Through the Hampden County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) in Springfield, Massachusetts, hundreds of incarcerated people are learning how to manage stressful situations through meditation. In a program called Stress Anger Violence Reduction (SAVR), men are taught practices such as self-regulation, behavior regulation, and how to manage emotional reactivity so they can improve their personal well-being and develop compassion for others. The criminogenic factors that the program addresses are written in the name of the program itself.
SAVR is a modified mindfulness-based stress reduction program inspired by the Center for Mindfulness under the direction of Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Memorial Health. For the past four and a half years, the program has been connected to increased calm, reduced defensiveness, and a willingness to try new things among the incarcerated men who participate.
The program is based on the Stages of Change, which is a model for describing how a person transitions from one type of behavior to another. The stages include precontemplation, contemplation, determination, action, relapse, and maintenance, and they flow along a continuum that an individual can cycle through multiple times. The program’s purpose is to ready individuals to participate in other programs, like education classes, that are specific to their criminogenic risk and needs. HCSO has found the largest value of the program to be in the action stage.
“This was a pleasant outcome,” says HSCO Programs Manager Dan Cavanaugh, “but really not surprising as we…observed…class attendance, where instead of participant[s] meeting the weekly minimum of two classes to stay active in the program, we [observed] participants attending three, four, and five [classes].”
Some men enter SAVR having demonstrated a history of disciplinary issues in the past. The program has the most dramatic results for these participants as they are now able to graduate from programs addressing topics like anger management, cognitive-behavioral therapy skills, parenting, and domestic violence.
Inspiration for SAVR came after Cavanaugh received a copy of two books from his wife: A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle and Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn. At the same time, unbeknownst to him, his colleague John Evon, who was director of fitness wellness at HCSO at the time, was also taking mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) training at the Center for Mindfulness. Evon recommended the Center’s training to Cavanaugh. Soon, Cavanaugh, Evon, and other of their colleagues began participating in mindfulness events, including mindfulness programs specific to first responders. Cavanaugh says that the collective understanding among his colleagues about the benefits of MSBR helped fuel the development of a mindfulness program for incarcerated individuals.
It was important that the program be open to participation as early as possible during a person’s incarceration. This allows individuals to apply the skills they learn throughout their sentence.
Once individuals complete an orientation, receive clearance, and are approved to participate, they begin the journey to completing SAVR’s three levels of participation. At each level, the incarcerated men are invited into a meditation room complete with yoga materials. The session begins with a brief description of and expectations for the day’s class. Participants then read along with or listen to meditations from the SAVR book, a collection of essays written by former SAVR participants that discuss a collection of quotes. The instructor offers commentary, then provides guided silent meditation. Level 2 participants receive a longer period of meditation, and Level 3 students also have the option to journal, meditate, practice mindful moments, or observe drone footage that is projected from around the world and accompanied by meditation music.
In the program’s four and a half years of operation, Cavanaugh reports there have been no verbal or physical altercations upon entrance into, during, or exit from all SAVR classes. He says the men are attentive, respectful, and adhere to the guidelines and philosophy of SAVR group’s practices.
“What’s most fulfilling for me,” Cavanaugh says, “is when I see someone who in the past had disciplinary issues and was not program involved…graduating from other programs. That makes my day.”