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Journal of Offender Rehabilitation
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The impact of mindfulness meditation on self-
esteem and self-compassion among prisoners
Richard H. Morley & Cheryl L. Fulton
To cite this article: Richard H. Morley & Cheryl L. Fulton (2020) The impact of mindfulness
meditation on self-esteem and self-compassion among prisoners, Journal of Offender
Rehabilitation, 59:2, 98-116, DOI: 10.1080/10509674.2019.1697784
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/10509674.2019.1697784
Published online: 19 Dec 2019.
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The impact of mindfulness meditation on self-esteem
and self-compassion among prisoners
Richard H. Morley and Cheryl L. Fulton
School of Social Work, Texas State University, San Marcos, Texas, USA
The impact of mindfulness meditation on self-esteem and self-
compassion was examined among 56 inmates at a local jail.
Participants were assigned to a 1 h weekly mindfulness medi-
tation or wait list control group. Participants in the meditation
group were further divided into less experienced or more
experienced. Results supported that the more experienced
meditators had higher self-esteem, self-compassion and felt
less isolation than the other two groups. Curiously, the less
experienced meditation group experienced lower self-esteem
and self-compassion compared to the control group.
Discussion of these findings and directions for future research
Research indicates that both prison and jail can significantly impact men-
tal health outcomes (Yi, Turney, & Wildeman, 2017). Mindfulness has
increasingly been explored as a means of addressing numerous mental
health (e.g., anxiety, depression, stress) and behavioral issues (e.g., impul-
sivity, acts of aggression) among diverse populations including prison
inmates (Baer, 2014; Howells, Tennant, Day, & Elmer, 2010; Shonin, Van
Gordon, Slade, & Griffiths, 2013). Mindfulness refers to nonjudgmental
awareness of one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions (Grossman, Niemann,
Schmidt, & Walach, 2004; Kabat-Zinn, 1990). Researchers have demon-
strated that mindfulness-based interventions (MBI) are useful tools for
offender rehabilitation (Howells et al., 2010;Shoninetal.,2013). More
specifically, researchers found that MBI improved self-esteem, reduced
negative affect, lowered recidivism rates, and were correlated with less
impulsivity among inmates (Morley, 2018a; Rainforth, Alexander, &
Cavanaugh, 2003;Shoninetal.,2013). Similarly, mindfulness meditation
has been linked to improved well-being, less emotional distress, increased
self-awareness, improved self-regulation, reduced violence, and reduced
aggression among diverse populations (Baer, 2003; Bohus et al., 2004;
CONTACT Richard H. Morley firstname.lastname@example.org School of Social Work, Texas State University, 601
University Drive, Encino Hall Bldg, #150A, San Marcos 78666 TX, USA.
ß2019 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
JOURNAL OF OFFENDER REHABILITATION
2020, VOL. 59, NO. 2, 98–116
Franco, Amutio, L
alez, Oriol, & Mart
Frazier & Vela, 2014; Hill & Updegraff, 2012;Shelton,Kesten,Zhang,&
Trestman, 2011;Shoninetal.,2013; Wongtongkam, Day, Ward, &
Winefield, 2015; Velotti et al., 2016; Yusainy & Lawrence, 2015).
Mindfulness practices have also been shown to impact key brain networks
associated with self-regulation, self-concept, self-awareness, emotional
processing, and violence (Andrews-Hanna, Reidler, Sepulcre, Poulin, &
Toga, Lepore, & Gaser, 2009; Maddock, Garrett, & Buonocore, 2003;
Morley, Jantz, & Fulton, 2019).
Although evidence suggests that MBI are promising tools to improve
wellbeing among correctional inmates and reduce crime, researchers have
yet to investigate the association between MBI and self-compassion among
prisoners. Including self-compassion in this area of research is important as
self-compassion is a closely related construct to mindfulness (Fulton, 2018)
and most mindfulness training includes both mindfulness and compassion
practices (Schmidt, 2004). Additionally, mindfulness and self-compassion
can differentially impact outcome variables (Fulton & Cashwell, 2015;
Wachs & Cordova, 2007) and the cultivation of self-compassion through
mindfulness training may be one mechanism that yields positive outcomes
(Fulton, 2018; Rodr
ıa-Rubio, Paniagua, Garc
de Rivas, 2016).
