Our Criminal Justice System is under pressure and failing to stop reoffending. As Vishvapani is learning through working in this field, mindfulness and Buddhist principles offer the basis of an alternative approach

This week the Scottish government announced that it’s scrapping plans for a new women’s jail in favour of small, regional units. Most women prisoners aren’t violent; and, like their male counterparts, most have mental health or addiction problems. That’s just one of the difficulties facing the criminal justice system. Statistics show that around half the men who leave prison, having received little help during their sentences, are reconvicted within a year. So there’s a strong case for reviewing what it’s trying to achieve.

I’ve been getting to know this world through a project with the National Offender Management Service to develop mindfulness training for offenders. It’s early days for this work in Britain, but in America it’s a substantial movement. We begin with simple mindfulness and meditation practices because having ways to focus and settle the mind helps participants manage the stress of being in prison or on probation. It also helps them let go of the thoughts that accompany some forms of mental illness.

But there’s a moral dimension as well. I wouldn’t argue against the traditional criminal justice aims of punishment, deterrence and public protection. But if we also value rehabilitation and reducing re-offending, we need to consider how people change for the better. The Buddhist teaching of karma tells us that our actions stem from our character and that grows from what we do and how we think. Through mindfulness, people learn to see the old, defensive patterns that may have led to their offence. They also see the suffering this prompts, and that opens a door to responsibility and even caring for others.

For me, this is the essential Buddhist approach, applied in a universal and secular way. Meditation alone isn’t enough, so we’re integrating mindfulness with how prison and probation officers work with offenders. The best American projects also integrate restorative justice, where offenders communicate with victims, and transformative justice, where they contribute positively to the world.

When I work intensively with groups of serious offenders, I quickly stop seeing them as ‘criminals’, even when they’ve done very bad things. They’re just people who are struggling and may have destructive ways of coping. That’s the start of a compassionate connection. It’s tough work, but it’s humbling when, despite everything, someone makes a big change, letting go of ingrained patterns.

Whatever the value of punishment, healing the harm an offence represents requires our compassion – for offenders, victims, guards, everyone. And faith: faith that, in general, whatever they’ve done, with help and encouragement, people have the capacity to change.


More on the Prison system in the UK

The Prison Mindfulness Institute: how mindfulness is being used in the US criminal justice system