The Concept of Karma and the Felon

by Joseph A. Grillo, Psy.D., Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist

Karma Police image from I have often been struck by the way felons view the concepts of "freedom” and "destiny.” I have found, when working with individuals during their incarceration and while on probation, that there is a tendency for them to say:


"I have bad luck”


"It is in the stars, I will never get out of this”


"I must have done something wrong in a past life”


"It’s karma, I’m never going to change, it is what it is”

In my opinion, the correctional/forensic mental health professional can address an important quandary and assist individuals in breaking free from their personal prisons. The prisons are their own conceptions of karma. Here, in my opinion, they have a belief that their karma has restricted their freedom and, hence, their destinies. Yet, I often wonder, is this the case?

First, I inquire how they came to understand the concept of karma? Many that I have encountered did not adhere to a particular religious belief; rather, they simply used the term "karma” loosely to describe what they refer to as a lack of freedom to control their future. As a result, they felt hopeless to control their own situations, and thus felt that they lacked responsibility over their current behaviors ("It was in the stars”).

So, how can we assist these individuals? I try to have them engage in rethinking the concept of karma. Specifically, what if karma is not a punishment? What if karma is actually an opportunity for them to learn from prior mistakes? Interestingly, this can be an intervention used for those that actually believe in karma (reincarnation based beliefs) and for non-religious individuals). I have found that having them focus on the following areas surrounding their karmic issue can be of therapeutic value:

  • identify their "primary” or "major” theme in life
  • discuss what is being gained by having this theme (the positive qualities)
  • discuss what is being lost by having this theme (the negative qualities)

The initial goal here is for the individual to see that, no matter how bad the "karmic” theme, there are both positive and negative aspects associated with it. Next, it would be important to ask if they have been focusing more on the negative aspects of their karmic themes than the positive. Typically it is the negative. Luckily in this world, there are two sides to the coin! Having them accentuate what has been gained is very important.


Let’s take and extreme example to see how this might work. Let’s say that a felon is released from prison after serving 8 years for a Federal crime and is having difficulty finding work in the present economy. He also has a number of prior offenses, comes from a broken family and has few supports.This is the type of individual that professionals may encounter frequently. Here, while the situation seems bleak, using the above three points would be key.

For individuals in this situation, the major theme may be "loss” as there are few family and social supports. They also may be able, with great ease, to identify the numerous negative qualities associated with this theme. Yet what are the positives? Believe me; they will look at you like you are the one that should be in treatment when this question is asked! Here, the professional will be of great help. Questions like, "look how far you’ve made it with so little…I wonder how many people could do that?” In fact, when asked at my lectures, most individuals say that they could not live like those behind the wall.

Hence, the positive quality is that the individual has the ability to "endeavor to persevere.” Specifically, they have "stayed in the game of life with very little and did not totally give up…they are still here.” Now, what are they going to do with this quality!

Whatever their situations, they possess the quality to move forward. The direction will be up to them.

Note: While I have written primarily about the context of the mental health profession, this approach can be used by anyone serving others, both in the context of incarceration and in other scenarios.