The Power Within (Part II)

May 6th, 2014

Editor’s Note: Lionheart welcomes guest bloggers to write about topics aligned with our mission. If you would like to be considered for an upcoming guest blog, please contact us at: questions@lionheart.org The following post is posted from Theinnervoice84′s Blog.
Many thanks for this insightful post. http://theinnervoice84.wordpress.com/

Prisons are full of victims. No, I don’t mean crime survivors, nor individuals who’ve suffered at the hands of injustice (although a great many of us do fit these categories). I mean that the overwhelming majority of currently incarcerated people think, thus behave, as if we’re innocent bystanders in a world that keeps shitting on us. Over the course of my bit I’ve struggled to shed a similar mentality.

I used to say the only thing that pisses me off is stupidity. I viewed frustration and anger largely as the result of others’ idiocy because I wasn’t yet able to see myself in their behavior. Not surprisingly, I was crazy vindictive. But receiving 17 years in prison kind of makes a person re-evaluate, well…..everything.

Soon after I came in I began to wake up. I started paying more attention to ideas and people who for whatever reason (ego, fear, pressure to conform to my subculture) I’d always dismissed. For ages people just like me have cut themselves free from the puppet strings of emotion and ignorance to achieve a better existence, especially on this side of the wall. (Unlike in society, where people are much more able to cover up their insecurities and lack of fortitude with wealth and status, in prison, due to the constant pain and humiliation of the circumstances, the difference between those who have and those who haven’t realized self-empowerment is stark, like comparing children to mature adults.) I chose to heed the wisdom of those success stories and in time I became determined to no longer allow myself to get upset. “There is in this world no such force as the force of a man determined to rise.” W.E.B. Dubois.

The most important lesson behind this determination is that we have only two options when facing hardship/disappointment: do something about it or get the hell over it. We can also blame others, become violent, or even deny reality – and usually we do. But these are reactions; we don’t really choose them. They’re like coming to a fork in the road and putting the car in park or turning into a ditch. They don’t move us forward, which is what life’s about. Especially for us who are incarcerated or have been released recently, everyday is about progress, about distancing ourselves from the attitudes and weaknesses that got us in trouble.

Most currently and formerly incarcerated people have had very few if any of the types of positive support and legitimate successes necessary to build a healthy self-confidence. As a result, we fail to recognize ourselves in the countless individuals throughout history who’ve transcended every degree of misfortune, every kind of disadvantage (with the obvious exception of debilitating mental disabilities). We tend to see obstacles as if looking through magnifying glasses yet see our immense human capacity to overcome them as if peeking through closed eyelids. We think and feel powerless when the truth is we are much closer to invincible. “If we all did things we are capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves.” Thomas Edison.

Of course, there are many situations in life that we absolutely can’t do something about. Fortunately, however, there is virtually nothing that we can’t get the hell over.

We all have our own struggles to overcome and some of our demons and memories are immensely powerful. Yet, there comes a point in most of our lives when suffering is a choice. We’re aware of remedies, we even use and benefit from some of them, but then we stop, as if institutionalized in our own personal prisons. Essentially, through our actions we declare that peace of mind and self-control aren’t worth the effort.

I assure you they are. I know the darkness of making myself miserable and the glory of the other side. Where I am now is priceless.

The famous Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl endured one of the most oppressive, soul-crushing experiences the world has known. Yet his life’s work was preaching the power of self through numerous examples from what he saw and lived through during the concentration camps. I’ll leave you with his words. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Cut off the puppet strings. Keep boxing temptation.

Tip: I’ve benefitted mostly from various spiritual and philosophical teachings, as well as a strong belief in myself based on prior achievements and good family influences. However, it would be naïve and arrogant to act as though what worked for me is the solution to everyone’s issues – I don’t have a personality disorder nor have I ever experienced genuine depression. Some of us surely have a more difficult time with self control, thus peace of mind. Nevertheless, when we’ve finally had enough with suffering we find ways to improve. As I said above, there are always others who’ve overcome or are overcoming the same internal and external circumstances we’re facing and the Internet makes it easier than ever to find them and learn from their struggles. I do want to recommend something I’ve tried and seen help others, even those with mental health issues: biofeedback software by Wild Divine (www.wilddivine.com). It monitors the user’s heart rate and sweat level while going through various meditations, short talks and breathing exercises, such as slowly opening doors or a developing bridge that only responds as the user lowers his/her heart rate and calms down. This gives the user visual evidence of the power they have to control themselves. It might be a bit expensive, but maybe there’s a free trial period you can take advantage of.

The Power Within (Part 1)

April 28th, 2014

Editor’s Note: Lionheart welcomes guest bloggers to write about topics aligned with our mission. If you would like to be considered for an upcoming guest blog, please contact us at: questions@lionheart.org The following post is posted from Theinnervoice84′s Blog. Part II to follow.
Many thanks for this insightful post. http://theinnervoice84.wordpress.com/

About two months ago a buddy of mine got out early after completing a relatively difficult six month substance abuse treatment program. He’d been to prison a few times before but he was finally serious about overcoming his alcohol addiction and insecurities, moving past his painful upbringing and making good on the potential so many people have seen in him. He couldn’t miss another day of his ten-year old son’s life, or keep dealing with the irresponsibility and manipulative games of his son’s mother. He couldn’t waste anymore time on incarceration. Whenever we spoke on the phone things seemed to be coming together more and more for him.

Today he’s sitting in county jail hoping to get under seven years for a new charge.

Reading that first letter he sent me after this latest arrest was heartbreaking. He clearly needed all my support as his self-respect was in shambles and those who’d been in his corner suddenly seemed to be in hiding. Every sentence made more vivid the picture of a man utterly lost in shame and confusion. “Am I destined to die drunk and alone, only out of prison if lucky?”, he asked. “What am I missing?….I don’t even feel human, no human would just throw away his son’s love, right?”

