Prison inmates are finding peace of mind through regular yoga and meditation practice at San Francisco County Jail No. 7 in California. The prison yoga classes are part of the “Resolve to Stop the Violence Program (RSVP),” an effort to reintegrate violent offenders into society and decrease the likelihood that they’ll wind up back behind bars,” according to an article in the Alameda Times-Star Online. The Mind Body Awareness Project offers similar prison yoga classes at the Alameda County Juvenile Hall.
Researchers have not conducted formal studies on the effect of yoga and meditation practice on inmates. RSVP, however, has kept statistics on its prison yoga program. In 1997, its first year of operation, there was one in-custody fight among participants, compared to 297 such fights among the general jail population of about 360. [Editor’s Note: Numbers for the 1997 program could not be found, but in 2004 just over a dozen inmates participated in the program.]
The RSVP’s yoga and meditation instructors both enjoy working with the inmates, in spite of the jail atmosphere. Their class provides a 2-hour break for inmates. The prison meditation instructor, Bill Scheinman, who has been teaching inside the jail for 3 years, has noticed immense changes in his students.
“You notice changes in their insight, the way their minds work, the way their emotions work,” he says. The men who come in angry and ready to pick a fight leave a lot calmer. “They are in a volatile environment, and in our class they have 2 hours of peace.”
The best spokespeople for the benefits of the prison yoga program are the inmates themselves. Peter Flores, a 40-year-old inmate, told the Alameda Times-Star Online that yoga and meditation help him deal with everyday situations. Recently, he returned from playing cards with some guys to find an inmate sitting on his bed. “Initially I felt angry. This person didn’t ask me if he could sit on my bed,” he says. “Instead of reacting, I went over and drank some water, and the person said, ‘Hey man, can I sit here?’ I took the time to do something else. I have a lot of anxiety . . . and I don’t want to take it out on anyone else.”