Moreover, while previous studies indicated that mindfulness meditation
led to improved neurological function and increased functional connec-
tion in key brain networks associated with self-esteem and self-concept
over time (See Morley et al., 2019 for a full review), there has not been a
study investigating temporal differences in self-esteem and self-compas-
sion among prisoners participating in MBI. Understanding the impact of
mindfulness overtime could be used to develop more efficient MBI to use
in correctional programs. To date, researchers have examined outcomes
from MBI that are commonly eight-week interventions (e.g., mindfulness-
based stress reduction; Kabat-Zinn, 1990). Learning whether outcomes
can be achieved with shorter interventions is important to participant
compliance and cost efficiencies. The current study, therefore, includes
exploration of the impact of an MBI on self-compassion and self-esteem
Self-esteem and criminality
Self-esteem is one trait that may help explain the impact of mindfulness
on criminality. William James (1950/1890) initially defined self-esteem as
the “ratio of our actualities to our supposed potentialities”(p. 311) and
JOURNAL OF OFFENDER REHABILITATION 99
researchers have linked self-esteem to positive mental health (Bajaj,
Robins, & Pande, 2016;Leary,1999). Since the time of William James,
researchers have explored the link between self-esteem and criminality
(Baumeister, Smart, & Boden, 1996; Bushman et al., 2018;Loinaz,
anchez, & Vilella, 2018;Oser,2006;Toch,1993). Researchers have linked
low self-esteem to various categories of crime including gang-related
crimes, homicide, domestic violence, terrorism, sex offenses, and hate
crimes (Anderson, 1994;Baumeisteretal.,1996;Kirschner,1992;Levin&
McDevitt, 1993;Long,1990; Renzetti, 1992). Although researchers have
debated the relationship between self-esteem and crime, current consen-
sus is that unstable and narcissistic self-esteem are linked to criminality
(Bushman et al., 2018; Kernis, Grannemann, & Barclay, 1989;Loinaz
et al., 2018). More specifically, based on empirical evidence it seems that
self-esteem loss can lead to increased negative emotions which may fur-
ther result in a loss of objective self-awareness and self-regulation failure
(Heatherton & Baumeister, 1991; Heatherton & Wagner, 2011;Morley,
2017;Wicklund,1975). Self-regulation failure is a positive predictor of
criminality (Piquero, Jennings, Farrington, Diamond, & Gonzalez, 2016;
Pratt & Cullen, 2000) and mindfulness has been linked to improved self-
regulation (Leyland, Rowse, & Emerson, 2019). Regarding criminogenic
risks, self-esteem was previously described as a noncriminogenic need
largely due to the argument that increasing self-esteem without changing
procriminal attitudes leads to “amoreconfidentcriminal”(Bonta &
a role in antisocial personality patterns. More specifically, antisocial per-
sonality disorder is characterized by impulsivity, aggression, and narcissis-
tic self-esteem (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). An important
key factor in the relationship between self-esteem and Antisocial Behavior
relates to self-esteem stability (Bushman et al., 2018;Kernisetal.,1989;
Loinaz et al., 2018).
Although intrapsychic explanations of the relationship between self-
esteem and criminality are offered, this does not negate the potential
impact of intersecting social–cultural, economic, and political factors such
as race, gender, sexual/affectional orientation, and class. For example, racial
minorities are likely to experience microaggressions and discrimination
generally (Capodilupo, 2016). Minorities are also more likely to have a
police encounter, be searched and/or arrested, or experience the use of
force (Walker, Spohn, & DeLone, 2012). Further, there is over-representa-
tion of males, racial minorities, and persons with low social economic sta-
tus (SES) in the criminal justice system (Gordon, Bindrim, McNicholas, &
Walden, 1988; McNulty & Bellair, 2003; Morley, 2015). Marginalizing expe-
riences can adversely impact self-esteem and mental health (Nadal, Wong,
100 R. H. MORLEY AND C. L. FULTON
Griffin, Davidoff, & Sriken, 2014). Additionally, inmates aware of others’
perceived stigma of them as an offender can also experience a loss of self-
esteem (Moore, Stuewig, & Tangney, 2013). Thus, there are intrapsychic
and contextual factors that can impact self-esteem among inmates which
has been linked to impulsivity, a trait associated with criminality (Morley,
2017; Pratt & Cullen, 2000). Regardless of the cause, as mentioned, unstable
and narcissistic self-esteem are linked to criminality and mindfulness can
increase self-esteem (Morley, 2018a; Rainforth et al., 2003; Shonin et al.,
2013) and support offender rehabilitation (Howells et al., 2010; Shonin
et al., 2013).
