By Mary Pilon
He barely glances at the barbed wire as he strides through the metal detector. He exchanges his driver’s license for a visitor’s pass, navigates a labyrinth of hallways, security guards and the buzzing and clanking of gates, and makes his way to a windowless room.
A dozen women, scarred, tattooed and in blue and yellow jumpsuits, are waiting, splayed on donated yoga mats under harsh halogen lights.
“What’s up, Robbie?” said Kim Alexander, 31, an inmate at the Richmond City Jail who is charged with violating her probation and is in addiction treatment, as she reached out to touch her toes. In minutes, the other women, whose crimes include embezzlement and parole violations, were inhaling, exhaling and deep into a series of vinyasa and warrior poses, with only the clank of the guard’s keys outside to disturb them.
The ancient art of yoga, a physical, spiritual and mental practice whose benefits have been promoted as improving relaxation, has found an unlikely home: prisons.
When many states have cut their wellness and education programs for inmates, citing cost and political pressure, some wardens looking for a low-cost, low-risk way for inmates to reflect on their crimes, improve their fitness and cope with the stress of overcrowded prison life are turning toward yoga.
The number of yoga programs is not officially tracked, but many wardens said they were interested in pursuing them. Typically programs start informally, a hodgepodge of volunteer efforts by instructors and correctional facilities. At least 20 prisons now offer yoga through the Prison Yoga Project, a program that began in California 12 years ago when its founder, James Fox, began teaching yoga to at-risk youth. Mr. Fox holds trainings for yoga teachers and said he has sent more than 7,000 copies of his manual to inmates to practice yoga on their own.
States’ spending on corrections has quadrupled during the past two decades, to $52 billion a year, according to a 2011 report from the Pew Charitable Trusts. Despite a focus on rehabilitation and deterrence of future crimes, however, roughly 4 in 10 adult American offenders return to prison within three years of their release, the report found.
“Any program that gives an inmate a chance to reflect is going to have positive benefits,” said Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which has expanded yoga offerings to most of its 33 adult prisons.
“What we’re trying to do with any program is get inmates to think about how responsible they are for the crime they’ve committed and the consequences.”
Typically, yoga teachers volunteer their time and mats are donated, resulting in little or no cost to taxpayers. Many instructors drawn to teaching in prisons said they had grown disillusioned with instructing some of the Lycra-clad urbanites seeking to channel their inner Gumbys and lose weight rather than connect with the more spiritual aspects of the practice.
“This seems like a relatively inexpensive technique that could be made available to inmates and doesn’t take a lot of space,” said Steven Belenko, a professor with the Department of Criminal Justice at Temple University who focuses on prisons. “It could be taught with DVDs. It has scalability.”
Research on the effects of yoga on prisoners is relatively scarce, but incarcerated women who completed a 12-week regimen of yoga classes twice a week showed “a significant linear decrease” over time in their symptoms of anxiety and depression, according to a 2010 paper in the journal Nursing Research.
“Maybe it was coming together and feeling a sense of community, but I was really glad to see it worked,” said Holly Harner, the lead author of the paper and a nurse and professor at La Salle University in Philadelphia. “It made them feel in control of their bodies in a very stressful environment.”
The health of prisoners is problematic, with conditions including obesity affecting offenders, especially the young, said AnnaMarie Irons, a teacher in Tucson who leads yoga classes at the Pima County Juvenile Detention Center. “When I was a kid, we ran around,” said Ms. Irons, 51. “These kids today can’t do a downward dog. They have no flexibility.”
The Rev. Dr. Alonzo C. Pruitt, the chief of chaplains at the Richmond City Jail who works with inmates in the addiction recovery program there, said the mental health program at the jail had reduced recidivism by 18 percent, and he partly credited yoga with that success. Mr. Norris began teaching the male prisoners at the jail, which holds around 1,450 men and women, four and a half years ago.
“We realized we weren’t doing anything for the physical piece of treatment,” Dr. Pruitt said. “That’s an important part of the recovery process.”
But doing yoga is not always well received by other prisoners, said Bryan Shull, who in December finished serving a three-year sentence in various Virginia prisons. While practicing on his own in his cell, as Mr. Shull stood up from a downward dog pose, he was struck in the face by another inmate who had put a lock in a sock and hurled it at him. It led to a trip to the infirmary and an operation on his nose.
“I was surprised,” said Mr. Shull, who still practices yoga. “But it’s to be expected. If anyone is doing anything different from the prison mentality, you’re going to take some backlash.”
Ashley Crawley, 31, who was found guilty of identity theft, started taking Mr. Norris’s class in October and said the practice had helped her with plaguing back pains. “The beds here aren’t the best,” she said.
Pauline Gurley, 52, who was charged with embezzlement, said she had lost 15 pounds since August and credits yoga. “I feel more energized,” she said.
After finishing the women’s class on a recent Thursday night, Mr. Norris made his way upstairs to the chapel in the men’s section of the jail. The wooden pews were stacked along the walls, and 17 men peeled off their jumpsuits and lined up in rows in their boxer shorts. Some were in their early 20s with boyish faces, others in their 40s. At least one student said he planned on “working off a gut,” but others already had Olympian physiques.
“I believe this practice can change your life,” Mr. Norris told the class between a series of twists and bends. “Do this every day, and I don’t see how you could re-offend.”
A guard peered in occasionally through a notecard-size opening as Mr. Norris led the men through the poses, using their Sanskrit names. The men’s tattoos of roses, birds, skulls, gang symbols, female names, feathers and flames gathered sweat.
Billy Scruggs, 33, who was convicted of statutory burglary, commented on the awkward poses his fellow inmates were performing. “But after the first time I did it, I saw how much it relaxed me,” he said.
The inmates helped each other do handstands. Then, after 90 minutes of class, one hit the light switch. In the pitch-black room, the men lay on their backs as Mr. Norris led them in breathing exercises.
Then lights flickered on, and the mats were rolled up. The inmates put on their jumpsuits and filed out of the chapel.
“At first, I thought this was girlie stuff,” said Andre Chaka Garnett, 35, who is serving multiple sentences for offenses including failure to register as a sex offender and grand larceny. “It’s made me learn patience,” he said.