An Incarnation of Incarceration: Yoga within Prisons
The word ‘yoga’ is Sanskrit and comes from the root Yuj which means ‘to come together’ (Rucker, 2005). The goals of yoga vary, such as relaxation, breathing techniques, yoga postures, concentration, meditation, and calming the chatter of the mind. When the mind is not focused it constantly bombards us with a rash of negative and meaningless thoughts. By calming the mind it allows an individual to clearly see one’s own thoughts, sensations, and emotions, enabling them to have greater control over their responses and emotional reactions (Rucker, 2005). Just as I had been intrigued by this practice of self-exploration, cleansing, and growth, so have prisoners who have been judged as irredeemable by society.
Prisons in the United States and India
Prisons are now one of the fastest-growing parts of the U.S. economy (Lozoff, 1998). Within the past fifty years the national budget for building and operating prisons has gone from $500 million to $31 billion per year and the number of institutions has quadrupled (Lozoff, 1998). At the same time the inmate population has risen from 187,000 to 1.4 million, with one out of every fifty children in the United States with a parent in prison (Lozoff, 1998). These facts and figures are overwhelming. To me our prison situation is outrageous, and these numbers are astounding which greatly imply the failure of America’s penal system in organization of rehabilitation and crime prevention.
The prisons themselves are designed for order and despair, enough to drive a person mad, but with the pure purpose for conformity and regulation of the prisoners. Atmospheres of prisons with lack of sunlight and bleak faded colors are all validated when considering security and costs, but in the sense of rehabilitation they seem to be counterproductive in progress. Prisons are designed to be depressing, to the point of sensory deprivation (Matthew, 1999). In an article by a former prison inmate he states that one huge obstacle in meditation was the atmosphere, due to the noise level of the prison and not feeling secure. Since meditation is affected by the environment, when thinking about yoga in a prison setting it seems the prison system is set up to be an opposing atmosphere to optimism. He has done meditations in several different prison environments; such as disciplinary segregation (the Hole), maximum and medium security prisons. Some of these environments have an intense, charged and negative atmosphere where it is harder to reach inner stillness, whereas at a medium security prison where the atmosphere was more relaxed it was easier to focus and relax his mind (Barnes, n.d.).
In the state Bihar of eastern India a study in 1995 was conducted on the effects of yoga with prisoners (Bhushan, 1998). Over the span of only two weeks with about three hours of yoga practice a day the prisoners focused on poses, breathing, meditation, and chanting and reported improvement physically and mentally, resulting in less aggressive behaviors. The prison authorities had even reported a better relationship between the prisoners and the staff. Yoga reduced the prison’s spending on medicines and the entire atmosphere of the prison had become more positive. Due to this study the government led to incorporating yoga training in all eighty-two prisons in Bihar (Bhushan, 1998). These prisons eventually introduced a program for prisoners who have life sentences or at least ten more years of imprisonment to undergo a yoga teacher training program and teach yoga within the prison (Bhushan, 1998), a program that only recently has been introduced in the United States.
Rehabilitation or Punishment
Throughout the past fifty years there have been changes in the ideals of the prison systems, mainly in the decline of rehabilitation and a focus on punishment (Phelps, 2011). Prisons used to be centered on the idea of treatment, but that idea of treatment has been put aside, transforming prisons into extremely violent institutions comprised of people deemed incurable by society. Often instead of improving after serving a sentence in jail, the offender actually becomes a more experienced criminal. Imprisonment does not improve but instead starts an ongoing cycle of crime and jail (Mandal, 1983). American prisons are expected to develop a program of rehabilitation within a prison social structure that is dominated by punishment as a means to an end (Shulman, 1955). Prison administrators are expected to pressure order and obedience and to have rehabilitation programs taught by staff trained to primarily impose authority before anything else. Because of this primary focus on obedience we are dehumanizing prisoners and are not introducing into prisons the practice and experiences of good human relationships. Instead the prisoners enter a dangerous and violent environment and emerge more dangerous than when they entered the prison. Because of a lack of rehabilitation programs, continued use of obsolete institutions and programs, and failure to lower the growing convicted population our prisons are overcrowded by people who unlearn past lifestyles of positive socialization (Shulman, 1955). Most offenders who enter prisons are not that violent. Jails and prisons are occupied by the minor offenders in crime, not the professionally trained and commercially successful criminals who do not receive justice; crime syndicates, political henchmen, and white collar offenders are relatively immune to arrest, prosecution, and sentence (Shulman, 1955). As a result the people who do not make up our major crime problems are entered into the prisons, and exit as worse criminals.