Self-compassion and criminality
Self-compassion has been presented as another potential mechanism under-
lying the relationship between mindfulness-based interventions and mental
olzel et al., 2011). Self-compassion has been conceptualized as a
synthesis of nonjudgmental self-awareness and applying positive affect to
one’s self as a means to alleviated one’s suffering (Neff & Vonk, 2009;
Stosny, 1995). Self-compassion is comprised of three components: applying
kindness to oneself, mindfulness, and an understanding that suffering is
part of a universal human experience (Neff, 2003a). Like self-esteem, self-
compassion is a positive indicator of mental wellness and positive affect
(MacBeth & Gumley, 2012; Neff, 2003a). There is also evidence that self-
compassion-based interventions increase self-esteem (Murphy, Stosny, &
Morrel, 2005; Stosny, 1995) alleviate negative affect, and improve self-
regulation after a loss of self-esteem (Adams & Leary, 2007; Morley, 2017;
Web & Forman, 2013). Self-compassion is distinct from self-esteem in that
self-compassion is not based on self-evaluation, correlated with narcissism,
nor a strong negative predictor of anger (Neff & Vonk, 2009). In this
regard, self-compassion may promote some of the same positive outcomes
as self-esteem, without some of the potential pitfalls, such as increased nar-
cissism (Neff, 2011). One common means for increasing one’s self-
compassion is through meditation (Birnie, Speca, & Carlson, 2010;
Researchers also have linked greater self-compassion to reduced criminal-
ity (Morley, 2015). Participation in self-compassion-based interventions has
been associated with improved self-esteem and less partner violence among
perpetrators of domestic violence (Murphy et al., 2005; Stosny, 1995). Self-
compassion has also been linked to greater self-esteem, social connected-
ness, and self-control among prisoners; lack of these factors is associated
with greater likelihood of criminality (Morley, Terranova, Cunningham, &
Kraft, 2016). In one study self-compassion mediated the relationship
JOURNAL OF OFFENDER REHABILITATION 101
between the practice of meditation and reduced criminal impulsivity among
prisoners (Morley, 2017).
Moreover, based on a review of the literature, self-compassion has been
empirically linked to key brain networks (default mode network [DMN],
salience network [SN], and executive control network [ECN]) associated
with violent crime (Morley et al., 2019). For example, there is evidence of
less gray matter volume and cortical thickness as well as less functional con-
nectivity and neurological activity in the DMN among those prone to vio-
lence (Fahim et al., 2011;Hyatt,Haney-Caron,&Stevens,2012;Ju
Kiehl, & Calhoun, 2013; Tang, Jiang, Liao, Wang, & Luo, 2013;Thijssen
et al., 2015). Abnormalities in SN activity may predispose individuals to
criminal recidivism (Aharoni et al., 2014). Additionally, cortical surface area
differences in areas involving the SN among individuals with psychopathic
attributes have been found (Krishnadas, Palaniyappan, Lang, McLean, &
Cavanagh, 2014) and decreased connectivity in the SN for such individuals
occurs when they are engaged in moral judgment tasks or when regulating
impulses and emotions (Ettinger, Corr, Mofidi, Williams, & Kumari, 2013;
Philippi et al., 2015; Yoder, Porges, & Decety, 2015). Finally, aggression,
decisions about risky activities, moral decision making, and control of
impulses have all been associated with abnormal activity in the ECN (Cohn
et al., 2015; Cubillo, Halari, Smith, Taylor, & Rubia, 2012;Francxetal.,
2015; Hamilton, Hiatt Racer, & Newman, 2015; Hoptman, Antonius, Mauro,
Parker, & Javitt, 2014; Karlsgodt et al., 2015; Motzkin, Newman, Kiehl, &
Koenigs, 2011; Pujol et al., 2012;Rodrigo,Padr
on, De Vega, & Ferstl, 2014).
