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Jail-Based Vipassana Meditation Research Project at the North Rehabilitation Facility



The preliminary results of the UW-NRF Vipassana Research Project as well as the NRF Vipassana Recidivism Report (Murphy, 2002) are noteworthy because of the potential ability of a mindfulness practice, as taught in the 10-day Vipassana meditation course, to significantly impact problem behaviors such as alcohol and drug abuse which are often associated with re-offense.
In November 1997, the King County North Rehabilitation Facility (NRF)
cautiously opened its doors to a meditation program for inmates. NRF,
located just north of Seattle, Washington, was already committed to a rich
menu of offender change programs and services. Most of the 273
"long-term" inmates at NRF were recidivists characterized by significant
involvement with alcohol and other drugs, and often, with one or more co-
occurring mental disorders as well.
American Jails July/August 2003 • 13
Today, meditation often has eso- classification units, risk management NRF on alcohol and drug relapse, psy- or
"new age" connotations, but protocols, inmate orientation, etc.)
chosocial functioning, and recidivism.
the meditation course initiated at became routine over time. The University of Washington
NRF, Vipassana meditation, is not a In order to evaluate the outcome (UW)-NRF Vipassana Research Project
religious or mystical practice, not a of the Vipassana program on post- was funded by the National Institute on
relaxation technique, or an escape release criminal behavior, the NRF Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (under
from reality. Vipassana meditation, as Programs Manager completed the the National Institute of Health), in
taught by instructor S.N. Goenka and Vipassana Recidivism Study (Murphy association with the Fetzer Foundation
assistant teachers under his direction, 2002) which included data collected of Kalamazoo, Michigan. From the start.
is a systematic process of mental train- from courses one through eight. The the UW NRF Vipassana Research
ing and ethical conduct in which sus- study consisted of a two-year criminal Project involved close collaboration
tained self-observation leads to history preprogram review and a two- among University of Washington re
increased awareness, self-control, and year recidivism postprogram review. searchers, North Rehabilitation Facility
inner balance (Hart 1987). The sample size of Vipassana course staff, the Vipassana community, and
The Vipassana meditation course is completers for this study was small the NRF residents who volunteered
offered free of charge by well-quali- (n=75), and NRF did not have the their time to take part in the study.
fied volunteer teachers and course resources to review recidivism data The UW research team began col
assistants in communities all over outside King County. Nonetheless, lecting data before the men's course
North America and throughout the this study provided valuable baseline held in January 2000 and continued
world. To be successful in a correc- information that led to the awarding through the last Vipassana course
tional context, it takes a serious com- of a two-year research grant from the held at NRF, a women's course com
mitment from both the inmate and National Institutes of Health to the pleted in August 2002. In total, nine
the penal institution. The Vipassana University of Washington to study the courses were included in the research
meditation course requires ten con- effects of the Vipassana meditation study, five men's courses and four
tinuous days of intensive meditation program at NRF on alcohol and drug women's courses. The research was
training in a self-contained area seg- relapse and recidivism. designed to systematically compare
regated from the mainjail population Final outcome results from the Treatment as Usual (TAU) at NRF
in which inmates and volunteer teach- recidivism study (Murphy 2002) with Treatment as Usual plus taking
ers observe a rigorous schedule of revealed that approximately half (56 the Vipassana meditation course
eleven hours per day of meditation percent) of the inmates completing a (TAU+V). TAU included a rich array
practice and a code of moral conduct, Vipassana course at NRF recidivated of rehabilitation programs, such as
and inmates are taught a method of as measured by returning to King chemical dependency treatment,
mind training they can practice the County Jail (KCJ) custody within two alcohol and other drug education,
rest of their lives (see
American, Jails years, compared with a 75 percent mental health services, cognitive
magazine article, July/August 1999). rate of recidivism in a NRF General behavioral programs, adult basic edu
After considerable planning and Population Study (Murphy 2000; cation and GED testing, acupuncture,
preparation, Vipassana meditation n=437). Moreover, the average num- housing case management, and voca
courses were held at NRF every three ber of bookings for Vipassana course tional programs.
to four months from November 1997 completers declined from 2.9 prepro- For research design and ethical
through August 2002 using multipur- gram to 1.5 postprogram. Fifty-four reasons, a randomized clinical trial
pose program space. In total, 20 percent of women who completed the (with a no-treatment control group)
courses were conducted at the facility. course returned to KCJ, as compared was not possible, so the study used a
Total start-up costs were minimal, and to 5 7 percent of men. This is remark- quasi-experimental design in which
the largest ongoing expense was for able given that the criminal histories Vipassana meditation course com
additional hours of security coverage and presenting problems were more pleters were compared as a group to all
for the ten-day period of the course. severe for women than men admitted NRF residents who did not take the
The Vipassana meditation courses at to NRF
course, but who completed the same
NRF were successfully implemented Using the encouraging results from precourse and postcourse assessments.
