OOS 56-5
From longing to belonging: Combining mindfulness practice and ecological understanding in prison rehabilitation

Wednesday, August 12, 2015: 2:50 PM
341, Baltimore Convention Center
Lisa Benham, Insight Garden Program, San Quentin State Prison, CA

Offering spiritual intervention to the endeavor of criminal justice is far from new. More recent is a revival of the ancient intermingling between environmental stewardship and spiritual practice. Newer still is the combining of systems-thinking from both ecology and mindfulness-based spiritualties, and introduction of these perspectives into the rehabilitative setting of prisons and jails.  This growing educational effort is an emerging facet within the environmental justice movement. A handful of case studies, including both quantitative and qualitative primary research, will be discussed from these efforts, as found in rehabilitative programs such as the expanding non-profit Insight Garden Program, begun twelve years ago within San Quentin State Prison. The more nascent, county-sponsored “eco-chaplaincy” component of the Sustainability in Jails Project, located within Elmwood Correctional Facility in the County of Santa Clara, CA, will also be discussed.


A deepening understanding for the complex natural systems in which we are all immersed is frequently reported to inspire a newfound sense of awe. Other research describes the experience of awe as shifting our human neurology from “me” to “we” processing.  This neurological claim is consistent with qualitative data gathered and other observations made within these programs. Similarly, mindfulness exercises and framing, in conjunction with increased comprehension of the degree to which we are wholly, physiologically interdependent within these natural systems, is frequently reported to foster new senses of kinder self-regard and connection/belonging, which motivates reciprocal action for environmental and human community care. These new perspectives inspire immediate in situ behavioral changes even within the challenging setting of incarceration, and take the forms of improved self-care via diet, meditation, stress reduction, formal and informal study, improved social interactions, and reductions in resource consumption where possible (i.e. water use, food waste, etc.). Looking at post-release plans and follow-through, such shifts in perspective are also observed to influence “green job” and educational and employment ambitions, which are consistent with reductions in recidivism. Any reductions in recidivism represent enormous, reverberating cost-savings and reclaimed community resource, for the individual, inter-generations of family, and society.