Despite the intrapsychic and neuroscientific evidence to support the rela-
tionship between these factors and criminality, similar to self-esteem, self-
compassion may also be impacted by socio-economic and cultural factors.
Unfortunately, study of socio-cultural factors and self-compassion are
sparse, however, there is limited evidence that self-compassion is not neces-
sarily equally impacted by socio-cultural factors such as gender, race, sexu-
ality, or class, as no differences in self-compassion have been found across
these groups (e.g., Lockard, Hayes, Neff, & Locke, 2014). Self-compassion,
however, may play a useful role in coping with adversity associated with
social inequality. More specifically, previous findings indicate that adversity
can lead to a loss of self-esteem (Nadal et al., 2014) and self-compassion
has been shown to moderate the impact of self-esteem loss on impulsivity
(Morley, 2017). Similar to self-esteem, self-compassion is related to the risk
factors such as antisocial personality and behavior (see Morley, 2015 for a
full review of this association). More specifically, self-compassion has been
described as “incompatible with antisocial behavior (Stosny, 1995, p. 82).
Self-compassion has also been found to be negatively associated multiple
traits associated with antisocial personality disorder including impulsivity,
102 R. H. MORLEY AND C. L. FULTON
self-centeredness, provoked hostility, risk taking behavior, aggression, and
anger (Morley, Terranova, Cunningham, & Kraft, 2016; Morley, Terranova,
Cunningham, & Vaughn, 2016; Stosny, 1995).
Although there is evidence that MBI improve self-esteem and self-
compassion among nonprisoners and self-esteem among prisoners,
researchers have yet to explore the impact of mindfulness meditation
on self-compassion as well as temporal differences in self-esteem and self-
compassion among prisoners participating in an MBI. The research
literature investigating the efficacy of mindfulness as a means of improving
wellbeing have also largely ignored jail inmates. Given that jail inmates
experience higher levels of depression, heavy drinking, and drug use than
prison inmates and are usually incarcerated for shorter amounts of time,
understanding the impact of mindfulness on wellbeing as well as the
exploration of time as a factor would be especially relevant for jail inmates
(Yi et al., 2017). In this study, the effects of mindfulness meditation on
self-compassion and self-esteem among 24 inmates participating in a mind-
fulness meditation program were compared to 32 wait listed inmates at a
local jail. The goal of this project is to determine if there are between group
differences in self-compassion, self-esteem, and subscales of self-compassion
among incarcerated males in three groups: more experienced meditators,
less experience meditators, and a control group.
Participants and procedures
Participants in this study included 56 males incarcerated at a jail in a
southwestern metropolitan area of the United States participating in a
mindfulness meditation program at the time of data collection. All partici-
pants who indicated a desire to continue practicing meditation after they
were released from incarceration were either assigned by the institution to
participate in a mindfulness meditation group or a wait list control group.
Participants in the meditation group met once a week for 1 h, outside the
cell block, in an area designed for education, and were led in meditation by
an experienced volunteer mindfulness meditation teacher from the commu-
nity not affiliated with the research investigators. The educational area did
not house any inmates and the rooms were designed for the sole purpose
of providing educational programing such as GED or philosophy classes.
Given that the environment was designed for education, the educational
area was generally quiet except when the class time was over at which
guards would use intercoms to prepare inmates to return to their cells in a
separate building. The meditation classes varied in size. Data collection
occurred in the same educational area. Participants were provided informed
JOURNAL OF OFFENDER REHABILITATION 103
consent prior to anonymous surveys. All participants were provided envel-
ops to house completed measures. There were no guards present during
data collection or during the meditation classes, however, guards did moni-
tor the room using video.
Analysis of this study was based on a cross-sectional design comparing
meditators assigned into groups based on the number of classes they par-
ticipated in versus a wait list control group. More specifically, all subjects
participating in meditation were split into the more experienced or less
experienced groups based on the median weeks of meditation
(median ¼four weeks). The more experienced group included participants
who scored above the 50th percentile (n¼10), and the less experienced
group included those who scored at or below the 50th percentile (n¼14)
on a question regarding the number of weeks they have participated in this
mindfulness group. Less experienced and more experienced meditators par-
ticipated in the same classes. The wait list control included 32 participants.