due to model collaboration between NRF Vipassana Recidivism Study (Mur- When the 3- and 6-month follow-up
security, program, and food services phy 2002) and their experience study- assessments are collected, the Vipas
personnel. A vegetarian menu for ing meditation, alcohol problems, and sang
meditation course completers will
courses was developed that required criminal conduct (Marlatt and Kris- be matched to those NRF residents
no additional staffing to prepare and teller 1998; Parks and Marlatt 1999), most similar to them who resided at
serve. Program classroom and office a team of researchers at the University thejail at the same time, but who did
space was modified for rapid conver- of Washington (G. Alan Marlatt, not take the Vipassana course. These
sion to residential use by meditating Ph.D., principal investigator) received case-matched pairs will provide inmates
Procedures for course set-up , funding in October of 1999 to con- parative outcome data for the final
(security clearing and training volun- duct a two-year study on the effects of research report. Data collection for the
Additional research participants will
complete questionnaires at threemonth
and six-month follow-up assessments
before final results can be analyzed.
Second, the results reported were
calculated before case matching could
take place. Final published results will
include only Vipassana meditation course
completers and their case-matched
controls. Last, all dependent measures
have not yet been analyzed and,
therefore, reported results in this paper
are partial.
reports only preliminary results. More
comprehensive results will be available
in an upcoming chapter by Marlatt et al.
(in press). Overall, the preliminary data
are suggestive of a clear trend favoring
the Vipassana meditation course
completers, although TAU at NRF was
also shown to have significant positive
effects. Final results of the research are
expected to be available by autumn of
The data collection for the study
began with a precourse assessment,
occurring within one week of the
beginning of each Vipassana meditation
course, which asked residents about the
last 90 days they lived in the community
before their current incarceration. A
postcourse assessment, occurring within
one week after each of the nine courses
ended, was completed by research
participants who were still detained at
NRF during that time. To complete the
longitudinal study, former NRF inmates
filled out two additional follow-up
assessment questionnaires at three and
six months after their release from NRF
They were assessed at follow-up whether
they were living in the community or
injail at the time of each assessment.
Research participants were paid five
dollars for assessments completed while
incarcerated and 30 dollars for
assessments completed while residing in
the community.
UW-NRF Vipassana Research Project
Preliminary Results
The preliminary results of the
UWNRF Vipassana Research Project
reported here compare Vipassana
meditation course completers (n=29)
with the TAU control group (n=59) on a
variety of measures at 90 days prior to
incarceration and at the three-month
follow-up after release into the
community. Of 306 inmates who
consented to participate in the study, 88
participants completed precourse,
postcourse, and three-month follow-up
assessments. The following analyses
refer to this subsample. Statistical tests
demonstrated that there were no
significant differences between the
TAU+V and TAU groups on drug or
alcohol use, psychosocial measures, or
NRF program participation at the
baseline assessment.
Given these limitations, the following
results provide support for the
A series of statistical analyses
(analysis of variance or ANOVA) were
used to determine differences between
the Vipassana meditation course
completers (TAU+V) and the treatment
as usual control group (TAU) on alcohol
and drug use, psychosocial outcomes,
and recidivism between precourse
assessment and three-month follow-up.
The results reported here are preliminary
in several ways. First, they represent a
subset of the entire NRF study sample
that has completed both the precourse
and three-month assessments.
American Jails July/August 20034 15
overall positive impact at the threemonth
follow-up assessment for TAU at NRF,
and more strongly for TAU Plus the
Vipassana meditation course (TAU+V).
The rehabilitation programs offered at
NRF had an overall positive impact in
general on all inmates participating in the
study. Data analyses revealed significant
reductions at three-month follow-up on
tobacco use, peak drinking episodes,
alcohol-related problems, and weekly
heroin use for both groups in the study.
On the psychosocial measures,
psychoticism was significantly lower in
both groups.
However, several of the study's results
favor the Vipassana group over the TAU
group. Vipassana completers experienced
fewer adverse drinkingrelated
consequences and demonstrated greater
perceived control over their drinking
behavior. Together, these results suggest
that the Vipassana participants were being
more thoughtful about when, where, and
how they were consuming alcoholic
beverages. In addition, they used
significantly less marijuana, crack, and
powder cocaine in the three months
following release. Drug abuse seventy
scores for the use of all illicit substances
of the Vipassana meditators were also
significantly lower at the three-month
follow-up, reflecting not only less drug
use, but less drugrelated negative
consequences. Since many of the offenses
committed by NRF inmates were alcohol
or drug
related, these results may also contribute
to reduced recidivism.
Regarding psychosocial measures, the
levels of depression and thought
suppression in the Vipassana course
completers were significantly lower than
in the TAU group. While not statistically
significant, hostility and anxiety were also
lower for the Vipassana group. Finally,
Vipassana meditators scored significantly
higher on their level of optimism,
indicating they were more hopeful about
their future'.
