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Can yoga lower recidivism rates in the American prison system?

More than two million people are currently locked up in prison, making the United States the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world. However that’s not all:

Despite growing evidence of social support programs being the most effective and cost-efficient way to prevent incarceration and promote rehabilitation, mass imprisonment remains the prevalent way of dealing with this ever growing problem.

A shocking number of four out of ten American convicts return to prison within three years of their release. Yet, instead of attacking the roots of the issue, the US has spent more than 80 billion dollars on the restriction of people's freedom, leaving it with an enormous recidivism problem.

With the new Biden-Harris administration and an announced series of policies offering opportunities for formerly incarcerated people, came new hope for an improved penal system. Accordingly, the promise to introduce the possibility to enroll in postsecondary education seemed like a small step towards abolishing this punitive prison system. While waiting until this project becomes fruitful, the question arises as to what other more accessible and immediate solutions could be implemented to lower the exorbitant relapse rate.

As a matter of fact, social justice advocates have increasingly become active in introducing yoga and mindfulness classes as a small step towards a broader goal:

Making sure, inmates leave prison in a healthier mental state than they entered.

While this might seem like a superfluous goal, research has found that more than half of jail inmates had been reporting about severe untreated mental health troubles, strongly suggesting that psychological distress remains one of the key aspects of incarceration. Moreover, psychologists have often emphasized the fact that individuals committing crimes often have a long history of personal trauma related to violence as well as psychological and physical abuse. In that regard, it is unsurprising that feeling left out by the justice system the abuse of illegal substances can seem like the only break from a constant state of emotional stress. While the American prison system has proven to be effective in detaining people for minor criminal acts such as the possession of Marijuana, it has failed to address the roots of the reasons for addiction and trauma. As has become apparent, the failure to treat the symptoms of the problem has led to significant societal issues.

So how can some stretchy yoga poses help solve this problem?

The spiritual practice originating in Northern India has proven to considerably lower drug dependency by encouraging recovery. Accordingly, a study by Professor Nora Kerekes at University West in Sweden, found that ten weeks of regular yoga classes lead to a significant reduction in obsessive-compulsive and paranoid thinking, which consequently lowered the chances of relapse. Knowing that relapse of substance abuse is the main reason for the exorbitant recidivism rate, yoga could effectively be an accessible and immediate way of addressing the root of the problem.

More than that, there undeniably is a clear correlation between exercise and cognitive clarity. In this regard, regular Yoga practices have proven to increase the blood flow to the brain’s frontal lobe, which is associated with clear thinking, future planning capacity and the ability to focus. As returning to their old environments often implies falling back into self-destructive patterns, learning to stay calm in demanding situations can be an efficient way to teach inmates to deal with their emotions in a more constructive way.

Lastly, unlike most other sports practiced in prison, yoga does not require any additional team members. Considering the oftentimes aggressive tensions between inmates this can be a good way of practicing sports without engaging in any sort of confrontation.

By offering regular yoga classes and hence a calm space, prisoners who have been subject to a lot of stress and violence have the possibility to escape their otherwise agitated environment, even for a short amount of time.

In the end, yoga can be an accessible and easy instrument to help convicts leave prison in a healthier state of mind that they entered and thus contribute to decreasing recidivism rates. After all this will not only benefit the members but also the society we all live in.

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