Note: September 12 is National Mindfulness Day, a day set aside to promote and explore the physical and emotional benefits of being present and regulating emotions and behavior.
Nearly 2.2 million individuals are incarcerated in the US, according to The Sentencing Project organization. Within those populations 80,000 to 100,000 people are being held in solitary confinement. Some of these prisoners have discovered a Niwot-based nonprofit program that moves them toward a sense of peacefulness and control, and prepares them for a new life outside of prison.
The Mindfulness Peace Project (MPP) was founded by Niwotian Margot Neuman in 2004. Ten years before the formal organization came about, Neuman worked with one prisoner she’d been introduced to through a mutual friend. Requests for the knowledge she imparted grew and gradually she developed a study course. Now there are several programs under MPP each with the core goal of supporting veterans and prisoners who want to find and follow a path toward sanity and composure through mindfulness and meditation.
Mindfulness and meditation are interlaced concepts. Mindfulness is defined as nonjudgmental in-the-moment awareness – gentle consciousness of thoughts, feelings, sensations, and the surrounding environment. Mindfulness often includes meditation practice as a tool to foster well being, often using breathing techniques to center and calm the mind and body.
Under the umbrella organization of MPP there are The Ratna Peace Initiative, a Buddhist study program for incarcerated prisoners, Veterans Peace of Mind, a secular program for incarcerated vets, and Solitary Confinement, a program specifically intended to support prisoners who are isolated for what may be years.
MPP offers prison visits and provides inmates with reading sources, workbook materials and steady correspondence with educators and meditation instructors to guide people behind bars across the nation toward calmness and strength.
Often inmates choose to work with MPP because they’re at a loss as to how to deal with their lives, or they may have learned a little about mindfulness and now want to be more immersed. Difficulties with anger, trauma, and impulsiveness are paramount and the desire to be happier can lead prisoners to be open to learning how to be mindful.
“The reason mindfulness is in the mainstream is because there’s so much science on it. There’s solid research that shows meditation has a positive effect on every organ in the body, especially the brain,” Neuman said.
For veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder this is an especially important consequence of meditation. Research shows that white matter in meditators increases in density and activity around the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain in charge of emotions and decision making. At the same time, gray matter around the amygdala, where emotional trauma is held, becomes less compact and lit up through meditation, thereby helping relieve the fragmented images that trigger episodes of PTSD.
Working in collaboration with the Colorado Department of Corrections, veterans in prison facilities such as Buena Vista Correctional Complex can opt into a weekend program presented by MPP staff where they’re given instruction on meditation practice. Margot and her husband Cliff Neuman go to the Sterling Correctional Facility once a month to work with prisoners. Twice a month education director Gary Allen and volunteers go to Limon, Canon City, and other correctional facilities to work with Buddhist groups.
Control over emotions can be one of the biggest takeaways from the program. One of the things Neuman said she hears the most is that participants are able to give themselves more time to consider how to behave rather reacting and making poor decisions. “Those few seconds make all the difference in the world,” Neuman said.
Aside from visits to prisons, prisoners participate independently by reading material and responding to study questions. Their responses are mailed to MPP and every one of them -- hundreds that is -- are read by an instructor who writes pertinent comments back to the prisoner. Mindfulness students earn certificates along the way marking the milestones in their journey and also verifying to parole boards that they’ve been intentional with self-improvement efforts.
Solitary confinement adds another layer of emotional distress while incarcerated. Allen said being sequestered is a terrible experience and, even with his extensive training it would be psychologically trying. “But those guys, they don’t know how to deal with their minds. That’s why they’re in prison to begin with.” MPP course work and communication with the organization are life-centering in these instances.
“It’s been so successful,” Neuman said. “We’ve been writing to some people over 20 years and the changes are profound.”
One participant said, “Awareness helps us to notice things. It helps us to notice when we are being a jerk. There was a situation about six months ago between me and my friend in class where he flipped out. He was ready to fight. Since I've started meditation, I am more calm. Instead of flying off the handle I was able to maintain my calm because of my awareness.”
The organization is focused on providing quality experiences with the inmates and that can take time. “To develop a practice, you have to understand these things in a personal way and you need someone else to talk to you about it who’s more experienced,” Allen said. The back and forth communication between student and instructor is a major element in grasping concepts and getting out of ruts.
Some prisoners simply want to learn by following the course materials and others engage by sending long letters. Along with the changes that learning and practicing meditation can bring, there’s the act of being treated as a valuable human being. For that, Neuman said, prisoners have expressed huge gratitude.
“Most people in prison will be released at some point, and be back in our communities. We feel that we are performing a meaningful service to society by helping former prisoners be good neighbors by providing tools to work with their emotions,” Neuman said.
Mindfulness Peace Project is located at 6800 N 79th Street, Ste. 200, Niwot CO. For more information and to donate to the organization, visit www.MindfulnessPeaceProject.org.