The living conditions in maximum security prisons are atrocious. As punishment they locked into a space no bigger than an average bathroom, separated from loved ones, friends, and family and surrounded by people who are often mentally unstable, unpredictable, angry, frustrated, and violent due to those reasons (Janaki, 1999). New inmates must learn the ways of dealing with this new environment and live with other inmates that share it, in this sense a whole new system of life must be learned in order to survive. Added to this is the trauma and stress of the sentencing and subsequent imprisonment, and struggling with their new identities as 'criminal' and 'prisoner' which will be with them for the rest of their lives. All these factors have a deep effect on the psychological, emotional and physical states of the inmates, resulting in a multitude of problems such as anxiety, stress, anger, fear, depression, frustration, insomnia, digestive disorders, high blood pressure, bowel disorders, ulcers, migraines, and back problems which are all common in prisoners (Janaki, 1999).
There are many preconceptions about prison inmates in our culture. In the article “The Effect of Yoga Practice on Hope and Optimism in Prisons” by Helen Elscot she states that she made mistakes do to her own presumptions about the female inmates she was about to teach. Her first was to make “no acknowledgment whatsoever to the prison culture”, where she tried to separated herself from the prisoners and not identify with them (Elscot, 2001), and discovered that a person cannot learn from someone who appears distant. I feel that this is very common in America’s culture, once someone becomes an offender they are cut off from society not only physically but mentally. Another was, “these women have nothing. They’ll be grateful for a few nuggets of wisdom,” thinking that the prisoners would be extremely depressed and downtrodden and that a few words of encouragement and advice would go a long way (Elscot, 2001), however the prisoners are very strong and intelligent. She discovered that “these women” were very similar to her, only trying to learning more about themselves and searching for some kind of stability and truth, something they lost when entering prison. Going in thinking that the inmates would be uninterested and unresponsive the women were open in their opinions during every class and always asked questions (Elscot, 2001).
In prisons there are typically three types of inmates: short-term, long-term and life prisoners. The short-term prisoners tend to be more restless and anxious, uncertain about their fate, finding it harder to adapt to their environment, particularly if they are first time offenders (Atmatattwananda, 1999). Long-term inmates and those sentenced to life tend to be more settled in, once they are sentenced for that long the majority will then attempt to serve their time as best they can by trying to keep busy (Atmatattwananda, 1999). The crimes of the prisoners range from paper work fraud to minor drug offences and cat burglary to violent crimes, such as child abuse, rape, or murder. However, as I stated earlier the majority of inmates that make up the prisons are minor offenders. Prisoners come from all walks of life and different levels of society. Statistics showed that a high proportion of inmates came from unstable backgrounds, ranging from broken families, abuse or neglect in childhood, and crime within the family (Atmatattwananda, 1999). All categories have very high stress conditions, combined with a poor quality diet, in a noisy, harsh, hostile, and strict environment, absent of warmth or other encouragement of any kind. Although these prisoners have committed crimes it is not acceptable to view them less than human, which I believe our culture does, and we as a society need to acknowledge that these inmates need some form of help rather than abandonment.
Benefits of Meditation
Prisoners commonly suffer from a medley mental and emotional tension such as, disorientation, particularly if new to the prison system, poor digestion, due to poor quality diet, and emotional tension (Kumar, 1999). As well as high levels of anxiety, due to the environment, random cell checks, lack of personal privacy, violence between prisoners, or prisoners and guards, and fear of being bullied by other inmates as well as guards, which can include rape (Atmatattwananda, 1999). There is insomnia due to overcrowded cells, cold, noise and the internal state of stress, and depression, particularly if the inmates do not have very much to do since the days are extremely long and dull. They are isolated from family and friends, and there is usually anger and resentment about their sentence, and guilt about any crimes committed, as well as not being able to be the husband, son, father, or mother they once were. And on top of all that some prisoners have issues with drug and alcohol abuse (Atmatattwananda, 1999).
When asked what they had got out of yoga and meditation, the typical response was relaxation, anger control, and self-discipline (Rucker, 2005). Yoga’s emphasis on methods of coping provides techniques for dealing with stress and anxiety which can be achieved through meditation; usually prisoners will experience this early on in the session if they desire real change for themselves (Elscot, 2001). To do so the yoga classes within prisons should include: breath and body awareness through deep relaxation. By learning various breath control strategies the relationship between body, breath, and mind can lead to a guided concentration. The learning and practice of hatha yoga postures, breathing exercises, and meditation will form a relationship between the senses and the mind’s perceptions, beliefs, emotions, and habits which can be observed and re-evaluated (Rucker, 2005). Once the prisoners began to experience “success” in their practice, by receiving their individual desired results for practice, they also began to see positive experiences in most situations (Elscot, 2001). The inmates were able to recognize their own growth and their attitude towards themselves, others, and their environment began to change (Elscot, 2001). With the induction of yoga classes in prisons, a steady transformation was taking place in the prisoners. The whole atmosphere of the prison was beginning to change. Yoga programs in prisons offer joy, enthusiasm, and willingness to participate in the making of a less violent life for themselves (Rucker, 2005).
