Yoga in Prisons: Men, Women, Youth

With only 5% of the world’s population, the United States has 25% of its prisoners. 7.3 million people – 1 in 31 U.S. adults – are either incarcerated, on parole, on probation, or under jurisdictional oversight.  92% of all prisoners are men – but women comprise the fastest-growing segment of the prison population, now amounting to 8% of adult prisoners.  Little effort is made by prisons to help offenders gain insight into their behavior and take personal accountability for harm caused so they leave custody with few social or life skills and scant understanding of the fundamental issues that first got them into trouble. This demands attention because 90% of all prisoners are eventually released – hardened and without the means to succeed outside – and more than 60% re-offend within three years. Our solution was founded on proof of experience – plainly visible, positive behavioral change – seen in our work with several thousand prisoners over the years.

Since we started in San Quentin our early work was exclusively with men. Early on we had to overcome the predisposition that only men could teach male prisoners. It quickly became clear that women were not only safe, but well protected by both the guards and prisoners.  We  didn’t expect prisoners to feel as protective as they do. Most prisoners cherish the time they spend in their practices and highly respect the teachers who bring that knowledge. We’re very proud that their changing behavior is a product of their practices.

We realized early that this mission was going to succeed not only because we could rely on qualified women teachers but that we could expect them to succeed at the highest level.  That said, it was a brave leap taken by the first women who taught in San Quentin (Chanda Williams and Sabrina Seronello). Now, most PYP teachers are women and we’ve trained over 1700 teachers.  And while the majority of prisons we serve might always be male we create in-prison programs for women’s and youth facilities nearly as often. In part it depends on where a teacher want’s to teach, because while we do initiate classes, we train teachers to do the same.

Thanks to Kath Meadows, PYP Director of Women Prisoner Initiatives,  PYP launched the first Yoga Alliance-recognized 200-hour Yoga In-Prison Teacher Certification Training the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in 2016. Kath conducts both our non-gender-specific and a gender-informed (female oriented) Trainings. The teachers coming out of those Trainings are starting their own programs in prisons and detention centers far and wide. Programs are now in place in Las Colinas Detention Facility for Women, San Diego; Denver Women’s Correctional Facility, Denver; Century Regional Detention Center for Women, Los Angeles; Leath Correctional Institute for Women, Greenwood, SC; and new are added, it seems daily.

Since James’s initial work was with youth, it was natural to initiate a model program for juveniles.  Under James’s direction, the first phase of A Pilot Program for Youth was completed at California Youth Authority Correctional Facilities in Stockton in 2016 under the classroom guidance of Gibran McDonald, long time PYP colleague. The program received renewal funding and now provides a model of accelerated outreach into our nation’s juvenile detention system. Other successful and ongoing PYP-replicated or influenced programs for youth include Cuyahoga Hills Correctional Facility, Cleveland; Los Prietos Boys Camp, Santa Barbara; Adams County Youth Services Center, Denver; ComCor (Community Corrections) Colorado Springs; and Northern Ohio Juvenile Program (boys and girls). We are very proud of the new programs for youth springing up regularly. Our teachers deserve credit for creating great opportunities for prisoners.

If you are drawn to learn more about Training to teach prisoners and other underserved communities, take a minute to check into our Training.