavioral, emotional, cognitive and social functioning.
The brain and behavior
In regard to younger female prisoners, Mr. Chammah notes:
Neuroscience studies have shown that our brains keep developing well into our third decade, meaning people in their early 20s can still exhibit the impulsiveness and poor decision-making we associate with teenagers — ask any parent or insurance company about this — but are also especially receptive to help.
As a girl matures, her prefrontal cortex (the “CEO of her brain) begins to mature and come “online.” This is the part of the brain responsible for higher thought functions, such as impulse control, long-term planning, moral reasoning, and distinction between right and wrong. It can act to reduce impulses toward violence in other parts of the brain. However, it isn’t until one reaches one’s 20s or even 30s that the frontal lobes are fully connected. Modern published research shows that people who lack impulse control, or show a tendency toward violence, have “functional holes” in their brains—parts of their frontal brain that are not active. A properly developed woman’s brain should allow her to be tolerant and think and act maturely in the face of frustration.
When children and teens are deprived of certain key developmental experiences (such as a safe, nurturing home life) or are exposed to severe stressful conditions (such as violence and substance abuse) their brains persist in primitive, immature behavior and reactions, predisposing them to impulsive violent behavior. This undeveloped brain functioning largely accounts for the crazy destructive behavior of teens who act out without consideration of the consequences. In the absence of an effectively functioning brain CEO, parents, counselors, educators, religious advisors and governmental laws try to do the job that should be done by a teenager’s frontal lobe.
A healthier brain
It is within our capacity to positively affect the functioning of our own brain. Published peer-reviewed research shows that during the practice of Transcendental Meditationone has the experience of transcending the thinking process to a state of restful inner wakefulness—a fourth state of consciousness different from waking, dreaming and sleeping. In this state, the brain produces high-power alpha waves. This coherence often spreads throughout the brain and is strongest in the pre-frontal cortex—the seat of the brain’s executive judgment—enlivening its function. For example, one research study published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology in 2009 showed that university students who learned TM showed increased broadband frontal EEG coherence. Neural imaging scans show that blood flow increases, leading to more coherence and more brain enlivenment in general.
Neuroscientist Dr. Fred Travis, the leading researcher on the Transcendental Meditation program and the brain, explains:
When a person’s frontal lobes don’t develop properly, he lives a primitive life. He doesn’t — and can’t — plan ahead. His world is simplistic, and he can only deal with what’s happening to him right now…. Within a few months of practice of the TM technique, we see high levels of integration of frontal brain connectivity. And interestingly, that integration does not disappear after meditation. Increasingly and over time, this orderly brain functioning is found in daily activity.
With the TM practice introduced in a controlled prison environment where the progress of young women prisoners can be observed, it is simple to note both compliance and how the TM technique affects the women over time. Programs in prisons, for men as well as for women, have already been implemented. Two of the interesting studies already published in the field of rehabilitation based on previous programs are:
- Transcendental Meditation and reduced trauma symptoms in female inmates: A randomized controlled study
Permanente Journal 2017; 21:16008 (DOI: https://doi.org/10.7812/TPP/16-008.)
Context: Compared with the general population, trauma experiences are higher among incarcerated women.
Objective: To evaluate the effects of Transcendental Meditation (TM) on trauma symptoms in female offenders.
Design: Twenty-two inmates at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, OR, with at least 4 months left of incarceration were enrolled in this randomized controlled pilot study. Subjects were randomly assigned to either the TM group (n = 11) or a wait-list control group (n = 11).
Main Outcome Measures: Subjects were measured at baseline and 4-month posttest using the Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Checklist-Civilian version (PCL-C; primary outcome) with intrusive thoughts, avoidance, and hyperarousal subscales (secondary outcomes). Twenty of the subjects (10 in each group) took part in their treatment assignment and completed posttesting.
Results: Significant reductions were found on total trauma (p < 0.036), intrusive thoughts (p < 0.026), and hyperarousal (p < 0.043) on the PCL-C. Effect sizes ranged from 0.65 to 0.99 for all variables. Eighty-one percent of the TM subjects were compliant with their program.
Conclusion: The results of this study indicate feasibility of the TM program in a female prison population and suggest that TM may be an effective tool for decreasing trauma symptoms. Future large-scale research is warranted.
- Reduced Recidivism
Journal of Offender Rehabilitation 2003 36(1-4):161-180
Inmates who practiced the TM Technique experienced a reduction in recidivism of 33%, which was statistically significant (p = .042). Separate comparisons showed that the TM group also had lower re-incarceration rates than each of the four other programs, with proportionate reductions in recidivism ranging from 29% to 42% (p = .007 to .073). In addition, the TM group compared to all non-meditating subjects had a lower rate of re-incarceration due to new convictions (47% lower, proportionately; p = .045) and a 27% proportionately lower rate of re-incarceration/warrant for arrest (p = .069). The pattern of reduced recidivism for TM program members was maintained in multiple regression analyses, controlling for background and release variables (e.g., parole vs. full discharge, institution of release, drug history).
Conclusion:These findings are consistent with the proposition that the reduced psychopathology and accelerated psychological development resulting from the TM program are responsible for reductions in criminal behavior.
Transcendental Meditation is largely of benefit because of the reduction of stress and fatigue it provides along with the benefits to the brain. Because of this, the TM technique can restore an incarcerated woman’s self-confidence, self-image, and quality of sleep, with corresponding reductions in her anxiety and depression. With contemporary scientific understanding of the human brain, especially the role of the prefrontal cortex, and our current understanding and experience with criminal behavior and recidivism, it is obvious that the TM technique can play a significant role in rehabilitating a female prisoner at the fundamental level of her brain’s health. This gives hope for our nation’s future—particularly in the consideration of young prisoners—protecting both the women and society from violent proclivities that grow out of chronic stress and anxiety.
Vanessa Vidal is the national director of TM for Women in the USA