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Compassion Behind Bars

If someone who has committed a crime so severe as to warrant jail time can develop compassion, wisdom, and a spirit of service, there is little doubt that we who walk free can do so too.
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Written by Emma Seppala, Ph.D. and Maaheem Akhtar

A few weeks ago, an unprecedented letter arrived at our office at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University. Here is an excerpt:

emma seppala

The purpose of the inmate's letter was to request reading materials pertaining to research on meditation and the brain. His goal upon his release is to get a Ph.D. in psychology or neuroscience. Through that, he hopes to help others who, like himself, find themselves behind bars because of criminal impulses. In his four years of jail time he has obviously been dedicating himself to his passion: His letter demonstrates an extensive knowledge of the top academic organizations for research on neuroscience and meditation.

Our staff at CCARE was moved by this letter and gathered reading material to mail to him immediately. In particular, we were touched that, rather than playing the victim card or being angry at his fate, he instead aspired to education and wisdom out of a desire to help others. Whereas anger or victimhood would have weakened him, his compassionate stance has empowered him. In fact, he displayed more enthusiasm behind bars than many a free man. Why? An altruistic vision and goal is not only empowering but also leads to well-being. As we have explored in our last posts, research is showing that not only are compassion and altruism beneficial to others, these qualities also improve our physical and psychological health.

Compassion is the ability to move past judgments and to see others as human beings similar to us, and to then act to alleviate their suffering. Research by Northeastern University Professor David DeSteno suggests that, if we see a commonality between ourselves and someone else, we are more likely to act with compassion toward them. The stereotypes we often hear about prisoners is that they are "hardened." Some people believe that criminals are "born bad" and that they cannot change. If they commit a crime because they were not able to see the humanity in someone else, then who is to say they will ever see it again? Science.

Developments in neuroscience have shown us that the brain is plastic and malleable, a phenomenon called neuroplasticity. What neuroplasticity teaches us is that change, growth, and understanding is always possible. A criminal is often a person who has experienced hardships and violence that led to a life of crime. Similarly, just as experience may have turned them into criminals, in the same way experience can help them turn around. This touching tale of Arno Michaels, a former skinhead turned passionate humanitarian, is just one of many examples. "It was getting more and more difficult to deny the humanity of the people I was supposed to hate," said Michaels.

So what does it take to turn criminals around? A number of non-profits offer programs they hope will facilitate compassion through recognition of common humanity. How does such a program work? Gabriella Savelli, director of Prison Smart, a non-profit that provides secular yoga-based breathing and meditation practices to prisoners, explains that even some of the toughest inmates can turn around. Many hardened criminals grew up in inner city environments ripe with violence and bloodshed. Raised in warzones, many suffer from the trauma of accumulated stress and anxiety. Unable to move past the trauma, they remain stuck in a cycle of violence, crime, and substance abuse. Teaching methods that help reduce trauma and increase peace of mind can lead to life-changing shifts for men and women behind bars. Savelli shared the following story with us in which peace of mind led to a recognition of common humanity:

"One instance that comes to mind is in New York City. The course was an absolute zoo at the beginning. On the first day the 25 participants were very rowdy and noisy. Many couldn't close their eyes during the processes or stop bothering people around them. By the end of the week, the same group sat perfectly still in their chairs while they did the breathing and meditation exercises for a very long, quiet, peaceful time. When they finally opened their eyes, one man stated, 'Now, when I look around the room in these other guys' eyes, all I see is me!'"

Another form of rehabilitative treatment for prisoners is the victim empathy intervention. This process focuses on helping prisoners develop empathy for the victims of the offenses committed for future situations. Although prisoners who have completed this program say that it has helped them, further research is needed to ensure that these interventions truly work.

If someone who has committed a crime so severe as to warrant jail time can develop compassion, wisdom, and a spirit of service, there is little doubt that we who walk free can do so too.

For more information on prison programs or to volunteer:

- Pen Pal a Prisoner:

- Freeing the Human Spirit:

- The Prison Phoenix Trust, UK:

Emma Seppala, Ph.D is a Psychologist and Associate Director at Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. She received her B.A from Yale, and completed her graduate studies at Columbia and Stanford Universities. In addition to her work at Stanford, she is an Honorary Fellow with the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for Investigating Healthy Minds where she conductS research with Dr. Richard Davidson. Her research focuses on health, well-being, and mind-body interventions. She has examined the impact of meditation on happiness, social connection, and compassion. She has also investigated the effects of yoga-based interventions for combat veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition to her articles in The Huffington Post, she is a regular contributor to a number of magazines including Scientific American Mind, Psychology Today, and Spirituality & Health. You can follow on Psychology Today, Blogger, and Twitter.

Maaheem Akhtar is a Research and Outreach Associate at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University. She graduated with Honors from San Jose State University where she studied Psychology and Neuroscience. Before joining CCARE, she served as an Honorary Research Fellow at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and as a Research Fellow for the Mind and Life Summer Research Institute.

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