The mention of a yoga program at the Dukes County House of Correction (DCHOC) often elicits snarky remarks, suggestions that the facility is more like a spa or Club Med than a jail. Speak to the educators and DCHOC employees behind the program, and you get another story, one where yoga is a useful tool on the path to rehabilitation and self-improvement. Better yet, ask the inmates.
“I feel more at peace with myself and with the universe and nature,” one inmate wrote in an anonymous survey. “I feel more flexible and aligned internally.” The other responses are unanimously positive: “Yoga calms me down and helps with my relationships,” another participant found. Another wrote, “It takes away the stress of my mind.”
The men are participants in a program facilitated by House of Correction educational director Sue Larsen, and taught since 2015 by Sue and volunteer yoga instructor Siobhan Beasley in collaboration with Sherry Sidoti of FLY Yoga School. In part, the yoga sessions are a way for the men to fill their day and get some exercise. It’s also part of FLY Yoga School’s scholarship and outreach program, where those integrated with a facility like the House of Correction can give back to their community through yoga. But especially for Siobhan, the sessions are much more.
“Ever since I was young, I had a social justice urge — I wanted to help people,” Siobhan said recently. So it was natural that her first career path was as a lawyer, gunning to influence policy change. While still a student at Boston College Law School, Siobhan landed an internship with the United Nations, prosecuting high-level Serbian government officials for war crimes committed in Kosovo during the Balkan wars. At first, Siobhan thought she had secured her dream job. “But I couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right,” she said. “I was sitting across from the defendants, and all I could think was that they looked like grandfathers. I didn’t want to punish them. I thought, ‘If that’s what happens if I win, I don’t want to win.’”
Meanwhile, back home in Maine, Siobhan’s two brothers were getting acquainted with another side of the legal system. At first, it was the run-of-the-mill tensions that occur between small-town law enforcement and bored teenagers. “They weren’t bad kids,” Siobhan said. “They were just kids smoking pot with their friends.” For her brother Jess, the run-ins became more frequent. “He had mental health issues; he was self-medicating,” Siobhan said. The entanglement with the criminal justice system continued until finally, the night before he was due for trial, Jess committed suicide.
Siobhan had practiced yoga recreationally, but in the wake of Jess’ death, she and her surviving brother began attending yoga classes almost daily. “It was like we were drawn to it and we couldn’t stop,” Siobhan said. “We got a lot of healing out of it.” To further the healing process, Siobhan’s mother suggested that she spend some time at the family’s apartment in Vineyard Haven. Siobhan took the opportunity to fine-tune her practice, enrolling in Sherry Sidoti’s FLY Yoga teacher training program.
“Sherry has a magnificent way of breaking you open, cleaning out old wounds, and making you stronger,” Siobhan said. “What yoga was doing for me was so self-empowering, I thought, ‘What if we could offer it to people in need of a ton of healing?’ I wanted to help people like my brother.”
During her training, Siobhan shared her interest in teaching yoga in the jail with Sherry. Knowing Sue was already offering classes at the DCHOC, Sherry invited Sue to attend FLY Yoga School on a partial scholarship in 2015. Siobhan assisted with that training session, and shortly after, the women were able to establish a concrete program to offer biweekly classes in the DCHOC.
Sue reports attendance in the class varies. The cramped, whitewashed room where the classes take place holds only about eight yoga mats, but usually between four and six of those mats are filled. “Usually our total resident count is around 14 or 15,” Major Sterling Bishop of the Dukes County Sheriff’s Office said. “So if we can get four or five guys to participate in a program, you figure that’s 30 percent participation, which is very good for any sort of programming.”
Most of the participants had never tried yoga. “I didn’t see yoga as challenging in the least,” one inmate wrote. “I saw it as an overpublicized and overmarketed stretching program, and a ‘feminine’ activity.” Sue says most of the inmates are “humbled” and “pleasantly surprised” when they do try yoga. The same inmate wrote, “I now understand that yoga is anything but easy.”