Generally I have a decent idea about how to respond (or not to respond) in these types of situations. But this time I felt totally useless. Outside of battling with an overwhelming sweet tooth, particularly 4-5 years ago, I have little idea what it’s like to have such a weakness for something that I’d repeatedly sacrifice my freedom, family, and self-esteem (basically, my life) for it. His demon is foreign to me – even if it does have less to do with alcohol and possibly more to do with things like a fear of trying and failing.

Those of us who return to prison, especially if more than once, surely go through a similar evaluation of who we are and what if any worth our lives have. Is it our fate to be a disappointment, a cautionary tale, at best? Will we ever be more than addicts, thieves, drug dealers, etc.? Do we even deserve anything more than society’s contempt?

I’ve never been incarcerated before this and after all the self-exploration I’ve done, all the missed opportunities I’ve mourned and all the pain I’ve seen my loved ones endure because of my crime, I’d be devastated if I returned to prison. As I try to see my friend through his internal hell I’m reminded of just how important, how essential it is that I leave no stone unturned in my preparation for release. Despite how confident I am in my development and maturity, I can’t guarantee I won’t find myself back behind bars after I’m released – even innocent people get locked up. But the least I can do is be nakedly honest with myself and confront every single potential pitfall in my character and thought process so as to reduce, as much as possible, the odds of me coming back.

Engulfed in self-pity, my friend wrote that he understood if I didn’t want to keep “such a loser” as him in my life. But I’m a die-hard believer in redemption; no matter what mistakes we make or sins we commit, the path to dignity and triumph is always open to us. We define our fates. Besides, after giving up 17 years of my life for a childish allegiance to an irrelevant street code, I would be an absolute hypocrite if I gave up on someone else for their poor decisions. I just hope his experience and expressions of guilt can help us understand the importance of anticipating and strengthening ourselves for the tests and difficulties sure to come.

Keep boxing temptation.

It All Depends on the Side You Choose

March 27th, 2014

Editor’s Note: Lionheart welcomes guest bloggers to write about topics aligned with our mission. If you would like to be considered for an upcoming guest blog, please contact us at: questions@lionheart.org The following post is the second of three that will be posted from Theinnervoice84′s Blog.  Many thanks for this insightful post.   http://theinnervoice84.wordpress.com/

Because my focus is the present, and especially what’s to come, I try to refrain from talking much about my past. Other than for the sake of demonstrating the progress of my personal development, what I did and who I was seem irrelevant outside my own life. But recently I’ve discovered that my story could be useful to others. I feel though that it might also alienate readers who disagree with the belief system guiding my path to redemption. I just hope those individuals don’t let such disagreement turn them off to the mission statement of theinnervoice84 blog: communities, specifically the formerly and currently incarcerated, working together to solve their problems. For better or worse, here’s my testimony.

I grew up in inner city Milwaukee, the only child of a lower middle class mixed couple (white Mom, black Dad). I was a short, shy, pretty boy with white people hair, and more interest in soccer than basketball. Not surprisingly, I was an easy target for the jokes and macho contempt of my predominantly black friends and peers. I was also a clown, dangerously independent-minded (at group outings, for example, I routinely wandered off to do my own thing), and had a very loving family. As a result, the teasing and minor bullying didn’t crush my self-esteem.

Eventually I got taller (5’10″), fell in love with hooping and got good at ribbing people back – or oftentimes first. But I never really learned how to be an adult. Both in and outside my family I had numerous examples of the responsibility and maturity it required and the assumption was, as it usually is with kids, that I’d just imitate them. In fact, I probably would have if not for more prominent influences.

Directly through its lyrics and images and indirectly through its effect on the culture that surrounded me, the intoxicating negativity of rap music became my bible in my journey to manhood. In time I began selling drugs, collecting mostly illegal weapons and got my “luv” of firearms tatted on my chest. By about the time I was 16 the chip on my shoulder from years of having my masculinity attacked had fused with my skin and made me immune to the wise counsel of those who’d been in my shoes. I had something to prove and wisdom and reason would not hold me back.

Fast forward three years. The charge is first degree intentional homicide. A minor drug deal turned robbery became an act of fatal revenge. The details don’t matter; only the sadness and stupidity hold meaning. Within mere seconds, decades of potential was demolished leaving two separate groups of loved ones to sift through the rubble for something to ease the pain of the road ahead.

I’ve never been a violent person, at least not in the typical reactionary sense. The only two fights I’ve ever been in happened at county jail while my case was being processed and several well-respected non-family members (business owners, professors, the brother-in-law of an ex-Wisconsin governor) wrote letters to the judge about how uncharacteristic my crime was. But I was vengeful, responding to disrespect and provocation outside the heat of the moment. Honor and justice have always been extremely important to me and back then this translated into loyalty to the street code, which demanded never shall anyone punk you. For me this was rule number one and I was all too eager to enforce it in my methodical, over-the-top style. A righteous mercenary in my eyes. Realistically, just another puppet in ego’s workshop.

Initially I couldn’t get past the 17 year sentence. I kept telling myself something would shake: the state would reinstate parole, I’d be resentenced to less time, etc. Slowly I gave up on this hope and instead came to realize how lucky I was. As I’ve mentioned before, no one truly knew how close to the devil I was in my self-proclaimed noble bloodlust. Several times during that last summer of my freedom, I was literally no more than a ski mask, an unregistered vehicle, or a better firing angle away from multiple life sentences and putting my family in grave danger (all in the name of protecting the dignity of my clique). Then, had I not come to prison, there was the guarantee of future opportunities – after all, if we’re looking for it, people will always give us a reason to feel disrespected. More importantly, how does 17 years make up for taking a young life?

To anyone more than a week old it was clear that somewhere along the line I’d made a wrong turn. Prior to being sentenced I’d been concentrating more on what I’d done wrong to get caught. Not long after I got to prison, however, I began to concentrate more on what I’d done wrong as a person. The harshness of my new circumstances was quickly waking me up to reality and I needed answers.

