Mindfulness in Folsom Prison

Some of the most dangerous prisoners are freeing themselves from solitary confinement by practicing mindfulness.

joebakal/Dollar Photo Club

“Prisons are unbelievably noisy—there’s no quiet,” says Tony Bernhard.

He would know. He’s been teaching mindfulness to the inmates at Folsom Prison outside of Sacramento California for the past four years. He was invited to teach mindfulness to the staff at Folsom and then, when they decided to start offering it to prisoners 4 years ago, he switched to teaching inmates. He works with people in the general population and also the men who are kept in what the prison calls therapeutic modules. “These are the guys who are being held in solitary because they are too dangerous to be allowed in the presence of another human being unmanacled,” says Bernhard.

“When I first saw these units, these cages that the guys are in (think oversized phone booth with a little seat and table), I was uncomfortable. But I’ve come to see the utility of them. I see them as a positive. I’ve watched the prisoners go off on each other from one cage to another just….breathtakingly fast,” recounts Bernhard.

Without the cages, he knows he wouldn’t be able to meet with half the men he sees. And those men wouldn’t be able to learn the mindfulness skills he’s sharing with them. Tony describes it this way: “I was talking with a guy last week and he said, “You know, if I’m out of here,” the guy’s speaking from a cage. He said, “If I’m out of here and you say something, my anger comes so fast, and I hurt you.”

“What do you do when you suggest that someone close their eyes and pay attention to their breath, and they panic?”

So he meets with these men in cages. He runs mindfulness sessions that are about two hours long with anywhere from two to four men at a time. They sit, they meditate, they talk about anger and impulse control. Many of the men he sees are mentally ill, they hear voices, they have panic attacks, some are schizophrenic. He’s had to innovate in order to reach some of the more challenging inmates. “What do you do when you suggest that someone close their eyes and pay attention to their breath, and they panic?” he asks. “How am I going to provide some kind of opportunity for this person to practice mindful attention when they are unwilling or afraid to close their eyes?”

One person he met recently was unable to sit still so he worked out a standing mindfulness practice with him. “We made the object of attention the flexing and releasing of the muscles in his calves. He could stand still even though he couldn’t sit still.”

His approach is to try to respond to each person individually. “These are people living complete lives even though they’re restricted in a lot of ways,” he says. “But they have the whole emotional range happening: social problems, health problems, family problems. Some kid when he was 17 shoots somebody in a gang thing, and now it’s 23, 24, 25 years later. He’s completely different. He knows what he did and is certainly remorseful, but he’s spending the rest of his life in prison. How do we make it the least painful experience?”

He’s sat with a couple hundred prisoners over the years. Some of the guys tell him why they’re in there, while others sit and stare off into the distance without trying to connect at all. “I’d say about 15 to 20 percent of the time I see a dramatic change over a couple of months, a very profound change,” says Bernhard. “In the past year or so, I’ve seen people be able to leave solitary confinement and enter back into general population.”

One of the men who recently moved from solitary confinement was a 70-year-old biker, who, despite his age and the fact that he needed a cane to walk, was kept in handcuffs and leg irons. Here’s how Bernhard tells it:

“I worked with him for about six or eight weeks. And one week, when I asked how he was doing, he said: “I mixed it up with a guard again. But it was my fault.”  The therapist who was in the room with us was agasp. About two weeks later I asked him how he was, he said: “Well, I could have gotten into it with the guard again, but I realized where that was going, and I just thought, why do that? So I didn’t.” A few weeks later he was back in general population, but he didn’t want to go because then he had to get a cellmate. Was that mindfulness helping him out? I’d like to think so.”

“A lot of them have impulse-control problems They just respond, they act, they go straight to hitting.”

The men Bernhard sees are sent to him by the mental health professionals at the prison. These men are taking up mindfulness practice for various reasons, from pain management to anger issues and sometimes just out of curiosity. “A lot of them have impulse-control problems. They just respond, they act, they go straight to hitting,” he says.

A few weeks ago Bernhard gave out some copies of Mindful magazine that were donated to the prison. Most chose the issue with the veteran on the cover. The next week he saw the men trading the magazines among themselves, “through the seams of one cage to the next,” says Bernhard.* “There’s a slow change that comes over some of the men after they practice mindfulness for a while. You can see it in their facial expressions. They’re more relaxed,” he says.

On some days he arrives at the prison and alarms are going off, guards are running out with weapons, and everything is in lockdown. On those days he has to turn around and go home. But despite the chaos that surrounds him at times, he always comes back. “ It is an incredibly rich experience,” he says. “It forces my practice out of my head and it pushes me into areas that I wouldn’t get into otherwise. I get to help people who I would never meet in my daily life and introduce mindfulness practice in this place where the need is so great.

*(Editor’s note: We learned about Tony’s work when he reached out in an email to thank us for the work we’re doing here at Mindful. His message made most of us cry. Thank you, Tony, for the work you do.)


Subscribe to support Mindful.