Dr. Miguel Farias & Dr. Catherine Wikholm discuss the mentality of prisoners, as well as those who work in prisons. After speaking with various prison staff, the authors surprised to discover that many of them don’t believe that the prisoners are capable of rehabilitation.

From Badass to Buddha: When Contemplation Leads to Rehabilitation


The concept of a prison cell as an ashram is an idea that captures the imagination, and the paradox of finding spiritual freedom through the loss of physical freedom is intriguing. Might there actually be truth in this unusual idea – can daily yogic sun salutations and deep breathing really make convicted rapists and murderers less violent and impulsive? While it’s unlikely that yoga and meditation could replace traditional rehabilitative approaches, it seems possible that they may have a unique ability to reach prisoners on a different level: to make them feel more at peace, and more valued and connected.

Bo Lozoff summarizes the aim of organizations that teach contemplative techniques to prisoners worldwide when he says that we should ‘allow for transformation, not merely rehabilitation’. In other words, the change that charities such as his and the PPT seek to encourage goes far beyond the cessation of offending behavior; we are talking about a radical change in worldview. The PPT’s current director Sam Settle describes this transformation as ‘the forgetting of one’s self as one lives – the forgetting of me’. In essence, moving from focusing on oneself as a separate individual to seeing oneself as part of a larger whole.

Whether or not we share these ideas about the possibility of the rehabilitation and transformation of convicted criminals – from sinner to saint, from ‘monster’ to Buddha – on a theoretical and anecdotal level, there does seem to be a reason to think that yoga and meditation can bring about positive personal change in prisoners.


The Institution of Home

 For many who have lived in prisons from an early age, the prospect of going outside is daunting. I once worked with a prisoner, ‘John’, who was serving his tenth prison sentence at the age of only 21 years old. He attended every session of the offending behavior program I was facilitating, only to – in the final session – suddenly become aggressive and disruptive to the point where he had to be removed from the group. Talking to him afterward, trying to understand why he had sabotaged something that could have helped him towards securing an earlier release date, he admitted he was scared of being released. ‘There is nothing for me outside,’ he said, visibly upset.


When John was a young child, one of his parents murdered the other; he went on to spend the rest of his childhood in numerous short-term foster-care placements. Angry and distrusting of people, he would repeatedly run away from them. He committed his first offense aged ten and received his first custodial sentence aged fifteen. The frequency of his impulsive crimes meant that he had spent the majority of the past six years behind bars. There were no family or friends waiting for him on the outside. The uncertainty of how to build a meaningful life, alone, in the ‘real world’ was overwhelming. Prison was all he felt he knew.



 All staff members working in prisons – from officers to psychologists, to governors – are acutely aware that changing prisoners can be extraordinarily difficult – but it’s not impossible. In my own work with young male offenders, I lost count of the number of times I heard ‘he’ll never change’ from prison officers, who generally would have little idea of that individual’s backstory and the factors that contributed to his offending behavior. Often the prisoners in question were boys still in their teens, some of them coming from such difficult backgrounds that it would have been a miracle if they hadn’t ended up in prison.

 The desire to reform is often unsupported – sometimes owing to budget restrictions, but other times owing to a lack of belief. Changing is hard. And it’s even harder without a helping hand. The support of others – whether friend, therapist or institution – can be fundamental in whether or not we succeed in bringing about the desired change. Feeling that others believe in us can significantly boost our sense of self-efficacy. Feeling that others don’t believe in us at all undermines our self-belief so that we may start to feel a dramatic waning of our own confidence and motivation to try to change.


Changing attitudes

 It was a Thursday afternoon and I was on my lunch break, in between research interviews at a West Midlands prison. I was accompanied by an officer in his late fifties, who had been assigned to facilitate the interviews; escorting prisoners from the wings to the interview room. As our break drew to a close, the officer suddenly deviated from his impromptu monologue on the joys of pigeon fancying, my knowledge of which had substantially increased over the hour, to ask whether I really thought that yoga and meditation would do anything at all for prisoners.

‘Well,’ I replied, ‘we think it might. There’s evidence that it works outside of prisons to reduce stress and increase positive emotions. So it may help prisoners to manage their emotions better and improve their self-control, which might also reduce their aggression.’

‘Ha!’ said the officer. ‘I doubt it.’ ‘Why?’ I asked.

‘I don’t think any of these can change,’ he told me. ‘I’m a firm believer that leopards never change their spots.’

It wasn’t just yoga and meditation the officer was dismissed as futile. He went on to say that he thought nothing could be done to change prisoners for the better; each and every one of them was a hopeless cause. ‘No matter what,’ he told me, ‘they will always revert back to what they are. It’s like a man who used to be a philanderer; he could get married to a woman and be faithful for, let’s say, ten years, but in the end, he’ll always cheat again.’

My attempts to debate failed miserably. When I maintained that I did think we could rehabilitate prisoners, he delivered his closing argument: ‘Well I’m older than you and I’ve met quite a lot of different people, so I think I know.

About the Authors

Dr. Miguel Farias is an author, lecturer, and industry leader. He writes about the psychology of belief and spiritual practices, including meditation. He was a lecturer at the University of Oxford and is now the founding director of the Brain, Belief, and Behavior Lab group at Coventry University. Farias is also the lead editor of the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Meditation.

Dr. Catherine Wikholm is an author, clinical psychologist, and a chartered psychologist. She was previously employed by HM Prison Service, where she worked with young offenders. Catherine has worked within the specialism of children and families, both in the National Health Service (NHS), as part of a London child and adolescent mental health service and in private practice. Her current NHS role is as a Highly Specialist Clinical Psychologist in a London perinatal mental health service.


Miguel and Catherine worked together on a ground-breaking research study investigating the psychological effects of yoga and meditation in prisoners.

Edited and Excerpted from The Buddha Pill – Pg. 25-28 & 30-31-