Since middle school I’ve been unable to accept the concept of an all-knowing creator, so there was extremely little chance of theistic religion leading me out of the dark. Yet I knew I was missing something; there was more than what I’d been chasing in life. Inevitably, I gravitated towards Buddhism (though technically I’m not currently a Buddhist) and the road back to humanity started to clear up. Everything bad in my life, the growing pains of my childhood, the petty grudges and hate of my adolescence, the suffering of incarceration, it all came down to one thing: Ego. Ego was the reason for my cowardly desire to feel superior, my ignorant belief that I was more worthy of respect than others, and consequently my natural though weak impulse to take offense to, well, anything. Of course, this only meant I’d discovered the enemy. The hard part was gaining the upper hand.

In “The Wisdom of Two Wolves”, an old Cherokee tells his grandson about the battle being waged inside people. One wolf is evil, anger, greed, jealousy, envy, sorrow, arrogance, self-pity, resentment, and lies. The other is serenity, joy, truth, humility, empathy, hope, love, gratitude, generosity, and compassion. “But grandpa”, the child asks, “which one wins?” “The one you feed, son.”

I had to starve the beast. My mind had already converted but I couldn’t consider the change genuine until my entire system fell in line.

I began to rebel against my ego; it said left, I went right. If I got into it with somebody I’d go apologize to them later, regardless of my innocence in the matter. If I lost big in fantasy football or had something stolen I’d give away some of my canteen to a neighbor. If correctional staff insulted me – the hardest thing for me to deal with in here – I’d laugh at and admonish my hurt pride like a teenager does his younger brother throwing a tantrum: “Grow up you little baby.” I constantly evaluated how I dealt with events in order to game plan for a better response next time. Though time after time I failed to measure up to my ambition, I was determined. Gradually, frustratingly so, I began to truly change my instincts.

In many ways I haven’t changed. I’m still a clown, and my sense of humor, if anything, has only expanded due to my peace of mind. I’m still hip-hop to my core (the non-negative type though like Rhymesayers out of Minneapolis, the movie Brown Sugar, and the choreography duo Tabatha & Napoleon). And as a human I will always struggle to match my reactions to my expectations. But these are superficial points. I look back at how hungrily I fed on naïve judgments of others and thoughts of payback that ego dangled in front of my immaturity, and in a very real way it’s as if I’ve undergone a heart transplant. It’s hard to explain. I’m the same, but I’m so different.

Maybe I’d have matured the way I have or at least broke free from the claws of my vengefulness even if I hadn’t put myself and those I love through this hell. I’ll never know. More importantly, I won’t let myself entertain such thoughts. What could have been is a picture with two sides and, like everyone, I have the choice to either focus on how things could be better or how they could be worse. A choice between illogical sadness or eternal contentment. Talk about an easy decision – although the other side does occasionally succeed in distracting me.

My future might be bright, it might be dim, it might even get cut short. I can’t fully control the outcome there. However, I’m blessed in so many ways and will continue to share my good fortune in order to build up those headed for or caught up in destruction. I just hope I can make a difference.

Keep boxing temptation. Give freedom a hug for us who can’t. [2014]

Solution-Minded

March 10th, 2014

Editor’s Note: Lionheart welcomes guest bloggers to write about topics aligned with our mission. If you would like to be considered for an upcoming guest blog, please contact us at: questions@lionheart.org The following post is the first of three that will be posted from Theinnervoice84′s Blog.  Many thanks for this insightful post.   http://theinnervoice84.wordpress.com/

In 2010 I was sent out of the maximum security institution where I’d spent the first six years of my bit, to a medium four hours away from home. For some time I’d been hoping to leave – initially for greener rec yards, but eventually out of disgust over the complete absence of programs, educational opportunities, sports leagues, music activities, etc. that were offered at that max. In my mind, however, nothing could be worse than coming here. Hell, I would have preferred the Supermax, which was only half as far away, plus I’d get a single cell.

For about a week after I learned that I might be coming here, and then learned that I definitely was, my body rejected my usual positivity like an immune system reacting to an incompatible donor organ. Almost everything received a biased and critical review. Even after my emotions settled and my spirit recovered I was still unhappy about being here. But that didn’t matter. The relevance of any experience does not depend on how we feel, but rather on how we perceive and respond. Of course, this depends on our attitudes/mentalities.

Despite how I felt throughout this process of being moved I was able to remain grounded. I generally try to maintain a strong attitude through a concept well-expressed by the Serenity Prayer: “Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Although, I don’t always succeed.

I used to, and to some degree occasionally still do, have serious difficulty accepting the things I cannot change. In prison, as a society, luxury confines free will. Because we don’t act in line with sober judgement, but in order to preserve privilege, we constantly fail to notice the advantages of new circumstances. What do we expect when our vision forward is so heavily shaded by images of the past? “You can’t start the next chapter of your life if you keep re-reading the last one.”

Keeping our heads up breeds good fortune – not only in physical benefits but by disabling negative thoughts and emotions, which are virtually the sole source of stress and discontentment. Countless times during the literally thousands of basketball games I’ve played, I’ve seen dudes get mad and give up on a play because they didn’t get the ball when they wanted it. Then, when the ball is passed to them a second or two later it goes out-of-bounds because they are busy pouting about not getting exactly what they wanted. And countless times I’ve seen dudes (including myself) miss an easy shot, then let the rebound bounce inches away from them because they have their heads down or are looking off to the side in frustration as if the other team is going to feel sorry for them and give them another chance at the same shot. So many of us do the same thing in life; we let disappointment and misfortune blind us as great opportunities pass by well within arm’s reach.

I try to stay solution-minded by engaging in preventable measures, such as meditation, gratitude, and reviewing my daily actions, remarks, and body language. This way when “shit happens” my mind is more likely to jump over negative thoughts and emotions (anger, revenge, regret, sadness, etc.) and get right to focusing on how I can address the problem or move on.

