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Meditation: Into the Cells of the Mind : Inmates: Stress-control technique may control violence and reduce the number of people who are re-incarcerated.

THE WASHINGTON POST

Pat Corum and his buddies stay in touch by telephone these days. In a way, they are sort of like guys who served together in a wartime POW camp. In a lot of ways, of course, they are very different. For one thing, they’re all convicted murderers.

Corum was sentenced to two life terms and spent 24 years and a few months in California prisons, mostly Folsom, the state’s maximum-security facility. His first murder, he says, involved a drug deal gone sour. His second, an execution of a fellow convict ordered by gang leaders.

Corum is 50 years old now and has been out of jail--paroled--for about four years. He married a corrections officer and is finishing a pre-law course with a 3.7 grade-point average at the University of California at Bakersfield. He plans to go to law school, although he knows that “with my felony background, there is serious doubt I’ll ever get admitted to the bar.”

Corum is no pussycat, but his rehabilitation appears to be as radical as any turnaround resulting from a religious epiphany.

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The difference between now and then, he says, is TM--transcendental meditation, a method of deep relaxation through meditation that had its first burst of popularity in the United States in the 1960s. TM was a forerunner of such stress-control methods as the relaxation response, the quieting response and a host of techniques using biofeedback.

TM involves 20 minutes of meditation twice a day. In an ancient tradition, the meditator is assigned a “mantra,” a word sound that is silently repeated during meditation and serves as a focus for relaxation and a means to keep errant thoughts from interfering with the process.

According to advocates of stress-management techniques, deep relaxation permits the conscious control of such normally automatic functions as heart rate, dilation of blood vessels, relaxation of smooth muscles.

Since the 1970s, the application of TM-like relaxation techniques to prison populations has been tested. Corum started his program in 1975. Generally, prison officials believe TM is one of a number of techniques used together or separately that can help minimize violence and wean inmates away from drugs.

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Jasper Ormond, administrator of pilot drug projects for the District of Columbia Department of Corrections, says he believes TM could have a place, along with other techniques, in drug-rehabilitation programs. He is concerned that TM be a part of a comprehensive plan, not “just to come in solo as the cure-all.”

A series of studies on TM, some published in respected, peer-reviewed science and social-science journals, suggest this relaxation method can lead to a reduction of violence among inmates and a significant drop in the rate of people released from prison who are subsequently re-incarcerated.

In general, about 60% of former inmates will be back in jail within three years, studies have shown. Analyses of the studies on TM suggest that although it is clearly not the final answer to prisoner rehabilitation, it can cut the rate of repeated offenses by 40%.

A study of 259 California parolees who had learned TM techniques at San Quentin prison was published in 1987 in the Journal of Criminal Justice. The authors, Catherine R. Bleick and Allan I. Abrams of the Institute for Social Rehabilitation in Los Angeles, found that the recidivism rate among the meditators was 35% to 40% lower than among former convicts who had received prison education, vocational training or psychotherapy.

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They concluded “these results indicate a reduction in recidivism due to TM practice that is of practical significance,” with about 60% of parolees who learned TM still “clean” after two years but only 45% of non-TM parolees.

Charles Alexander, who teaches at TM’s major educational institution--Maharishi International University--in Fairfield, Iowa, earned his doctorate in psychology at Harvard by describing a TM program at Walpole state prison in Massachusetts. He followed the 53 inmates who learned TM and 251 controls for almost four years after they were paroled in the early 1980s. He found the same reduction in recidivism.

TM practitioners and teachers believe their technique is more effective than other relaxation strategies, such as biofeedback, which have also been tested on inmates, especially if its practice is maintained after the prisoner is freed.

Up to now, they have been volunteering to lead programs in prisons at no cost. According to Alexander, nearly 3,000 prisoners have learned transcendental meditation in about 40 U.S. facilities.

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