Guidance

Mindfulness in prison and probation

A summary of evidence relating to the impact of mindfulness on people in prison and on probation.

Mindfulness means paying attention to what’s happening in the present moment in the mind, body and external environment. For example, paying focused attention to ordinary activities, like breathing, walking or washing your hands.

Mindfulness is thought helpful in how we:

  • manage and respond to life’s challenges
  • live with greater wellbeing and mental clarity
  • care for ourselves and others

It is easy to confuse mindfulness with relaxation, but they are not the same thing. Mindfulness focuses intently on what is going on right now. Relaxation provides a means of getting away from what is going on right now.

What does the evidence say about the impact of mindfulness on people in prison or on probation?

A systematic review of mindfulness meditation and yoga in prison, found that overall meditation (and yoga) had a beneficial effect for offenders1. Increased psychological wellbeing and improvements in prisoners’ behavioural functioning were found. But overall, evidence is weak at present. There is not yet enough good quality evidence to say whether mindfulness ‘works’ in criminal justice. This has not yet been robustly tested.

The evidence from other settings, for example healthcare is promising. Evidence from non-correctional settings show positive effects on regulating emotion. This could be particularly relevant for those in prison or on probation. There is a lot of research evaluating the impact of mindfulness. The vast majority is in health settings, and there is not a clear evidence base for criminal justice. This means we can only draw tentative conclusions.

Small studies with offenders in the US found that mindfulness may help offenders to:

  • improve self-regulation, self-discipline and protect from stress-related attention loss
  • reduce negative emotions like sadness, fear, nervousness, guilt, disgust, anxiety and anger
  • reduce drug use and associated attitudes and behaviours - this is compared to normal relapse prevention treatment
  • improve regulation of sexual arousal and control of aggression - this is for offenders with intellectual disabilities

Some accredited offending behaviour and substance misuse programmes have components of mindfulness, for example relaxation exercises. An example is ‘Resolve’ for anger management. However, the vast majority of facilitators delivering these programmes do not practise mindfulness. Non-accredited mindfulness courses are also delivered in prisons to both offenders and staff.

Further reading

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness (2015) This looked at where mindfulness is already used as part of existing interventions.

What is mindfulness? Paying attention: ‘on purpose;’ ‘in the present moment;’ and ‘non-judgementally’ (NHS Choices)

Prison Mindfulness Institute Provides and promotes the use of proven effective mindfulness-based interventions (MBI’s)

Mindfulness in mental health and prison settings Free Course from The Open University

References

  1. Auty, K.M., Cope, A. and Liebling, A. (2015) ‘A systematic review of meta-analysis of yoga and mindfulness meditation in prison: effects on psychological well-being and behavioural functioning’ International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, vol. 60, no. 13, pp. 1–22.

This page summarises the available evidence base and is informed by independent academic peer review. It does not represent Ministry of Justice or Government policy.

Published 15 May 2019