Keep boxing temptation. Give Freedom a hug for me.

[Since June of 2010 I've written this blog (www.theinnervoice84.wordpress.com) primarily for formerly incarcerated people. The shock and temptations of freedom can be overwhelming, especially for  those recently released, and I try to encourage them to stay strong by sharing my hardships and experiences as a reminder of what they risk returning to otherwise. I don't expect it to necessarily change anyone's life, but maybe it can nudge struggling individuals away from harmful decisions just long enough for something substantial to take hold (like a job or good relationship).  [2014]

 

Guest Blog: Re-Entry Programs & Recidivism: The Connection

February 11th, 2014

Editor’s Note: From time to time, Lionheart welcomes guest bloggers to write about topics aligned with our mission. If you would like to be considered for an upcoming guest blog, please contact us at: questions@lionheart.org

Many thanks to Bradley Schwartz and Prison Path (www.prisonpath.com) for contributing the following article.

Re-Entry Programs & Recidivism: The Connection
Nonviolent Prisoners

Every year, the pundits have complained about the high recidivism rates in the United States. A Approximately 725,000 inmates are released annually from prisons throughout the United States. A 2011 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Center on the States indicated that more than 4 in 10 will return to prison within three years. Recidivism rates vary from state to state. California is at the high end with 60 percent and South Carolina is at the low end with 32 percent. Between 2004-2007, 30 percent of individuals released from federal prisons under supervision were returned to prison. Almost half of the individuals returning to prison were re-incarcerated for technical violations and not for new crimes.

Without effective re-entry programs, recidivism will remain high. The returning citizens may have drug and alcohol addictions, 25% have mental health issues, significant numbers are not educated, and a criminal record will exponentially reduce their chances for employment. In some states, the unemployment rate for released inmates is 50 percent. Most importantly, many returning citizens need a stable–safe place to stay upon their release. If these issues are addressed appropriately, recidivism will be reduced.

For example, Michigan spends $35,000 a year to incarcerate an individual. It costs more than $35,000 a year to educate a University of Michigan student. Six years ago, the state decided to focus on the problems of reentry. Michigan now has saved more than $200 million annually by implementing aggressive job placement programs. Robert Satterfield, a 46 year old Michigan resident was imprisoned for almost six years for embezzlement. For months, he was unable to find employment. A successful reentry program, 70Times 7, gave him guidance and training. The program found a job for him with a local metalworking company. During a 16 month period, he received several raises, and was earning $13.00 an hour. The company owner stated that he has six former inmates employed and they were among his best employees.

For our fellow Americans who agonize over alleged coddling of former inmates—effective re-entry programs actually benefits society in the end. Lower recidivism rates translates into lower crime rates, less prisons, more taxpayer’s monies available for education, etc., and a more productive society.

Submitted by: Bradley Schwartz (Prison Path)

RESEARCH RESULTS ON POWER SOURCE AT RIKERS, NY: Frontiers in Psychology Article

November 8th, 2013

Mindfulness training improves attentional task performance in incarcerated youth: a group randomized controlled intervention trial

Cover picture for the book Power Source Taking Charge of Your Life

  • 1College of Nursing, New York University, New York, NY, USA
  • 2Department of Psychology, University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL, USA
  • 3Lionheart Foundation, Boston, MA, USA

We investigated the impact of cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness training (CBT/MT) on attentional task performance in incarcerated adolescents. Attention is a cognitive system necessary for managing cognitive demands and regulating emotions. Yet persistent and intensive demands, such as those experienced during high-stress intervals like incarceration and the events leading to incarceration, may deplete attention resulting in cognitive failures, emotional disturbances, and impulsive behavior. We hypothesized that CBT/MT may mitigate these deleterious effects of high stress and protect against degradation in attention over the high-stress interval of incarceration. Using a quasi-experimental, group randomized controlled trial design, we randomly assigned dormitories of incarcerated youth, ages 16–18, to a CBT/MT intervention (youth n = 147) or an active control intervention (youth n = 117). Both arms received approximately 750 min of intervention in a small-group setting over a 3–5 week period. Youth in the CBT/MT arm also logged the amount of out-of-session time spent practicing MT exercises. The Attention Network Test was used to index attentional task performance at baseline and 4 months post-baseline. Overall, task performance degraded over time in all participants. The magnitude of performance degradation was significantly less in the CBT/MT vs. control arm. Further, within the CBT/MT arm, performance degraded over time in those with no outside-of-class practice time, but remained stable over time in those who practiced mindfulness exercises outside of the session meetings. Thus, these findings suggest that sufficient CBT/MT practice may protect against functional attentional impairments associated with high-stress intervals.

Keywords: adolescent development, incarcerated adolescents, detained adolescents, stress, attention, mindfulness meditation

Citation: Leonard NR, Jha AP, Casarjian B, Goolsarran M, Garcia C, Cleland CM, Gwadz MV and Massey Z (2013) Mindfulness training improves attentional task performance in incarcerated youth: a group randomized controlled intervention trial. Front. Psychol. 4:792. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00792

Received: 18 June 2013; Paper pending published: 10 August 2013;
Accepted: 08 October 2013; Published online: 08 November 2013.

Edited by:

Zoran Josipovic, New York University, USA

Reviewed by:

Patricia A. Jennings, Pennsylvania State University, USA
Robert W. Roeser, Portland State University, USA

Copyright © 2013 Leonard, Jha, Casarjian, Goolsarran, Garcia, Cleland, Gwadz and Massey. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Noelle R. Leonard, New York University College of Nursing, 726 Broadway, 10th floor, New York, NY 10003, USA e-mail: nrl4@nyu.edu

Research Study on Power Source Curriculum

November 4th, 2013

Science News

… from universities, journals, and other research organizations  
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            
Study On Incarcerated Youth Shows Potential to Lower Anti-Social Behavior

Oct. 31, 2013 — Researchers at the New York University College of Nursing (NYUCN), the University of Miami, and the Lionheart Foundation in Boston, found that mindfulness training, a meditation-based therapy, can improve attention skills in incarcerated youth, paving the way to greater self-control over emotions and actions. It is the first study to show that mindfulness training can be used in combination with cognitive behavioral therapy to protect attentional functioning in high-risk incarcerated youth.


