By Juan Haines
The key to the low violence levels in Sweden’s high-security Kumla prison is how prisoners are treated, its warden told Prison Yoga Project founder James Fox.
One of the unique characteristics of Kumla is its Retreat Center. Nine prisoners at a time attend 10-day silent retreats. The prison schedules 20 retreats throughout the year for its 400 residents.
At the retreat center every prisoner has his own room and a separate meditation room. There is a kitchen where prisoners cook and share food at a large communal table.
While Fox was at Kumla, he taught a yoga class for 18 prisoners of differing races and crimes. “The social conciseness between staff and inmates is respect and dignity,” Fox said. “The result is that there is very little violence.”
The impulse control and non-reactive training yoga provides should be available to both staff and custody, says Fox.
“Doing this would put seemingly opposing populations on the same page,” Fox said. “This is the core of what yoga provides. Yoga works with the body to learn these skills and is all about mind/body integration toward health and well-being.
“The bottom line is yoga provides the opportunity to improve physical and mental health.”
Fox returned from his fifth trip to European prisons with an understanding that yoga and mindfulness are foundational practices for restorative justice, serving as keystones for self-inquiry and taking responsibility for one’s actions.
“The program in the Netherlands was started two years ago at Lelystad Prison,” Fox said. “It’s a program designed for the top 600 re-offenders in the country. Corrections officials identified the top recidivists, and decided to concentrate a rehabilitative program toward them.”
If the criminal justice system in the U.S. wants to gain the same benefits as Northern European prisons, it is vital to understand the importance of shifting the primary purpose of incarceration from punishment to rehabilitation, and training guards and staff in sociological and psychological de-escalation skills.
“The counselor to prisoner ratio in the U.S. is about one counselor for 300 prisoners, while therapists in European countries have a much smaller caseload,” Fox said.
The living conditions in the prisons he visited are far superior to the conditions in the U.S., says Fox.
“The typical ‘cell’ looks more like a college dorm room and the prisoners live singly in a room,” Fox said. “In the prisons I visited, the prisoners don’t live behind bars and every ‘cell’ has natural light and a window.
“Every prison has a very well-equipped and clean gym — a whole variety of recreational services.”
Fox started practicing yoga 30 years ago. At first, he said, for its physical benefits, but its emotional and psychological benefits hooked him.
“I was going through some trying times — the breakup of my marriage and family. I was on the edge of turning to substances to deal with my emotional pain, but when I encountered yoga, originally for a back injury, I got hooked, because it was my self-help.
“Then over the years, as I became more adept in yoga, I became interested and committed to bring yoga to populations that weren’t being exposed to the practice.
“After I became a certified teacher in 2000 and taught classes to at-risk youth in residential and detention facilities, I was asked to bring yoga to San Quentin, in 2002, by Jacques Verduin. He told me, ‘I want you to be our yogi.’”
Fox wrote Yoga: A Path for Healing and Recovery in 2009. Publishing the book launched the Prison Yoga Project as a non-profit. The mission of the Prison Yoga Project is to establish yoga in all prisons.
A Path for Healing and Recovery has been sent to 16,000 prisoners and will be published in Spanish beginning in January 2017.
After Fox was invited to speak at The First International Conference on Yoga for Social Transformation held in India, he began to train others, and has since trained more than 1,500 yoga teachers.
“We have 11 Prison Yoga Project chapters, and 10 affiliate organizations providing yoga programs in more than 135 jails and prisons, in 24 states. They grew organically out of a desire for yoga teachers to be of service. Part of the DNA of yoga is karma yoga, i.e., service.”
A majority of prisoners have early life histories of abuse, neglect, abandonment and poverty that become exacerbated by drug or alcohol abuse and criminal behavior. This commonly results in hyper-vigilant and reactive behavior.
Incorporated into his teaching, Fox said, is his years of experience in restorative justice, victim/offender education and violence-prevention.
“I think that’s why it works,” Fox said. “These classes get started in prisons and they stick. Since the last couple years, instead of us contacting the prison and jails, they contact us. Even if I can’t send teachers, I send books, mats, and the DVD filmed at San Quentin by SQTV. It all goes out for free. Classes are scheduled to be launched in Mexico, Spain, United Kingdom and more.
“The increased self-awareness provided by yoga and mindfulness practices translates directly to emotional literacy, understanding feelings, which is a by-project of what in turn translates to empathy,” Fox said. “This is important to prisoners’ behavioral transformation and also prepares them for successful reentry to society.”