In 2017, a small group of male prisoners took part in an eight-week yoga program at the Alexander Maconochie Center(AMC), which houses all adult prisoners in Canberra. While prison yoga programs have been evaluated in other countries, this yoga program was the first in Australia to be the subject of academic research.
In line with international research, our results published in the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology
showed that participants derived significant benefits from the program for their mental and physical health.
Specifically, the prisoners showed improvements in their levels of depression, anxiety, and stress. They also reported an increase in self-esteem and a better ability to accept their emotional responses and engage in goal-directed behavior.
These are important findings as they are all crucial to the proper functioning of the prison and the inmates’ ability to build strong relationships after release.
The ACT Yoga Pilot Program
In addition to evaluating the results of the program for the participants, another objective of the pilot project was to identify the challenges of implementing a yoga program in a prison. The pilot project was made possible through a partnership between our research team (composed of a clinical psychologist, a criminal defense lawyer and a criminologist), ACT Remedial Services and the Yoga Foundation.
On a hot afternoon in late January 2017, ten male prisoners, with security classifications ranging from minimum to maximum, met their yoga instructor for the first time at AMC prison.
None had experience with yoga. In fact, they thought the program was an unconventional and “strange” offering.
For the next eight weeks, the prisoners learned basic yoga poses (from downward dog to triangle pose), various movement sequences, and breath awareness. For participating inmates, the challenges of learning discipline were both physical and mental, as were the benefits.
Nine prisoners completed the program. Their efforts were recognized at a graduation ceremony, where they received a yoga mat provided by a local studio.
Inmates were assessed before the program to determine their current levels of depression, anxiety and stress, their ability to regulate their emotions and their self-esteem. They repeated the same assessments at the end of the program.
Results showed that participants achieved statistically and clinically significant benefits from the program, as assessed by the Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scale (DASS-21), the Difficulties with the Emotion Regulation Scale (DERS) and the Rosenberg self-esteem scale (CSR).
Participants reported improved flexibility, sleep, and pain reduction. They also identified improvements in their mental well-being. All said the program made them feel relaxed.
One participant indicated that
it was something I looked forward to every week, to feel relaxed and calm. I would feel really relaxed and at peace.
Another said that after starting yoga he had fewer negative thoughts. Yet another reported that the program had had an impact on the way he approached people.
Calmer. More relaxed.
The health of Australian prisoners
A 2018 report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare on the health of Australian prisoners presented a picture of compromised well-being.
Four in ten people entering prison had been diagnosed with a mental health problem, while 30% suffered from a chronic physical health problem and 21% had a history of self-harm.
Recent data presents an equally grim picture in the ACT, with 30% of inmates reporting depression, 32% reporting anxiety, and 35% having attempted suicide.
Physically, 33% of inmates in the ACT survey experienced some form of chronic pain and 34% reported back problems.
What studies in other countries have found
A randomized controlled study was conducted in nine Swedish prisons in 2017 to assess the effects of yoga on inmates. After participants participated in a 10-week program, researchers found significant improvements on 13 of 19 measures of well-being, leading them to conclude that
the practice of yoga can play an important role in the rehabilitation of prisoners.
This is consistent with other studies on the rehabilitative benefits of yoga practices in countries where it has been introduced into prisons, such as India, the United States and the United Kingdom. The results of various studies show statistically significant decreases in stress, depression, anxiety, and aggression in inmates who practiced yoga, as well as improvements in impulse control.
The future of prison yoga in Australia
International research indicates that yoga programs can be a “cost-effective complementary treatmentfor detainees with compromised mental and physical health, alongside professional medical care. Beyond that, yoga programs offer the potential to promote wellness even for those without any identified mental or physical health issues.
All participants in the Canberra program were excited about the possibility of offering yoga programs more widely and regularly at the CMA. One, reflecting on his own experience of the benefits of participation, was adamant that priority should be given to “really depressed people”.
One of the challenges identified by participants was the difficulty in maintaining their own practice without a structured class, which highlights the need for regular yoga programs.
For a prison to offer continuous classes, there would need to be funding for qualified yoga teachers. (We had the advantage of having an experienced yoga teacher who volunteered their time for our study.) In the UK and Ireland, funding for yoga and meditation allows classes to be offered in more than a third of their prisons.
Ongoing courses also require a commitment to meeting operational requirements, such as providing space and arranging the movement of prisoners.
We hope the ACT pilot program will lead to more yoga programs in Australian prisons that can be subjected to larger-scale evaluations to test their benefits.
The final say on the potential of yoga programs to support prisoner well-being is best left to one of our participants.
You had a negative day and then you came there and after you did it, it was nice, it calmed down… the effects lasted, they continued.