Cover picture for the book Power Source Taking Charge of Your LifeTheir study, “Mindfulness Training Improves Attentional Task Performance in Incarcerated Youth: A Group Randomized Controlled Intervention Trial,” published in the on-line journal, Frontiers in Psychology, holds promise for new strategies in reducing anti-social behavior among at-risk youth.

The researchers followed 267 incarcerated males, ages 16 to 18, over a 4-month period. The researchers found that participation in an intervention that combined cognitive behavioral therapy with mindfulness training (or “CBT/MT”), called Power Source, had a protective effect on youths’ attentional capacity. This research is the largest controlled study of mindfulness training for youth to date.

“The CBT/MT approach responds to the significant childhood psychosocial hardships that most incarcerated youths have experienced, including exposure to violence, poverty, and physical and emotional abuse by caregivers,” explained principal investigator Noelle R. Leonard, PhD, a Senior Research Scientist at NYUCN. “These experiences impair cognitive control processes, such as attention regulation, which is vital for the self-regulation of feelings and actions. The antisocial behavior prevalent among youthful offenders is the result of an ongoing interplay between this psychosocial adversity and deficits in cognitive control processes, particularly attention.”

Improving attention can lead to better self-control. Reflecting on the impact of the intervention, one study participant stated, “Just yesterday. Got into an altercation with a guy in the kitchen. Guy said, ‘We’re gonna fight.’ At first thought, my initial response was to fight. Then I thought about the consequences — I’d lose my job [in the prison kitchen], don’t want to go to court and don’t want to hear the judge mouth about my fights.” Attention to the goal of staying out of trouble allowed this participant to consider an alternative to fighting.

Why it works:

“Mindfulness meditation can be seen as involving two components: self-regulation of attention and non-judgmental awareness,” said Dr. Leonard. “The practice involves training youth to attend to something as simple as the sensations associated with breathing. While our minds will invariably wander to other thoughts or get distracted by things in the environment, by repeatedly returning attention back to the breath in a non-judgmental way, we are building attentional capacity to interrupt the cycle of automatic and reactive thoughts.”

The mindfulness training is complemented by exercises that focus on taking responsibility for offending behavior and increasing motivation for engaging in non-violent, pro-social behaviors. “Although we don’t have direct evidence for this yet, we hypothesize that this repeated practice can translate into maintaining a focus on pro-social or non-violent goals in the course of youths’ daily lives, amidst the harsh conditions of incarceration or in the context of anti-social peers” added Dr. Leonard.

“Mindfulness training helps youth consider more adaptive alternatives,” added Dr. Bethany Casarjian of the Lionheart Foundation, who developed the Power Source intervention and co-authored the study. “It creates a gap between triggers for offending behavior and their responses. They learn to not immediately act out on impulse, but to pause and consider the consequences of a potential offending and high risk behavior.”

Study design and results:

Study participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups based upon the prison dormitory where they resided: the intervention group received cognitive-behavioral/mindfulness training and the control group received an evidence-based cognitive-perception intervention focusing on attitudes and beliefs about substance use and violence. Participants completed a computerized Attention Network Test (ANT) prior to the intervention and four months later.

The researchers found that this high-stress period of incarceration led to declines in attentional task performance for all subjects. This poorer performance over time might be accounted for by the unrelenting stress on cognitive control which is necessary for complex problem solving, emotion regulation, and behavioral inhibition. However, the CBT/MT intervention group showed significantly less of a decline in attentional task performance as compared to the control group. Moreover, within the CBT/MT group, the attentional task performance among those who practiced outside of intervention sessions remained stable compared to those who did not practice outside of the intervention sessions. These findings indicate that a multi-session CBT/MT intervention can be effective in limiting degradation in attentional performance in incarcerated youth, thus providing a protective effect on offending youths’ functional attentional impairments during incarceration in a high-security urban jail.

In line with the current findings, co-author Amishi P. Jha, PhD of the University of Miami, has reported that protracted periods of high stress, such as preparing for military deployment, degrades cognitive control functions such as attention and working memory.

“Cognitive control processes like attention are involved in decision making and emotion regulation,” said Dr. Jha. “With degraded attention, the chances of impulsive and risky decision making, as well as emotional reactivity are greater.”

The current results suggest that strengthening attention through mindfulness training may be a key route for reducing recidivism among young offenders, and highlight the need to teach detained youth strategies to improve cognitive and emotional control in the stressful detainment environment. In particular, training methods that allow youth to actively engage in exercises on their own to improve cognitive control may be ideal in conjunction with structured intervention activities or psychotherapy to help youth cultivate resilience by building their capacity for cognitive control while detained and after release.

“Finally,” Dr. Leonard added, “We know that incarceration is not good for youth, and with this study, we have direct evidence that incarceration depletes the very processes youth need to strengthen in order to steer their developmental trajectory in a more pro-social, law-abiding direction.”


NYU News and Power Source Research Study

October 28th, 2013

NYU Study on Incarcerated Youth Shows Potential for Improving Cognitive Functioning Using Mindfulness Training, Which May Lower Anti-Social Behavior and Recidivism           

Contact: Christopher James – 212-998-6876 – christopher.james@nyu.edu

Cover picture for the book Power Source Taking Charge of Your LifeThe researchers investigated the impact of cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness training (CBT/MT) on attentional task performance in incarcerated adolescents.  Researchers at the New York University College of Nursing (NYUCN), the University of Miami, and the Lionheart Foundation in Boston, found that mindfulness training, a meditation-based therapy, can improve attention skills in incarcerated youth, paving the way to greater self-control over emotions and actions. It is the first study to show that mindfulness training can be used in combination with cognitive behavioral therapy to protect attentional functioning in high-risk incarcerated youth.

