About 60 inmates held in segregation units will be taught mindfulness-based techniques in an effort to calm their violent impulses
Prison staff are to teach meditation to Britain’s most dangerous criminals in an attempt to aid their rehabilitation and quell their violent impulses.
About 60 of the most violent men held in segregation units in the country’s eight highest-security prisons will have access to one-on-one training by psychologists and prison officers, the Guardian has learned.
A prisoner in HMP Wakefield’s close supervision centre (CSC), where the armed robber and hostage taker Charles Bronson is being held, is the first to undertake a mindfulness-based stress reduction course, derived from a 2,400-year-old Buddhist meditation tradition.
The move represents an ambitious new frontier in the application of the technique, which is already prescribed on the NHS to treat depression and is gaining traction in schools to help pupils concentrate and to regulate their emotional responses.
CSC inmates have murdered, attempted to murder, taken hostages or committed other serious crimes while in jail and are taken into isolation for others’ safety. They include double killer Mark Robinson, who last year hospitalised five prison officers after becoming upset about his bread ration, and Lee Foye, who killed his partner and was sent to a CSC after murdering a paedophile.
Once inside he sliced off one of his own ears with a razor blade, and three months later cut off the other ear.
“The idea is to incorporate it as part of the day-to-day regime of our close supervision centres,” said Mark Campion, the wellbeing strategy manager for the prison service’s high-security prisons group.
“There are eight high-security jails and mindfulness will be active in all those eight, making it one of the pathways of therapy for prisoners. Some won’t engage. You can’t force people to do mindfulness. It is on a need basis agreed by both prisoner and the prison psychologist.”
Mindfulness courses are usually taught in groups but the hardened criminals in the prison-within-prison segregation units will receive one-on-one teaching. The courses will be available at HMP Woodhill near Milton Keynes, HMP Whitemoor in Cambridgeshire, HMP Manchester, HMP Full Sutton – near York, and HMP Wakefield.
There is no authoritative evidence the technique can work in such extreme contexts, but studies have shown it can prevent relapses of depression and anxiety in the wider population. Anecdotal evidence suggests it could help some convicts and people on probation handle thoughts that cause stress, anxiety and violent urges.
The intiative emerged as a cross-party committee of MPs and peers on Tuesday calls for greater state support for mindfulness declaring it “an important innovation in mental health which warrants serious attention”.
Following a year-long inquiry the all party group on mindfulness will tell the government it is “disappointed by the lack of provision across the country of this cost-effective treatment”. It will also call on the National Offender Management Service, which runs prisons and probation, to make mindfulness courses available to offenders suffering from recurrent depression.
The course at Wakefield’s close supervision centre is being delivered by the prison psychologist and a prison officer who trained mindfulness teachers.
The chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, this summer said CSC inmates consider the units so claustrophobic and isolated they are “like a submarine”. One prisoner told his inspectors: “All I see is concrete barriers, grey sky. Don’t see no grass or anything.”
The move to introduce meditation into such a tough environment follows the successful provision of eight week mindfulness courses for 15 men convicted of crimes related to drug and alcohol addiction at HMP Manchester. There have also been meditation pilot schemes at HMP Guys Marsh, HMP Dumfries and youth offender institutions at Cookham Wood in Kent and Polmont in Scotland.
The Ministry of Justice said it is watching the various initiatives with interest but said there was no national policy on mindfulness across the prison estate.
Ruth Mann, the head of rehabilitation at the national offender management service, told the high-security prisons group: “Early evidence suggests that mindfulness could impact factors linked to reoffending, so we’d like to test whether it can improve outcomes for certain groups of offenders.”
The group concluded: “Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy has been shown to be most effective amongst individuals who have suffered childhood abuse. Given 41% of prisoners reported having observed violence in the home and 29% reported emotional, sexual or physical abuse as a child, mindfulness could have a significant impact and affect the higher one-year recidivism rates among these groups.”