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Meditating behind bars: How yoga in prisons could cut overcrowding

Yoga can teach prisoners the self-control and self-discipline that they never learned as youths.

By Rachel SignerDowser.org / December 13, 2011

Inmates practice yoga during class inside a juvenile detention center in Mexico City. Yoga can reduce stress, violence, and addiction, and increase self-control, among both female and male inmates.

Carlos Jasso/Reuters

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Earlier this year the Supreme Court ruled that state of California prisons were so bad as to be inhumane, violating the 8th amendment prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment.

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The reason? Overcrowding. California must to reduce its prison population by 30,000 prisoners, according to the ruling.

Overcrowding is a perennial issue in US prisons in no small part because the recidivism rate is remarkably high. In 1994 the largest study of prisoner recidivism ever done in the United States showed that, of nearly 300,000 adult prisoners who were released in 15 different states, 67.5 percent were re-arrested within three years. 

James Fox, who founded the nonprofit Prison Yoga Project, has been working with incarcerated youth and adults for more than 10 years and has some ideas on what keeps the recidivism rate above 50 percent. In his opinion, the prison system overly emphasizes retributive justice – that punishment alone is a sufficient response to a crime. Fox is an advocate for restorative justice, an approach that focuses on criminals as individuals with needs and seeks to find ways to empower them to meet those needs, and thinks an emphasis on restorative justice could lower the recidivism rate.

 Fox teaches yoga to male prisoners as a form of restorative justice. Criminals, and especially repeat offenders, he told Dowser, are suffering from unresolved trauma from their early years, and stunted emotional intelligence. “The men that I work with 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,” he explained.

Yoga and meditation help prison inmates develop important emotional skills like impulse control and willpower – both of which can prevent someone from seeking out a drug fix or pulling out a weapon in moments of stress, said Fox.

“It’s so important for teaching yoga in prison to make it practical, applicable to issues that prisoners face,” explained Fox, reflecting on his decade of teaching yoga in places like San Quentin in California, the country’s largest prison. (San Quentin has an official capacity of around 3,000 people, but generally holds over 5,000.)

“People in prison have not learned how to manage their impulses, or in some cases their addictions to drugs or alcohol. One of the main advantages of yoga in prison is learning self-discipline. Yoga requires a great deal of self-discipline and self-control,” said Fox.

At first, Fox found it very challenging to get prisoners to take the yoga classes. They are voluntary, so only the men who are motivated would come. Little by little, however, he learned better how to work with them, and gained their respect.

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