Yoga is not mandatory. The men at the HOC can spend their time in countless other education programs. They have access to cards, board games, books, and TV. Depending on their sentence, they can play basketball or lift weights in the gated yard. Indoors, they can stretch their legs on a stationary bike. Yet week after week, Siobhan and Sue show up to teach. And week after week, the men come to class. Why?
The physical and mental benefits of yoga are well-documented, but when it comes to inmate populations, there’s one process that’s particularly important: Repatterning.
“I view yoga as a practice of peeling away — like an onion,” Siobhan said. “If we can think of our true selves like the core of that onion, we have all these layers built up that get in the way.” Trauma, survival mechanisms, emotional reactions, and bad habits accumulate. It’s hard to be conscious of it, and it’s even harder to get rid of it.
It’s not just yogaspeak, either. Studies on depressive rumination find that our thought patterns are self-perpetuating: The more you spin the wheels, the deeper the ruts get, and the harder it becomes to get out of the hole.
According to Sherry, yoga can help to remedy this. “Yoga as a science was developed for healing, harmony, and balance,” she said. “It works specifically with mental patterns and helping to reframe the thinking self.”
In the current population, 50 percent of the DCHOC inmates are there on charges of assault and battery. Ten percent are there for an alcohol-related offense, and 5 percent are there for drug-related offenses. Major Bishop said that drugs and alcohol factor in many arrests, even when not explicit in the charges.
The instructors believe yoga can be especially helpful in repatterning some of these addictive behaviors. According to Siobhan, substances are another layer we use to protect ourselves when we are unhappy.
The yogic practice of breathing is key to repatterning. Calm, steady breaths help the body shift from a dependence on the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight mode) to the more restful parasympathetic nervous system. For anyone with a history of aggressive or impulsive behavior, this is a valuable tool.
“The more time we spend in some of these healthier patterns — even if it’s just a couple of minutes a day of breathing — the more it’s accessible to us,” Sherry said. “We don’t have to be conscious or methodical about it, we will naturally go into it. Which is really useful for people who have chaotic lives.”
For the greater good of all
Life at the House of Correction can be chaotic. It’s a challenging mix of boredom and unpredictability. “Free” time can easily be interrupted by lockdowns associated with intakes or visitors. Walls and hedges hide any view of the outside world.
Some challenges of being jailed, one man wrote, include “coping and getting along with other inmates, adjusting to the schedule, following all the rules, and not being able to see and get in touch with family and friends.” Another inmate cited the toughest part as “being in confinement with a diverse group of people.”
We can all imagine the irritations that must occur when you’re locked up with the same people day in and day out. Yet the staff at the House of Correction say they have noticed an improvement since the addition of regular yoga classes — and not just in the participants.
“You can see a remarkable difference in their overall well-being,” Sue said. “Yoga is not just about the pose, it’s about the environment. It’s about how we speak to one another, how we treat one another. So everybody benefits, even if they’re not in class working on a pose.”
“It’s a more positive environment,” Major Bishop said. “You walk through, and it’s a safer feeling. These guys have the mentality to deal with certain situations differently, think ahead, and learn about the repercussions of certain actions. There are less disciplinary things going on in-house.”
Hard evidence on hard time
Of course, most of these reports are anecdotal. The empirical research on yoga in jails is somewhat scarce. But it is out there. One study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research reported that inmates who attended yoga “showed an improvement in positive mood, a decrease in stress, and greater accuracy in a computer test of impulsivity and attention.” Another study in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy found correlations between yoga and a low reincarceration rate.
These studies are preliminary, and likely imperfect, but the benefits of yoga are difficult to measure clinically. Plus, as Sherry notes, “what you’re trying to track or quantify may not be obvious until years later. How it really affects someone’s life would have to be a really long-term study.”
But there are plenty of statistics on other aspects of American prison. For instance, the most recent (2005) U.S. Bureau of Justice survey found a 60 percent recidivism rate — a number which suggests that something within the criminal justice system just isn’t working.
At the Dukes County House of Correction, Major Bishop reports in 2014 there was a recidivism rate of 21 percent. Since the introduction of a consistent yoga program in 2015, the recidivism rate has dropped to 16 percent. This may or may not be related to the program, but Major Bishop suggests that “a 5 percent drop in recidivism rate is an example of positive programming within the House of Correction.”
