Should Prisoners Practice Yoga?

Most people who are sent to prison are eventually released back into society with very little “rehabilitation.” What if we were able to send them back into the world with tools for dealing with stress, and an improved sense of self?  Programs offering yoga and meditation classes in prison facilities are attempting to do just that.  Yet some oppose the idea, believing these are undeserved benefits and constitute a “warped priority”.

The prison system is big business in the U.S. In 2007, local, state, and federal governments spent 74 billion dollars on “corrections.” “The United States has the highest incarceration rate amongst any country in the world.”  More than 50% have committed non-violent crimes, and the recidivism rate jumped more than 5% between 1983-94

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Nancy Candea is trying to change those statistics.  "Yoga isn’t just about physical exercise, it’s about what’s going on in your mind.”  She believes the practice can strengthen those most in need of it and help them resist the negative forces around them, in and out of the system.

The Prison Yoga Project is another program trying to rehabilitate prisoners from the inside out.  The goal of the program is to “help people to shift unconscious behavioral patterns of reacting into conscious ways of responding by teaching individuals the skill of clearly witnessing their moment-to-moment experience.”  They point out that “learning this fundamental behavioral shift can make the difference between a person committing a crime or not.”   The program furthers it mission by offering specialized trainings for teachers interested in serving this population.

Evidence to support yoga as a rehabilitative tool was found in a 2008 study that “followed 190 inmates who attended yoga, meditation and philosophy classes, accompanied by a vegetarian meal. Those who attended four or more classes had a re-incarceration rate of 8.5 percent compared to a statewide re-incarceration rate as high as 41 percent.”

Senator Zaun of Iowa, where a progressive prison, offering butterfly gardens and yoga spaces in addition to chain link and razor wire, is being planned, believes these programs are “pampering” criminals. He will vote against funding this type of facility, stating, "Prison should not be pleasant. They’re there because they committed a crime against society and they have a debt to pay.”  The warden of the proposed prison argues that prisoners “still need to be treated like human beings…we need to send them out better than they came in. And the environment will make a big difference on whether they go out better or whether they go back out worse.” 

Yoga and meditation classes will never make being in prison enjoyable, the time spent there is still punishment.  (Just visit one for a day if you doubt this.)  Instead of teaching people how to be better criminals, what if the experience could begin to teach them how to find peace and make better choices in a chaotic world?

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