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Yoga Behind Bars: Study Reveals Positive Mental Health Effects

By Stephanie Dinkmeyer, NAMI Communications Intern

Supreme Court

As of 2006, over one-half of all federal, state, and county prisoners in America live with a mental illness. As many as 73 percent of women in state prisons are affected.  These staggering numbers are prompting a closer look at the benefits of a mentally healthier prison population. A new study led by Oxford University researchers implies that the ancient science of yoga may be a worthwhile remedy.

The study, which will be published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, consisted of prisoners from the West Midlands in England. The prisons included were five category B and C prisons (prisons that are very secure, but do not hold the most serious offenders), a young offender’s institution, and a women’s facility. The 100-person test group performed 90 minutes of yoga for ten weeks. The control group performed no yoga.

The mental well-being questionnaires and behavior control tests performed before and after the ten-week -session revealed better mental health and impulse control in the group that did yoga. The test group reported improved mood and decreased stress levels.

Yoga and meditation have had proven positive effects on depression, anxiety, and overall mood in other populations and settings, so the results although not entirely surprising, are still noteworthy. Sam Settle, director of The Phoenix Prison Trust, one of the study’s supporters and the group that led the prison yoga classes, believes in the long term benefits of yoga on the prison population. He believes yoga could help prevent people from returning to prison at the current rate. In the U.K., nearly one-half return within a year of being released. “This research confirms what prisoners have been consistently telling the Prison Phoenix Trust for 25 years: yoga and meditation help them feel better, make better decisions and develop the capacity to think before acting—all essential in leading positive, crime-free lives once back in the community,” he said.

Amy Bilderbeck, one of the authors of the study, is more skeptical about the long-term behavioral effects and more encouraged by a unique possible outcome: the financial benefits. "Offering yoga sessions in prisons is cheap - much cheaper than other mental health interventions. We're not saying that yoga will replace standard treatment of mental health conditions in prison. If yoga has any effect on addressing mental health problems in prisons, it could save significant amounts of public money," she said.

There are, of course, larger issues at play in this conversation, including the role mental illness plays in criminal activity and the prevention of and the response to this activity. However, there are presently 2.4 million people incarcerated across the country, half of whom living with a mental illness. Until there is a widespread, better understanding of mental illness and criminality, that is a population worth helping.

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