Their study, “Mindfulness Training Improves Attentional Task Performance in Incarcerated Youth: A Group Randomized Controlled Intervention Trial,” published in the on-line journal, Frontiers in Psychology, holds promise for new strategies in reducing anti-social behavior among at-risk youth.

The researchers followed 267 incarcerated males, ages 16 to 18, over a 4-month period. The researchers found that participation in an intervention that combined cognitive behavioral therapy with mindfulness training (or “CBT/MT”), called Power Source, had a protective effect on youths’ attentional capacity. This research is the largest controlled study of mindfulness training for youth to date.

“The CBT/MT approach responds to the significant childhood psychosocial hardships that most incarcerated youths have experienced, including exposure to violence, poverty, and physical and emotional abuse by caregivers,” explained principal investigator Noelle R. Leonard, PhD, a Senior Research Scientist at NYUCN. “These experiences impair cognitive control processes, such as attention regulation, which is vital for the self-regulation of feelings and actions. The antisocial behavior prevalent among youthful offenders is the result of an ongoing interplay between this psychosocial adversity and deficits in cognitive control processes, particularly attention.”

Improving attention can lead to better self-control. Reflecting on the impact of the intervention, one study participant stated, “Just yesterday. Got into an altercation with a guy in the kitchen. Guy said, ‘We’re gonna fight.’ At first thought, my initial response was to fight. Then I thought about the consequences – I’d lose my job [in the prison kitchen], don’t want to go to court and don’t want to hear the judge mouth about my fights.” Attention to the goal of staying out of trouble allowed this participant to consider an alternative to fighting.

Why it works:
“Mindfulness meditation can be seen as involving two components: self-regulation of attention and non-judgmental awareness,” said Dr. Leonard. “The practice involves training youth to attend to something as simple as the sensations associated with breathing. While our minds will invariably wander to other thoughts or get distracted by things in the environment, by repeatedly returning attention back to the breath in a non-judgmental way, we are building attentional capacity to interrupt the cycle of automatic and reactive thoughts.”

The mindfulness training is complemented by exercises that focus on taking responsibility for offending behavior and increasing motivation for engaging in non-violent, pro-social behaviors. “Although we don’t have direct evidence for this yet, we hypothesize that this repeated practice can translate into maintaining a focus on pro-social or non-violent goals in the course of youths’ daily lives, amidst the harsh conditions of incarceration or in the context of anti-social peers” added Dr. Leonard.

“Mindfulness training helps youth consider more adaptive alternatives,” added Dr. Bethany Casarjian of the Lionheart Foundation, who developed the Power Source intervention and co-authored the study. “It creates a gap between triggers for offending behavior and their responses. They learn to not immediately act out on impulse, but to pause and consider the consequences of a potential offending and high risk behavior.”

Study design and results:
Study participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups based upon the prison dormitory where they resided: the intervention group received cognitive-behavioral/mindfulness training and the control group received an evidence-based cognitive-perception intervention focusing on attitudes and beliefs about substance use and violence. Participants completed a computerized Attention Network Test (ANT) prior to the intervention and four months later.

The researchers found that this high-stress period of incarceration led to declines in attentional task performance for all subjects. This poorer performance over time might be accounted for by the unrelenting stress on cognitive control which is necessary for complex problem solving, emotion regulation, and behavioral inhibition.

However, the CBT/MT intervention group showed significantly less of a decline in attentional task performance as compared to the control group. Moreover, within the CBT/MT group, the attentional task performance among those who practiced outside of intervention sessions remained stable compared to those who did not practice outside of the intervention sessions. These findings indicate that a multi-session CBT/MT intervention can be effective in limiting degradation in attentional performance in incarcerated youth, thus providing a protective effect on offending youths’ functional attentional impairments during incarceration in a high-security urban jail.

In line with the current findings, co-author Amishi P. Jha, PhD of the University of Miami, has reported that protracted periods of high stress, such as preparing for military deployment, degrades cognitive control functions such as attention and working memory.

“Cognitive control processes like attention are involved in decision making and emotion regulation,” said Dr. Jha. “With degraded attention, the chances of impulsive and risky decision making, as well as emotional reactivity are greater.”

The current results suggest that strengthening attention through mindfulness training may be a key route for reducing recidivism among young offenders, and highlight the need to teach detained youth strategies to improve cognitive and emotional control in the stressful detainment environment. In particular, training methods that allow youth to actively engage in exercises on their own to improve cognitive control may be ideal in conjunction with structured intervention activities or psychotherapy to help youth cultivate resilience by building their capacity for cognitive control while detained and after release.

“Finally”, Dr. Leonard added, “We know that incarceration is not good for youth, and with this study, we have direct evidence that incarceration depletes the very processes youth need to strengthen in order to steer their developmental trajectory in a more pro-social, law-abiding direction.”

The research was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA; R01 DA 024764)

Link to the article: http://www.frontiersin.org/consciousness_research/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00792/abstract

Additional authors who contributed to “Mindfulness Training Improves Attentional Task Performance in Incarcerated Youth: A Group Randomized Controlled Intervention Trial” were: Charles M. Cleland, PhD, Marya V. Gwadz, PhD, and Zohar Massey from NYUCN and Merissa Goolsarran and Cristina Garcia from the University of Miami.
About the Center for Drug Use and HIV Research (CDUHR)

CDUHR, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, is the first center for the socio-behavioral study of substance use and HIV in the United States. The Center is dedicated to increasing the understanding of the substance use-HIV/AIDS epidemic, particularly among individuals in high-risk contexts. The Center’s theme is “Discovery to Implementation & Back: Research Translation for the HIV/Substance Use Epidemic.” The Center facilitates the development of timely new research efforts, enhances implementation of funded projects and disseminates information to researchers, service providers and policy makers.