Positive programming can have a huge impact in correctional facilities. In February 2016, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reported 47 percent, almost half, of inmates were incarcerated for a drug-related offense. Once there, they don’t always receive treatment. But studies have shown that inmates who participate in treatment programs while incarcerated have 9 to 18 percent lower recidivism rates than those who receive no treatment, and that their drug-relapse rate is 15 to 35 percent lower.
Sheriff Mike McCormack, who retires this fall after 42 years working in the House of Correction, believes strongly in preparing inmates for eventual release. “Our mission at the jail and House of Correction is to expose those in our custody to the keys to success that may help them after their release to remain free and become productive members of our community,” Mr. McCormack said. “And one of those keys is wellness — wellness of mind and wellness of body and we feel strongly that the yoga program is one of those programs that assists us in completing our mission. And we are proud of that program.”
With this in mind, the staff at the Dukes County House of Correction is focused on rehabilitation.
“We leave the judgment at the courthouse,” Sue said. “I know there are people who have been hurt by these men; that’s the reality of it. But to do our jobs, we have to put that component at the door and do what’s best for these guys. The public may not agree with that, but for us to be authentic and really make a difference in the program, we have to believe in what we’re saying.”
The unique dynamic of the Dukes County House of Correction is that it’s so small. Major Bishop compares it to the college experience: Smaller institutions allow for more individualized attention. “We can be friendly, and you can refer to someone by name, not just a number,” he said. “I think that goes a very long way when you’re incarcerated.”
It’s also important to note that the inmates at the House of Correction are serving relatively short sentences: an average of six months with a maximum of 2½ years. “The guys who are there aren’t there for very long,” Sherry said. “And so they need some tools right away for how to use that time to their benefit.”
Those involved say Siobhan’s passion and clarity make it easy for her to pass along those tools. “Her vision is so clear with this program,” Sherry said. “Yoga as a practice really likes that, and the more easily the teachings move through her, the more relatable they become.” Sherry also said Sue and the HOC staff are instrumental in making the program a success. “You have to have a lot of compassion and a lot of capacity for forgiveness to work in a jail,” she said. “Their bigger vision, their philosophy of letting it be a place of rehabilitation, is huge. Our intention behind something is everything.”
Part of a whole
The whole group has intentions for the future of the program, which is still in “pilot” mode. For Siobhan, the next step is to offer yoga classes and yoga teacher training to the House of Correction staff, and eventually expand that program to reach law enforcement, first responders, and others in the criminal justice system. Another possibility is to offer FLY yoga teacher training and scholarships to men at the House of Correction, expanding their opportunities for education and employment upon release. One day, Siobhan and Sherry hope they can use the program to show other correctional facilities a successful model for integrating yoga.
“It’s going to be an uphill battle,” Siobhan said. She inquired about yoga at one correctional facility in mainland Massachusetts, and was told that their concept for a yoga program was nixed by a former state governor who wanted to appear tough on crime. “It depends on everything from red tape to the philosophy of the institution, and what they believe in terms of discipline and re-entry,” Sherry said.
But for the time being, the women have set their focus on the here and now, on our little microcosmos of Martha’s Vineyard, and the men who occupy the House of Correction here. Most of the men surveyed said they will try to continue their yoga practice upon release.
“Even if they never go to a yoga studio again, what I hope is that they’re able to take with them the mindfulness and the breathwork to be in the present moment,” Siobhan said. “And maybe they can live life in a way that’s a little more peaceful.”
Note: FLY Yoga School is offering a $2500 yoga teacher training scholarship to a year-round Island resident currently serving as a first responder (law enforcement, police, fire, corrections, ambulance, EMT; either in the field or administrative). Applicants must attend the full summer program from July 3-August 7, and be willing to offer 5-6 hours of time monthly for 12 months back to FLY Outreach Programs. No yoga experience necessary. Applications are due June 15 to: firstname.lastname@example.org.