The study found no significant
differences between the groups for
recidivism based on the number of days
incarcerated or new charges at the
three-month follow-up, although
Washington State-wide arrest data
have yet to be analyzed. Participants in
both groups had an average of less than
one recidivism event within the
three-month follow-up window compared
with the two-year time frame in Murphy's
study (2002). Consequently, there was
not enough variation in criminal conduct
to detect any difference between the two
groups. Statewide arrest data and
recidivism at six months will be analyzed
to determine if any group differences
exist for the final report of the study.
Figures 1-4 illustrate selected study
results for marijuana, crack and powder
cocaine use, and severity of drug abuse.
Given the present trend toward
increased incarceration of individuals
who have problems with alcohol and
substance abuse, often co-occurring
with mental disorders and physical health
problems, there is a growing need for the
availability and implementation of
effective, low cost substance abuse
treatment interventions for jail-based
correctional populations. Jail-based
substance abuse treatment programs offer
an opportunity for inmates to change
long-standing habitual behavioral
problems such as psychological
functioning, addictive behavior, and
criminal conduct.
The preliminary results of the UW
NRF Vipassana Research Project as well as
the NRF Vipassana Recidivism Report
(Murphy 2002) are noteworthy because of
the potential ability of a mindfulness
practice, as taught in
16 *July/August 2003 American Jails
... hostility (Brief Symptom Inventory) in the North Rehabilitation Facility near Seattle (Parks et al., 2003). Similarly, participation in TM programs in a correctional institution led to a decrease in aggression measured on the Buss-Durkee Hostility Inventory (Hawkins et al., 2003) and to decreased aggression (Special Hospitals Assessment of Personality and Socialization Scale) at the maximum-security prison in Walpole, Massachusetts (Alexander et al., 2003). ...
... Nor were we able to measure impacts on recidivism rates. More compelling will be studies measuring recidivism and the extent of involvement with drugs and alcohol after release, as has been done following participation in a Vipassana meditation program (Marlatt et al., 2004; Parks et al., 2003 ) and TM interventions in two maximum-security institutions (Alexander et al., 2003; Rainforth, Alexander, & Cavanaugh, 2003). Nevertheless, because this study had the advantage of involving a very large number of participants in multiple correctional sites, including men in medium-and minimum-security facilities and women in another facility, our findings offer considerable promise for the wider use of MBSR programs in prison settings and will hopefully serve as a stimulus for future development of formal research studies of MBSR in correctional settings. ...
Mindfulness-based stress-reduction courses were offered in drug units in six Massachusetts Department of Corrections prisons. A total of 1,350 inmates completed the 113 courses. Evaluation assessments were held before and after each course, and highly significant pre- to post-course improvements were found on widely accepted self-report measures of hostility, self-esteem, and mood disturbance. Improvements for women were greater than those for men, and improvements were also greater for men in a minimum-security, pre-release facility than for those in four medium-security facilities. The results encourage further study and wider use of mindfulness-based stress reduction in correctional facilities.
... Effect sizes were similar at around .5 with homogenous distribution. At the University of Washington, the first investigation of Vipassana meditation as a substance use treatment among prisoners in the U.S. was conducted (Bowen et al., 2006; Parks et al., 2003). Through Vipassana meditation, mindfulness and self control are taught to aid individuals in viewing themselves in a nonjudgmental way (Hart, 1987). ...
Full-text available
This article describes treatment modalities used in incarcerated populations with substance abuse or dependence disorders, a group that comprises a substantial proportion of individuals in the U.S. prison system. Approaches to treating adult offenders are reviewed from a behavioral perspective. The theoretical development of substance abuse treatment from a time in which addicted offenders were often thought to be untreatable to current evidence that treatment can lead to several improved outcomes among substance using offenders is described. Through a comprehensive literature review, empirical evidence is examined for widely used behaviorally based programs designed to treat offenders with substance use disorders.
... Within the United States, VM retreats in prisons and jails have typically been used to target substance use. At least three studies (Parks et al., 2003; Bowen et al., 2006; Simpson et al., 2007) examined the effects of VM on substance use within North Rehabilitation Facility in Seattle, Washington. In each study, the VM groups showed significant decreases in drug and alcohol use postretreat. ...
