Yoga should be included in the prison reform discussion.
Anyone with even a slight interest in the criminal justice field has at some point entertained the idea of whether or not inmates should have access to a weight room facility. Eight years ago, as a Criminal Justice undergraduate at Penn State, heated arguments were taking place not only in my classes but throughout the country. Should inmates be allowed to lift weights?
Some talked about how security guards were struggling to physically handle the muscular men such facilities were creating. Others countered with how inmates need to have some sort of physical release. Some flat out believed that inmates should not have access to anything but their three square meals. Others countered with how the gyms also fostered a spirit of community and of collaboration, things many inmates were lacking in the first place. Some spoke of how expensive gym memberships were throughout the country and the absurdity of providing criminals with something that many hard-working Americans could barely afford. New “no replacement” laws were being phased into prisons and this meant that as soon a piece of workout equipment broke it was removed and gone forever. One correctional officer I spoke with in Pennsylvania said that inmates began to care for their barbells and dumbbells with a sensitivity befitting that of a father to a child.
The voices I took most seriously were those that viewed the inmates first as humans and then as criminals. They understood that human beings are physical animals, that exercise helps regulate the body’s hormones and can lead to less anxiety, better sleep quality and possibly more self-control. Among this group and within myself, however, resided a gnawing hesitation. With bench presses and deadlifts came the entire culture of brute strength and alpha-masculinity that seemed to have brought (or at least helped fuel) many of the inmates’ crimes. Steroids were being smuggled into prisons throughout the country, and videos surfaced that showed muscled inmates screaming as they hefted huge amounts of weight. How much of this was “release” and how much was simply creating super-criminals?
As alternatives were sought, yoga continued to stand out as the best option. It provided the physical release but it did so in a more controlled and contemplative way. Rather than grunting and pounding out an extra repetition, inmates were guided and asked to hold postures while bringing an awareness to their breath, or were led through guided meditations while in savasana that helped them be mindful of their emotions and of the things that triggered their emotions. Here was a form of exercise that left inmates not only physically spent but, as many reported, more in touch with what self-weakness spurred their criminal behavior in the first place.
With prisons everywhere bursting at the seams and with recidivism rates at deplorable levels, yoga was by far the most practical alternative. No equipment was needed other than some towels, it didn’t further feed into the macho culture, it served both as physical exercise and as a supplement to other modes of therapy, and it did so all within a 60-minute session.
Indian prisons have been incorporating yoga for years now. In 1999, officials at Tihar Jail, where many of India’s worst criminals are incarcerated, saw reductions in terms of inmate anxiety, depression and subsequent recidivism rates after they completed an intensive yoga and meditation program created by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. In 2010, as such programs spread throughout the country, Gwalior Jail caused controversy when this article in The Telegraph was released with details about how sentences would be reduced by 36 days for every 3-months of yoga completed by the inmate.
And now America seems to be coming around. Studies at Seattle’s North Rehabilitation Facility and at the University of Washington (see PDF) have confirmed that such yoga and meditation-oriented programs significantly reduced recidivism rates and drug-use among prisoners. And the results of these studies have been and are being reproduced by institutions throughout the United States.
The massive flaws of our prison system will not be remedied unless we see the problems from various angles and are willing to give up our long-held beliefs if they are proven untrue or ineffective. Prison reform should not only be about having more effective sentences, it must take into account the roots of crime and the roots of recidivism. Regarding the former, violent crime is often caused by an inability to control emotions. Many blame the situation or refer to such crimes as “crimes of passion.” Passion is no crime; it’s an emotion, a feeling. If yoga can help bring awareness to these emotions and feelings, perhaps fewer will irrationally act because of them. Regarding the latter, inmates are going to be released. If yoga can give rise to more self-aware and even empathetic people, why would we not want to bring it into our prisons? Any argument about its expense can be dismissed by literally thousands of studies on the true costs of recidivism and of housing inmates.
Lastly, the voices long missing from this picture have been the voices of the inmates themselves, especially those who have turned their lives around and have insights to share on how they did it. Most recently, former inmate Brian Shulls went into some detail when he spoke to HuffPost Live about how yoga changed his life for the better. Here’s the video: