Mindfulness in Corrections

Thousands of high-security inmates dressed in blue shuffle throughout the confines of pale yellow walls at the Oregon State Penitentiary. Corrections Officer, David Ashley, paces up and down the Charlie "C," ward near the special housing unit, home to over 200 inmates with mental illnesses and behavioral issues. Ashley has worked on the line for seven years. Even after nearly a decade of experiences within the walls, the days are no more predictable now than they were at the start. For many faculty members working on the line, the regular and consistent exposure to the negative environment of a high-security prison results in a variety of physiological and mental traumas. A study conducted by Portland State University in 2012 showed that 1 in 3 Oregon corrections workers suffer from symptoms of PTSD with 97% witnessing violence, injury or death.

On his first day, Ashley was handed a set of keys, given some simple instructions on how to lock and unlock gates and cells and told to start working his tier. Ashley was surprised at the lack of comradery and communication that existed within the environment he refers to as “old school corrections”. “They wouldn’t talk to me until I had a star on my chest”, Ashley said pointing to the golden emblem on his badge, one that a prison faculty member is awarded after five years of employment. But over the years, staff training has dramatically improved, and the themes of isolation and segregation have begun to dissolve. In 2014, OSP implemented a mindfulness and resiliency training program that focused on dealing with the negative externalities of working within a prison setting. Classes ranging in content from breathing exercises to full body scan meditation are offered to a variety of staff members twice a week in two hour sessions. “The mindfulness classes have helped me become aware of my stress and have given me tools to decompress and help mitigate some of the risks of burn out”, Ashley said. “Burn out” is a state of over-stress and overstimulation that can result in a variety of health impacts. In previous years, Ashley saw his blood pressure skyrocket at times to 177 over 100. He struggled in social settings outside of work and found himself having trouble doing the activities he once loved. “But since my first couple years in corrections, it’s changed”. Today Ashley is involved with multiple proactive community programs within the prison. He is a member of the West Side Honor Guard Team that organizes and deals with funeral honors within the staff team. He is also an ESS instructor, and dedicates his time to providing support to new staff members who have experienced traumatic events. 


Dave Wilson works as the Assistant Superintendent of Correctional Rehabilitation at OSP. Each star on his badge represents five years of employment at the prison. For over a decade, Wilson worked on the line as a Corrections Officer. When he started, the training and attention to staff was limited to none. At first, Wilson struggled to form relationships with his fellow corrections staff members. “Growing up I was a missionary’s kid, and that meant moving every two and a half years. I was in four different elementary schools, two different middle schools and three different high schools," Wilson said. "So, for me to come in and be the new kid was nothing new”. The strenuous and repeated tasks of his job were taking a physical toll on his body. After the first few years of his employment, Wilson started to experience some severe back problems which resulted in two ruptured discs. During his physical therapy, Wilson decided to seek an alternative treatment. Mindfulness was his answer. Wilson used techniques from yoga to full body scan meditation sessions. “It completely redefined my relationship with my pain”, Wilson said. “But at the time it was just there. It was a tool I could grab but I didn’t really practice it”. It wasn’t until the end of his mindfulness physical training when he realized that what he was learning through the course could be applied to his personal and work life.  

Today Wilson continues to use the mindfulness techniques he learned in his day to day life. At work, he feels he is more aware of his surroundings and attentive to the moods of his fellow staff members. At home, he has become a more active listener, and has begun to recognize the small moments and beauties around him. “I went through and I identified areas where I felt like I needed some growth. Where mindfulness could work to my ability,” Wilson said. “It started this journey of, what kind of leader and what kind of person do I want to be?”.