At the beginning of most yoga classes the inmates participating are asked to explain why they wanted to learn yoga and meditation. The majority of inmates desired benefits of self mastery, and a sense of their own spirituality, and control (Rucker, 2005). Being grounded in spirituality is often the starting point for a new life away from violence due to the sense of feeling a higher purpose, and a start to seeing a positive future (Rucker, 2005). After we are connected to sense of spirituality we can find meaning in ourselves. However to change the history of violence in someone through spirituality, first there must be an inward change. A common theme seen within the reactions of prisoners on yoga practice is the sense of self-discipline (Kumar, 1995); an important quality when considering rehabilitation.
Through self-discipline we have the capacity to know and hear our inner truth (Rucker, 2005). When we follow that inner truth we can find a sense of meaning. Our meaning gives us a higher purpose, and through self-discipline we are able to act as we choose to do; as opposed to acting on impulse and going against our inner truth. When we are able to choose and see our options we have control over our actions. Through self-discipline we can impose our will on our bodies, emotions, and mind as well as discover our values and beliefs. Through meditation self-discipline was obtained resulting in a decrease of violence where he prisoners stopped indulging in acts of rowdiness, beating, and abuse (Mandal, 1983). Issues which are common in prisons and the authorities have a tough time in dealing with. Some prisoners even took it upon themselves to learn more outside of class, and study as well as practicing on their own furthering their own learning and mastery.
Positives of Yoga
The inmates conceptualized a range of desired results and reported benefits from yoga and meditation that ranged from self-regulation to self-exploration. Whatever benefits the prisoners desired they usually obtained, due to the focus, concentration, and calming of their mind. Those who desired only self-regulation received only self-regulation, as desires broadened, so did the benefits (Rucker, 2005). There is also an advantage to the fact that they are inmates, particularly with the longer term inmates. It means that after a short while after practicing techniques in yoga their minds tend not to be filled with the usual amount of external daily clutter and distractions as with people on the outside (Atmatattwananda, 1999). When not working with the average groups of people, who find it hard to find even ten minutes a day to themselves, one advantage to yoga in prison is that the inmates have plenty of time to practice. So if they find that they like and enjoy yoga and they choose to dedicate more to practice, they have the time, possibility, and potential to explore techniques in between classes in their cells (Atmatattwananda, 1999). Prisoners can make that degree of commitment and can learn faster than the average student, because of this the prisoners may progress into deeper states of meditation. In some cases what could take years to achieve with other students, can be achieved within a few months by inmates (Atmatattwananda, 1999). The inmates have the potential to fully accept their time in prison, which shares many parallels to time spent in an ashram or monastery. There is time for them to use yoga and meditation to better themselves rather than experiencing prison as only being a negative, limiting, and confining experience. Yoga can be considered as a great opportunity for personal growth, inner transformation, and expansion. Those who are serving a very long sentence will learn a new coping mechanism and for those who will be released in a shorter time, yoga will offer a new understanding, perspective, and approach to life on the outside (Atmatattwananda, 1999).
Limitations of Yoga
However yoga and meditation does not appeal to everyone. One such example is from Rucker’s study by the fact that of the original twenty-one men in the larger study, from which her analysis has been drawn, eleven (52%) had dropped out before the end of the three-month project (Rucker, 2005). However the seven that remained reported to gain self improvement and benefit in some way. There are also two main problems when prisoners do practice yoga in that setting when dealing with the noise and atmosphere (Barnes, n.d.). Without a designated space to practice meditation during the day it can be difficult due to the noise level. That forces the prisoner to wait until late night when it gets quite to meditate or to push the prisoner to focus and concentrate enough to work pass the noise.
It was reported that a high-security prison in Norway offered trial yoga classes to eight inmates, where they found that instead of calming prisoners it was making them more aggressive (BBC News, 2005). The Prison warden stated that some of the prisoners became more agitated due to the practice. That the prisoners had released deep emotions by the deep breathing exercises and the prison did not have the resources to treat them. The prisoners who had a negative experience reported to have strong reactions to the practice, such as frustration, confusion, agitation, and aggression (BBC News, 2005). Without proper instruction and practice yoga can have a negative effect on the prisoners.
Yoga is already being incorporated in many prisons in the United States and vastly in India where there are many studies of positive results on the prisoners including a decrease in aggression and health issues. Yoga also creates a strong opportunity for prisoners to rehabilitate and better themselves not offered in the prison system. In this study I found most interesting the gross rates of re-incarceration and over population in the prisons, which to me show that changes must be made and researched if to solve these issues, as well as to balance the punishment with rehabilitation in the prisons. The benefits of yoga to me greatly outweigh the possibilities of the negatives. I would like to see bigger classes of yoga in the prisons, not limited to a handful of people. In time I would also hope to see research done on the effects of prisoners who are yoga instructors teaching other prisoners to instruct yoga which creates a cycle of keeping the yoga programs alive and creating a more positive community within the prison. Within the practice of yoga I see great potential for success and a step in the right direction for the changes needed to be made within our penal institutions.
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