Data was collected by the researchers.
The self-compassion scale is a self-report scale that consists of six subscales
and 26 items (Neff, 2003a). The instrument is composed of three positive
subscales and three negative subscales. The positive subscales include a
measure of self-kindness (e.g., I try to be understanding and patient
towards those aspects of my personality I don’t like), a feeling of common
humanity (e.g., I try to see my failings as part of the human condition),
and mindfulness (e.g., When something upsets me, I try to keep my
emotions in balance). The negative reverse scored subscales include self-
judgment (e.g., I’m disapproving and judgmental about my flaws and inad-
equacies), isolation (e.g., When I’m feeling down, I tend to feel like most
other people are probably happier than I am), and overidentification (e.g.,
When I fail at something important to me I become consumed by feelings
of inadequacy). The alpha coefficient in the current sample was .94 for the
total score and ranged from .85 to .73 for subscales. The self-compassion
scale has been found to be a valid measurement across multiple study sam-
ples (Costa, Mar^
oco, Pinto-Gouveia, Ferreira, & Castilho, 2016; Neff,
2003a; Neff, 2016; Neff, Rude, & Kirkpatrick, 2007).
Rosenberg self-esteem scale
This is the most frequently cited measure of self-esteem (Robins, Hendin,
& Trzesniewski, 2001) found in the literature. Rosenberg’s self-esteem scale
was operationalized as a measure of global self-esteem (Rosenberg, 1965;
104 R. H. MORLEY AND C. L. FULTON
Robins et al., 2001). The Rosenberg self-esteem scale consists of 10 Likert
scale items (e.g., I feel that I have a number of good qualities). The alpha
coefficient in the current sample was .85 for the total score. Several previ-
ous studies have revealed that this measure is a valid measure of global
self-esteem (Byrne, 1996; Gray-Little, Williams, & Hancock, 1997, Webster,
Smith, Brunell, Paddock, & Nezlek, 2017; Wylie, 1989).
Participants were queried about their age and race/ethnicity. Based on the
total sample of 56 males, there was a reported mean age of 31 (SD ¼7.76;
R¼18–49). Participants identified as Caucasian (n¼30, 53.6%), followed
by Hispanic/Latino/a (n¼13, 23.2%), African American (n¼10, 17.8%),
multiracial (n¼2, 3.6%), and Asian American (n¼1, 1.7%).
Mindfulness meditation program
As mentioned previously, the meditation instructor was a volunteer from a
community meditation program that offers mindfulness meditation classes
to incarcerated inmates at both prisons and jails. The meditation classes
consisted of guided meditation, walking, and silent meditation as well as a
group discussion. These classes were once a week for an hour and any fur-
ther meditation outside the class time was optional.
To investigate the impact of mindfulness meditation on self-compassion
and self-esteem among this sample of prisoners, descriptive statistics
(Table 1) and bootstrapping Multivariate Analysis of Variance (MANOVA;
Table 2) were used. A bootstrapping method for MANOVA was performed
using 5,000 samples to compare means across the more experienced medi-
tators, less experienced meditators, and control groups.
To address the question of whether an MBI had an impact on self-
compassion and self-esteem among this sample, a bootstrapping MANOVA
based on 5,000 samples was used and the Wilks’lambda (F
Table 1. Means and standard deviations of self-esteem and self-compassion.
More experienced meditators Less experienced Control
Variable M SD M SD M SD
Self-esteem 23.01 1.47 18.44 1.24 21.71 .82
Self-compassion 99.30 5.32 78.79 4.49 84.98 2.97
JOURNAL OF OFFENDER REHABILITATION 105
p¼.021), was statistically significant. Similarly, the analysis revealed a
between groups effect for both self-compassion (F
¼4.47, p¼.016) and
¼3.42, p¼.04). Post hoc comparisons were conducted
using the Sidak test. Experienced meditators displayed higher self-
compassion than the control (p¼.03) and the less experienced meditators
(p¼.007), and self-esteem than the control group (p¼.03). The less experi-
enced meditators, however, displayed less self-compassion (p¼.007) and
self-esteem (p¼.03) compared to the control.