About New York University College of Nursing NYU College of Nursing is a global leader in nursing education, research, and practice. It offers a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, a Master of Arts and Post-Master’s Certificate Programs, a Doctor of Philosophy in Research Theory and Development, and a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree. For more information, visit www.nyu.edu/nursing.

Teen Parents: “Not Together Anymore”

October 3rd, 2013

Power Source Parenting: Growing Up Strong and Raising Healthy Kids, by Bethany Casarjian, Ph.D., is the centerpiece for Lionheart’s social-emotional literacy program for at risk teen parents.  It gets to the heart of what it means to be a teen parent, the struggles that these young parents face, and practical guidance to help them become loving, effective parents so their babies get the loving start and promising futures they deserve.  Below is an excerpt from Power Source Parenting on a topic that many teen moms struggle with….”The relationship with your baby’s father or mother.”  jp

One of the biggest questions we get during our parenting groups is about how to be a parent with an “ex”.  What’s right for the baby?  What if you and your ex don’t get along at all?  We strongly believe that it is possible to raise a baby with the other parent even if you’re not together anymore.  But it requires both of you to act as mature and level-headed as you possibly can.  Some might say you have to step up to the plate, bite the bullet, turn the other cheek, be a bigger person, or just get the job done.  It’s not always easy to coparent with someone who has cheated on you, let you down, or made you angry.  But having a working relationship will actually help you in the long run.  And it will certainly help your child.  Here are some tips to help you make the best of what can be a tough situation.

If your baby’s other parent is a safe and responsible person (and by this we mean will keep the baby safe while they are together), it’s best for him or her to be in your baby’s life.  Period.  Sometimes we tell ourselves, “Well, he (or she) doesn’t give us enough money, he hangs out with his boys too much, he doesn’t call us for weeks at a time, he makes promises he doesn’t keep.”  All of this may be true.  But is it important enough for you to keep your partner from being a part of the baby’s life?  NO!  Just because you might be angry at him doesn’t mean your child should have to be.  Don’t ruin her relationship with her other parent out of your own hurt and anger.  That means no nasty faces when his name comes up, no hanging up the phone when he calls, and no badmouthing him.  Research shows that kids who constantly hear their dad or mom is bad, think they are, too, because their parent is part of them.  You’re not doing it for him.  You’re doing it for your kid.

Did you know that kids who know their dads do better than average on tests that show how they are growing and learning?  Are less likely to run away?  Are much less likely to be violent, dangerous, and even criminal?  Are better at doing things without help, keep control of themselves, wait longer before they start having sex?  And are more likely to go to school, stay in school, and not repeat a grade?  Boys who grow up without a father are 300% more likely to be put in a state juvenile institution. (Healthy Families San Angelo, 1992)

Being a parent isn’t 50/50.  A young mother, Gina, 17 years old wrote to us and said:  “It just doesn’t seem fair.  We both made this baby, but I’m the one who does all the work.  I have to stay home at night while he goes out with his friends.  Plus, we both have jobs, so why does all my money go to the baby and his goes to whatever he wants to do?” 

We go through life being taught to make things fair.  But when it comes to being a parent, things aren’t always fair.  If you are expecting the other parent to do as much as you (the primary caretaker), you will feel angry and disappointed a lot of the time.  Guaranteed.  If you get stuck in the anger for too long, you begin to pass up moments of happiness and joy.  Soon, you may find yourself reacting to these negative feelings, rather than acting on what is best for your child!”  Don’t let fairness be a reason for keeping the other parent out of your baby’s life.  If you use the baby as a bargaining chip, everyone will lose.  For example, if you keep the other parent away from the baby because he or she isn’t pulling his or her weight, you are training the other parent to stay away.  If you make conditions about seeing the baby that he can’t realistically meet, you are pushing him away.  Sure it would be nice if they paid their share, did as much childcare, and washed as much laundry as you.  But sometimes to be more peaceful and make healthy choices, we have to ignore the score.

Let’s be clear.  You have the right to ask the baby’s other parent for what you want and what you think is fair.  You have to right to tell the other parent what’s on your mind.  But the main question you should ask when making choices about your ex is “What’s best for my child?”  Pushing the other parent out of your baby’s life leaves you with more work, more anger, and a child who sees less and less of his other parent.

One of the best ways to make things work out the way you want is to be an effective communicator.  That means talking in a way so people can listen.  You might be justified in being angry.  But how you express that to the person you are upset with determines whether you’ll get what you want.  If you start screaming at someone, telling him what a no-good loser parent he is, chances are he’ll either tune you out, scream back, or not show up very much.  What if you figured out a way to get him to really listen and understand what you or the baby needs and why it is important?  Think of an Oreo cookie:  chocolate cookie — cream center — chocolate cookie.  Believe it or not, an Oreo cookie can help us be a more effective parent.

Let’s say your baby’s dad was supposed to watch the baby for you while you went out with a friend.  You’d been planning this for a week and you were really excited about it.  When he finally does show up, he’s an hour late and your friend went to the movies without you.  You’re really steamed.  Instead of blowing up and getting into a fight that leads nowhere, try giving him an Oreo.  Before you try this, make sure you are calm and in control of your feelings.  Here’s how it works:

Cookie #1 — Give him a compliment — even if you are angry at the person.  Sounds crazy, but it works.  The best way to capture anyone’s attention is to start off by saying something that’s nice (and also true) about them.  If you start with a criticism, he or she will get defensive and the conversation will turn into a battle.  Start with something he does do right.  Example, “You know, Darryl, you are really good with Orlando.  And when you’re with him, I know he’s safe and happy.”

The Cream Filling — Tell the person how you feel and what you want to have happen.  Use “I” statements.  Don’t start blaming or shaming.  Stick to the facts.  It helps keep the conversation on track.  For example, “I’m so disappointed and frustrated. It’s really important for me to have some time to go out, too.  I take care of the baby a lot and sometimes I need a break.  When you promise to take care of Orlando, it’s really, really important that you show up on time.”  Stay away from statements like “you always” or “you never”.

