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Gunma Pref. prison launches 'mindfulness' meditation to calm inmates

Inmates at Maebashi Prison in Gunma Prefecture take part in a mindfulness session in the city of Maebashi in this recent photo. (Mainichi)

MAEBASHI -- A prison here has introduced "mindfulness" meditation in an attempt to help inmates control their emotions.

    The American meditation method is already in use at nine female juvenile detention centers across Japan, but Maebashi Prison in Gunma Prefecture is the first adult prison to introduce it.

    The initiative has resulted in positive feedback from inmates such as, "I've become less irritable," and, "I've got better at thinking about other people's point of view." Officials expect the meditation method will help prevent prisoners from reoffending.

    "Replace the emotions that come into your head with words, and view things from a broader perspective. Try to be in the now," an instructor in charge of education tells eight inmates -- as they sit on mats during a mindfulness session at Maebashi Prison in February.

    Fifteen minutes later, the inmates open their eyes on the instructor's signal, making positive comments such as, "Concentrating on breathing has made me feel much calmer."

    Mindfulness developed around the 1980s at the University of Massachusetts as a way of reducing stress through meditation and yoga. It is said to be effective in lowering aggression, and heightening one's self-esteem.

    In fiscal 2011, a female detention center in the city of Fukuoka became the first such institution to introduce mindfulness. After hearing reports that the method "helps people control themselves," Maebashi Prison decided to bring it in as well -- with 15 inmates aged between 20 and 69 trying it in fiscal 2017. Looking ahead, more than 10 prisoners at the institution are set to try it in fiscal 2018.

    One of the inmates, a man in his 20s serving time for theft, sets aside a 10-minute slot each day for mindfulness, after finishing prison tasks and his meals. "I've become able to look at my feelings objectively, and control my emotions," the man says, indicating that he finds the method to be effective.

    Prison guards are also positive about mindfulness. "Inmates who used to be emotionally volatile are snapping much less than before," one of the guards says.

    Professor Koichi Hamai of Ryukoku University, an expert on rehabilitation of criminals, comments, "Mindfulness helps enhance the inmates' lives. As a process whereby prisons transform themselves into venues for supporting prisoners' path toward social rehabilitation, the method has some value."

    (Japanese original by Atsuko Suzuki, Maebashi Bureau)

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