Full-text available
In an era marked by pronounced overcrowding, including an increasing number of offenders serving long-term sentences, correctional systems continue to search for innovative and effective treatments. Few jurisdictions have attempted non-Western approaches such as meditative practice to reduce stress, conflict, and rule infractions. The current study examined the psychological and behavioral effects of intensive ten-day Vipassana Meditation (VM) retreats in a maximum security prison. VM goals and practice are consistent with evidence-based methods such as cognitive behavioral treatment and Risk-Need-Responsivity principles, as well as newer conceptions such as the Good Lives Model. Long-term offenders were followed over a one-year period. These included three retreat cohorts (n = 60) as well as an alternative treatment comparison group (n = 67). Pretreatment measures assessed mindfulness, anger, emotional intelligence, and mood states. Baseline rates of prison infractions, segregation time, and health visits were also recorded. VM participants achieved enhanced levels of mindfulness and emotional intelligence and had decreased mood disturbance relative to a comparison group. Both groups' rates of behavioral infractions were reduced at one-year follow-up. Clinically, VM holds promise for addressing self-regulation and impulse control, among other barriers to prisoner adjustment and community reentry. Additional study of VM across diverse offender groups is warranted.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy and relapse prevention represent the correctional gold standard in treatment, while the principles of risk, need, and responsivity are widely recognized as essential for reducing recidivism. Addressing responsivity has become difficult as the number of inmates with mental health diagnoses continues to rise, complicating treatment programming and highlighting the need for adjunct, complimentary therapies. Mindfulness has been shown to be effective across a number of clinical populations found within correctional settings. Furthermore, it has been shown to be effective for working with difficulties identified as dynamic, criminogenic needs; for example, self-regulation. The present article reviews mindfulness research with the goal of demonstrating the utility of this adjunct approach to working with individuals residing within the correctional system.
G. Alan Marlatt's research and other professional efforts have profoundly influenced the science and practice of harm reduction. Marlatt's balanced placebo drinking research challenged prevailing attitudes about the loss of control and illustrated the potency of beliefs in predicting drinking behavior. His courageous defense of the Sobells during the controlled drinking controversy was a first step toward legitimizing harm reduction goals. His harm reduction interventions are best practices for college student drinking, and the excellence of those programs has elevated the stature of harm reduction interventions in the US. He developed mindfulness-based harm reduction strategies for those managing relapse or seeking moderation goals in treatment. His interpretation of the science of harm reduction compelled him to speak on behalf of consumers, advocating for alternative forms of treatment rather than a one-size-fits-all model. He collaborated with community stakeholders to extend culturally relevant harm reduction programs into traditionally disempowered communities. Somehow, Marlatt also found time to mentor the next generation of harm reduction scholars and practitioners. The stature of harm reduction today is largely the result of Marlatt's dedication and professionalism. Though he is sorely missed, the field will be continued to be shaped by his ideas for many years to come.
Full-text available
Freedom Project trains prisoners in nonviolent communication and meditation. Two complementary studies of its effects are reported in this article. The first study is correlational; we found decreased recidivism rates among prisoners trained by Freedom Project compared with recidivism rates in Washington state. The second study compared trained prisoners with a matched-pair control group and found improvement in self-reported anger, self-compassion, and certain forms of mindfulness among the trained group. Ratings of role-plays simulating difficult interactions show increased social skills among the group trained by Freedom Project than in the matched controls.
Aims, setting and intervention: This pilot study compared outcomes of 18 randomized substance‐abuse recovery house patients who received 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation plus standard treatment with that of 13 patients receiving just standard treatment. Design, measurement and findings: Addiction Severity Index composite scores indicated relatively greater improvement in medical problems over a 5‐month follow‐up period (baseline, 8 weeks and 5 months) for the meditation group, but no other group differences on this multi‐dimensional measure of various life problems. The groups did not differ in urine toxicology results during the study or at 8 weeks and 5 months. No differential group change was found on measures of psychological health. Conclusion: This initial small pilot evaluation yielded relatively little indication that meditation enhanced treatment outcomes for the substance abuse patients studied.
A 6 week labyrinth walking program was pilot tested in a correctional setting and goals were to: 1) determine the feasibility of a labyrinth walking curriculum; 2) pilot test measures of health related quality of life (QOL) (pre and post-surveys) and blood pressure; and 3) examine the influence of relationship-centered teaching on subject satisfaction. Relational communication was used as a framework for this study, emphasizing concepts of trust, competency and similarly in the teacher. A pretest/posttest descriptive design was used. The sample was 14 offenders at a Massachusetts county jail. The intervention included six 90 minute sessions, composed of a lecture, a labyrinth walk, and journal writing. Measures included a demographic survey; pre and post session walk blood pressures; pre and post program QOL measures; and a post program measure of satisfaction. The sample was 57% Caucasian, 36% Hispanic, and 7% African American, with an average age of 34, mostly high school educated and single. Drug of choice was alcohol with age of use at 12 and 1/2 years. Seventy-nine percent were previously incarcerated more than twice. QOL data were not changed pre to post. BP data trended in a healthy direction from weeks 1 to 6. Satisfaction with the teacher and the program was high. The labyrinth walking pilot program was proven feasible, low cost and satisfying for the participants. Recommendations for future studies are discussed.
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