Cookie #2 — End it with another compliment or something that is good about the person and true.  Example, “I’m glad you want to help out with Orlando.  He’s lucky to have both parents in his life.”

Oreos take practice.  And, they work with all people, not just your baby’s other parent.  Use it with your own mom, dad, sister, or whoever else you need to live with.  It doesn’t solve all problems, but it does make life a whole lot less dramatic, which is good for you and your baby.

To learn more about Power Source Parenting and Lionheart’s other emotional literacy programs, please visit the Lionheart Website.

Creative Commons License

Teen Parents: “Not Together Anymore” by Bethany Casarjian, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at www.lionheart.org/youth/   The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author is credited and that the original publication Power Source Parenting: Growing Up Strong and Raising Healthy Kids  (Copyright 2008) and excerpts in this blog (www.lionheart.org/blog/) are cited.  No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

Teen Parents: “Creating a Close Bond with Your Child”

September 30th, 2013

Power Source Parenting: Growing Up Strong and Raising Healthy Kids, by Bethany Casarjian, Ph.D., is the centerpiece for Lionheart’s social-emotional literacy program for at risk teen parents.  It gets to the heart of what it means to be a teen parent, the struggles that these young parents face, and practical guidance to help them become loving, effective parents so their babies get the loving start and promising futures they deserve.  Below is an excerpt from Power Source Parenting on a topic that many teen moms, sometimes lacking in role models, have questions about….”Making a Tight Bond”  jp

The first and the most important job you have as a parent is to form a healthy bond to your child.  Another word for the close connection you form to your child is “attachment”.  What does that mean?  it means that your number one job from the minute you set eyes on your baby is to make her feel that she can trust you.  Babies who can trust their caregiver believe that the world is safe.  Feeling safe with their parent is absolutely necessary for babies to learn and develop in emotionally healthy ways.  Think about it.  Your baby comes into the world completely dependent on you.  (Did you know that your baby for a long time actually thinks she’s the same person as you? For real!)  You’re her entire world.  If she’s left to cry, treated roughly, not held or rocked or soothed, what is her world like?  How will she feel?

The lessons she learns from you in the first few months of her life will teach her whether she can trust.  And being able to trust is a big advantage in life.  In these very early months, you are giving her a picture of the world that will stay in her brain for the rest of her life.  If she feels loved, she will grow to feel good about herself.  She will feel secure.  We don’t mean to scare you or freak you out, but these early months are incredibly powerful and important.

The good thing about bonding with your baby is that it’s totally in your power.  You don’t need a degree to do it.  You don’t need money to do it.  And you don’t need any special toys or gadgets.  Anyone can bond with their baby if they know what to do.

Denise, a 20 year old mother had this to share with us:  I don’t want my baby to grow up being scared of the world like I was.  I am going to be there for her every step of the way.  When she cries, I will let her know that she’s safe with her mother.  When she hurts, I will comfort her.  I didn’t get that from my mother.  Maybe that’s why I always feel alone.  Or maybe that’s why it’s so hard for me to trust people.  But I’m going to do my best to make sure that my baby doesn’t have those same scared and empty feelings like me.”

So, how do I make her trust me?  For something that is so incredibly important, it’s actually easy to do.  When your baby is very young (newborn to 4 months) this means picking her up whenever she cries.  It also means feeding her whenever she is hungry (whether it’s convenient or not).  If she is upset or uncomfortable, soothe her by rocking her gently and singing in a low, quiet voice.  Always touch your baby gently.  Babies who are handled roughly learn that the world is rough.  If they are treated carelessly or harshly through the first year, they will start treating the world (and all the people in it) the same way.  Even if you are very tired, stressed, or frustrated, dig deep and find the patience to treat her softly and with tenderness.

When she is little, she can’t be ‘spoiled’.  Stephanie, a 16 year old mom wrote this:  “I’m not sure what to do when she cries.  I don’t want to pick her up all the time because my grandmother says that will spoil her.  I got some people telling me to hold her.  I got other people telling me to let her cry it out.  I don’t know what to do.  Help!!!”  It can be confusing when you get a lot of different advice coming at you.  But the real deal is that you can’t spoil a very young baby.  If your very young (0-4 months) baby is crying, she needs your help.  Maybe she’s hungry, tired, scared, or cold.  Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what’s wrong.  That’s okay.  Soothe her the best you can.  Sometimes you can’t make a baby stop crying.  That’s okay too.  The most important thing you can do is to show her that she is safe and cared for.  And remember, no amount of love and affection will spoil any baby.

If your baby is older, like from 5 months and up, take a minute and listen to his cry.  You’ve probably figured out that babies have different cries for pain, hunger, boredom and frustration.  If a seven-month-old baby is frustrated, you might wait a second before rushing into the living room to help him.  Maybe he’ll work it out on his own.  If he does, give him lots of praise.  If a nine-month-old is hungry and crying, explain to her that food is on the way.  Let her know that you understand what she needs — even if she can’t have it right away.  Tune in to your baby and let them know you “get” what they’re feeling.  This isn’t spoiling.  It’s part of building trust.

So why is bonding so important?  Babies who have strong and positive bonds to their parents 1. Do better in school.  2. Make friends more easily.  3. Have fewer behavior problems, like fighting and breaking rules.  4. Are less likely to use drugs when they get older.  5. Feel better about themselves.  6. Grow up to have better relationships.  Your baby is lucky to have a mom or dad who can do this for her.

For more information about Lionheart’s emotional literacy curricula, please visit the Lionheart website.

Creative Commons License

Teen Parents:”Creating a Close Bond with Your Child” by Bethany Casarjian, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at www.lionheart.org/youth/ The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author is credited and that the original publication Power Source Parenting: Growing Up Strong and Raising Healthy Kids (Copyright 2008) and excerpts in this blog (www.lionheart.org/blog) is cited.  No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

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