Expert Speak Young Voices
Published on Sep 12, 2019
Institutionalising yoga in jails to reduce recidivism rate

Overcrowding and poor conditions in jails have led to stressful conditions for inmates as well as jail officials. Recidivism—the tendency of a convict to once again commit a crime after release from prison—is a serious issue not only in underdeveloped countries, but in countries like the USA, UK and Australia as well. These countries have recidivism rates to the rune of 55 percent, 72 percent and 44.6 percent respectively. According to the latest available data, the reconviction rate of prisoners in France, Germany, UK, Ireland, Netherland and Sweden is above 40 percent.

Reducing recidivism involves the education of the inmates, psychotherapy and skilling them for meaningful employment opportunities after the end of their sentence. Yoga has been a part of such a routine in several Indian prisons. It is also an accepted preventive healthcare intervention. Research has shown positive development in mental health and behavioural changes of yoga disciples in prisons. Yoga training for jail inmates is being increasingly adopted by several western countries. However, its use is largely sporadic and dependent on the discretion of the incumbent jail superintendent.

Relationship between yoga and reduction in recidivism 

India has traditionally adopted rehabilitation programmes for prisoners involving yoga and literacy efforts. In 2015, authorities of Tihar jail offered certificate courses in yoga training, so that they can get suitable jobs as trainers after their release from the jail. In 2018, under project Sanjeevan, which was initiated in a partnership between the prison department and Morarji Desai National Institute of Yoga (MDNIY), more than 1,000 inmates in Delhi are going to be trained as yoga teachers within a year. Likewise, the prison department in Bihar has signed an MoU with Art of Living to teach yoga to around 48,000 inmates lodged in 56 prisons in the state. Research by Osmania University in Telangana suggests that programmes like yoga and education drastically reduce the chance of convicts committing criminal offences after their release. In 2010, prison officials in Madhya Pradesh had launched a scheme that granted inmates reduction in their sentences if they attended and completed a three-month Yoga course. The prison authorities conveyed that yoga hasn’t merely improved their fitness, but made them calmer, less violent and positive towards life. A few prisoners have already planned to become trainers of the discipline post their release.

Providing convicts with means to a regular livelihood after their release is the most effective method to reduce the rate of recidivism and training in the discipline of yoga provides them with tools for future employment. Additionally, yoga also provides them the strength to deal with the drastic transition in store as they leave prisons and integrate with the outside world.

Importance of yoga in prisons: Beyond reducing recidivism rates

According to a 2016 data report, India has 1,412 prisons with 1,35,638 convicted prisoners. India’s recidivism rate, according to a 2015 report, is only three percent, which, compared to other countries, is low; however, recidivism still continues to pose a challenge. The number of people arrested for reoffending was 5,576 during the year 2015. The prisons have been overcrowded, reaching 113.7 percent of their capacity. The conditions in the jails have caused inmates to suffer from anxiety, depression, suicidal behavior, aggression etc. According to a 2016 prison statistics India report, 6,013 inmates were found to be suffering from mental illness. The number of unnatural deaths in prisons doubled between 2015 and 2016 and the rate of suicides has also increased.

Countries such as the US, UK and Australia are swiftly institutionalising the practice of yoga in prisons; India must not wander in the dark. An Oxford University paper published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research states how yoga progressively improves mood and decreases stress in a sample of UK prisoners. For this study, prisoners were randomly assigned to participate in yoga classes for a period of 10 weeks. The emerging evidence articulated the idea that the practice of yoga may play a significant role in prison rehabilitation programmes. Pre and post-yoga effects, perceived stress and psychological symptoms were entered into linear regression analyses. Class attendance, self-practice, demographic variables, and baseline psychometric variables were included as regressors. Participants who attended more yoga classes and those who engaged in frequent self-practice (five times or more per week), reported significantly greater reduction of perceived stress. Thus, if such yoga classes are conducted in the prisons, it would help inmates decrease psychological distress and improve behavior. It could be effective in keeping them out of prisons after they are released, the research concluded.

Prison Yoga project’, ‘Liberation Prison Yoga’ and ‘The Prison Phoenix Trust’ are the three organisations solely dedicated to teaching yoga to inmates. Prison Yoga Project originated in California, and now offers classes to inmates in prisons and jails across the US. One of the agendas of Prison Yoga Project is to significantly reduce recidivism rate. The Prison Phoenix Project runs weekly yoga and meditation classes in 84 prisons around the UK. It reaches around 2,000 prisoners a month. Research conducted by the Oxford University in collaboration with The Prison Phoenix Trust showed that a ten-week programme of yoga and meditation in a prison reduced emotional distress and improved impulse control. It also showed that these effects were progressive and the more the person practices, the stronger the effects are.

Sadly, despite having gifted this ancient discipline that combines the physical and spiritual, India currently does not have any such yoga institution, private or public, working solely for prisoners. While many prisons do provide yoga classes to prisoners, most prison officials prefer psychotherapy. But both Yoga and psychotherapy serve different goals. Psychotherapy is more curative, while Yoga is a proven preventive health and wellness regime. Yoga could be a great complementary practice, even for those who are going for psychotherapy sessions. International studies have also shown how psychotherapy acts as an external pressure, while yoga supplements the treatment to ensure quick relief.

The road ahead

On 29 August, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that the government is planning to build 12,500 AYUSH centers across India under the Fit India mission, of which, 4,000 centers will come up by the end of 2019. This renewed focus on public health in the country must be expanded to prisons too. Prison authorities must work with these AYUSH centres to bring yoga to jails. They must also be encouraged to establish partnerships with the MDNIY and learn from Delhi’s Sanjeevan project. Employment of trained convicts as yoga trainers in the jails would be ideal as they understand the challenges of serving time in a prison and therefore could provide better counsel. With yoga emerging as a tool for India’s soft power diplomacy, the Ministry of Externals Affairs can also reach out to the countries in need. Keeping individuals out of prison and reduce recidivism as not only an interest of a particular nation but that of global interest.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.