(Source: Robert Sturman Photography)
What do yoga mats and prisoners have in common? Both are in high demand. With an overcrowded prison population in the US, it is not shocking to find around 60-67% of inmates return to prison within 3 years of their release date. Rehabilitation and mental health services for inmates have been long seen as a form of restorative justice, or an alternative way to approaching crime through healing instead of punishment. As some critics discourage the funding of inmate therapy, the goal is to treat the prisoner and prevent the outcome of committing another crime once they re-enter society. With the increasing evidence on the benefits of improved mental health for those who practice yoga, it seems this treatment has made its way from yogis to behind bars.
Many organizations throughout the United States have started training yoga instructors to teach inmates the fundamentals of overcoming past trauma through simple breathing, stretching and meditating exercises. Looking at one non-profit’s vision, the founder of the Prison Yoga Project at the San Quentin State Prison in California, James Fox states that the prisoners, “...didn’t get proper guidance when they were in adolescence, never dealt with core social and emotional issues of that age-they rebelled instead, or got locked up at an early age.” For these prisoners, the practice of yoga is a means to develop positive outlets for stress and to ease the transition of returning to normal life.
As politicians discuss the initiatives of lowering overcrowded prisons, yoga will provide prisoners the ability to perform self-healing exercises to lower the chances of suicide, violence, and other harmful actions while living in a highly stressful environment. This could also protect the prison staff and security guards who risk their lives and lives of others while on the job. Since non-profit organizations receive their funding from donors, it would not cost much for state governments to consider implementing the yoga regime into the prison curriculum.
Although it is no guarantee that yoga could be the primary answer to a complicated problem, giving prisoners a second, third or fourth chance would help protect civil society once they are released back into real life. Communities nationwide will always reflect on the stigmas of being a criminal, yet if the prisoner is able to show self-control and restraint in a positive way, then the need for more research should be considered a priority.
What can one do to support the cause? Write letters to political leaders about the importance of improving mental health services for prisoners, bring awareness to community members, look for yoga treatments for prisons in local cities and for more information on the Prison Yoga Project, please check out prisonyoga.com.