A bootstrapping method for MANOVA was performed using 5,000 sam-
ples to investigate changes in the positive and negative subscales of the
self-compassion scale. Based on Wilks’lambda (F
¼2.23, p¼.038), the
negative subscales were all found to be significant for both the less experi-
enced meditators and more experienced meditators. Between groups, analy-
ses revealed a significant group difference on the isolation subscale
¼6.69, p¼.003). The overidentified subscale (F
and the self-judging scale were nonsignificant (F
¼1.13, p¼.33). The
more experienced meditators reported fewer feelings of isolation than
the less experienced meditators (p¼.003) or the control group (p¼.008).
The less experienced meditators and control group did not differ in terms
of feelings of isolation. The overidentification scores for the more experi-
enced meditators were just outside of statistical significance compared to
the less experienced meditators (p¼.052) and the control group (p¼.08).
Based on the MANOVA results, no differences in the positive subscales of
self-compassion were found using Wilks’lambda (F
Between-group self-kindness scores were just outside statistical significance
¼2.369, p¼.053). Moreover, the more experienced meditators did
report more self-kindness than the less experienced meditators (p¼.05).
The purpose of this study was to explore the impact of mindfulness medi-
tation on self-compassion and self-esteem among prison inmates as well as
temporal differences in self-esteem and self-compassion. Based on results of
Table 2. MANOVA of self-esteem and self-compassion among more experienced meditators,
less experienced, and control.
Dependent variable df F p Group Lower bound Upper bound
Self-esteem 2, 53 3.42 .04 More experienced meditators 20.06 25.95
Less experienced 15.95 20.93
Control 20.06 23.36
Self-compassion 2, 53 4.47 .016 More experienced meditators 88.63 109.97
Less experienced 69.77 87.8
Control 79.02 90.95
106 R. H. MORLEY AND C. L. FULTON
this study, more experienced (greater than four weeks) meditators had
higher self-esteem and self-compassion than the less experienced (fewer
than four weeks) meditators and higher self-compassion than the wait list
control group. In addition, the more experienced meditators felt less isola-
tion than the less experienced meditators and the control group. The less
experienced group, however, experienced lower self-esteem and self-
compassion compared to the control group. Although the MANOVA inves-
tigating positive components of self-compassion was not significant, given
the exploratory nature of this study, it is important to recognize that self-
kindness was higher among the more experienced meditators compared to
the less experienced meditators.
One interesting finding unearthed in this study was that the less experi-
enced meditators reported less self-compassion and self-esteem than the
control group. More specifically, most research tends to focus on the posi-
tive benefits of mindfulness meditation, and at first glance, these findings
seem to indicate that short-term meditation may be harmful. One explan-
ation for these results is that mindfulness involves bringing attention to
one’s present moment experience, even if that is negative. It takes time
to learn how to be with those experiences and change your relationship to
them and yourself. There is evidence that an MBI can lead to worsening of
some types of symptoms (e.g., binge eating) in the short term, but show
improvements after a longer period of practice (Baer, Fischer, & Huss,
2005). Related, some researchers have reported potential adverse side effects
in some individuals such as emotional flooding, traumatization, and feel-
ings of disconnection (Britton & Sydnor, 2015; Burrows, 2016). Given that
inmates are prone to trauma and dissociation (Espirito-Santo & Costa,
2013), they would be at greater risk for experiencing negative symptoms
associated with mindfulness meditation, at least in the shorter term.
Another possibility is that there is evidence that mindfulness changes pre-
cede self-compassion changes (Bergen-Cico, Possemato, & Cheon, 2013;
Fulton, 2018). Earlier changes in mindfulness could allow meditators in jail
to become more aware of negative states, such as the consequences of their
confinement. This increased awareness could lead to an initial increase in
negative self-appraisal, loss of self-worth or self-compassion.
In terms of the more experienced meditators group, the results indicated
positive changes including higher self-compassion, fewer feelings of isola-
tion, and potentially a higher propensity to engage in self-kindness.
Although it is important to recognize that without pretest measures and
random assignment, these results do not affirm that mindfulness medita-
tion caused changes in the level of self-compassion and self-esteem, these
results do support other findings that have linked meditation to changes in
self-compassion and self-esteem (Andrews, 1994; Neff, 2003b; Shonin et al.,
JOURNAL OF OFFENDER REHABILITATION 107
2013). More specifically, the results showed that the more experienced medi-
tators had higher self-compassion than the less experienced meditators and
the control group. A possible reason for these results is that the mindfulness
meditation led to higher self-compassion over time. An alternative idea is
that self-compassionate inmates have lower attrition rates. Given that less
self-compassionate people are more prone to experience negative affect asso-
ciated with more self-awareness and that mindfulness meditation is linked to
greater self-awareness, participants lacking self-compassion might be more
prone to discontinue meditation to avoid any unpleasant feelings associated
with mindful self-reflection (Heatherton & Baumeister, 1991; Morley, 2017;
Morley, 2018b). More specifically, less self-compassionate participants might
be less likely to continue meditation.
Another important discussion point relates to a lack of significant differ-
ence in self-esteem between the long-term group and the control. Previous
studies have linked unstable self-esteem to criminal behavior (Baumeister
et al., 1996; Bushman et al., 2018; Loinaz et al., 2018; Oser, 2006; Toch,
1993). Research studies have also shown that self-compassion moderates
the link between self-esteem loss, negative affect, and impulsivity
(Heatherton & Baumeister, 1991; Heatherton & Wagner, 2011; Morley,
2018a; Wicklund, 1975). Based on these previous findings, the more experi-
enced meditators might be more resistant to self-esteem loss despite the
lack of statistical difference. Future studies will have to examine this effect
more closely to empirically determine this.
In reference to temporal differences, one important point that needs
mentioning is based upon the duration that jail inmates spend incarcerated.
These results indicate that short term meditation might not be helpful. If a
mindfulness meditation program is implemented for short term inmates,
the program should consider extending the meditation program to the
community or provide a resource that refers inmates to mindfulness groups
in the community upon release.
Limitations and future research
The results of the study need to be considered within the limitations of the
study design and sample. One limitation is that the self-compassion and
self-esteem scales are self-report measurements. Self-report has many prob-
lems that may have impacted the results of this study including fabrication
and bias (Howard & Dailey, 1979; Podsakoff, MacKenzie, Lee, & Podsakoff,
2003). While there is not an obvious incentive to fabricate or misrepresent
on these specific anonymous measures, the possibility for fabrication or
bias cannot be completely dismissed. Fabricated or biased self-report has
the potential to increase or attenuate the effect. Another limitation of the
108 R. H. MORLEY AND C. L. FULTON
study design is that it was not possible to determine whether the
improved self-esteem and self-compassion were, in turn, associated with
reduced criminality in the future. A longitudinal study observing crimin-
ality within the six months following release among those who engaged
in meditation practices would be needed to determine this and extend
results of the current study. Another potential limitation of the study is
the duration and frequency of meditation. Much of the research on MBI
are based on interventions that last 6–8 weeks with assigned daily medita-
tion. It is possible that the results would have changed if both groups
engaged in meditation more often or over a longer period of time, par-
ticularly for the less experienced group. There is evidence that mindful
awareness brings attention to problems such that they can worsen in the
short term, but improve in the longer term (e.g., Baer et al., 2005).
Another limitation was that we were unable to obtain participants crim-
inal history. Additionally, the sample size in this study was relatively
small, and the nature of this study was exploratory. Any inference made
with these significant finding should be considered with caution. The
sample was also from a single institution in one geographic area, and
results may not generalize to other types of correctional facilities or areas.
Future studies should involve replicating these findings with more rigor-
ous confirmatory studies and with larger, more diverse samples. This
study also did not control for mental health, which is prevalent among
incarcerated persons (Fazel, Hayes, Bartellas, Clerici, & Trestman, 2016).
Finally, although Rosenberg’s self-esteem scale is a widely used and valid
measure of global self-esteem across populations, it does not account for
the impact prison culture has on self-evaluation (Debowska, Boduszek, &
Sherretts, 2017). Future studies using alternative measures that are context
and culture specific may extend results of the current study.
This article measures cross-sectional differences in self-compassion and self-
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Conversely, self-esteem was lower among beginning meditators compared to
the control group. These results extend the literature because they provide an
exploratory basis for further investigation of the utility of mindfulness medita-
tion to improve the mental health of prisoners, and perhaps to also guide
develop of an intervention to reduce future criminal behavior.
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