San Quentin Prison: Trauma, Healing & Redemption
This summer I visited the lifers’ section of San Quentin prison for the first time. I discovered how trauma-sensitive yoga, mindfulness and compassion is transforming the lives of those inside, and outside of California’s oldest penitentiary. I was with the founder of the Prison Yoga Project, James Fox, and Josefin Wikstrøm, of the Swedish Prison Yoga Project.
James Fox was wolf-whistled by the inmates the first time he carried yoga mats through San Quentin prison yard. They saw yoga as exercise for girls. Fourteen years later and things are very different. When James led us through the cold steel entrance of the prison into the sunny exercise yard, we were met with smiles, fist bumps and introductions. We could hear James’ name being called from all directions.
My first experience in the prison building was witnessing fellow guest Josefin taking hefty, tattooed prisoners through a wild, theatrical Bollywood dance routine. Josefin combines trauma-sensitive yoga with trauma-discharging dance. Her immense, compassionate energy filled the room. She made it feel safe to explore. The inmates left calm, focused and grateful.
Statistically, most prisoners have experienced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (P.T.S.D) and/or complex trauma. The complex trauma that James Fox works with includes the effects of “abandonment, hunger, homelessness, domestic violence, sexual abuse, bullying, discrimination, drug and alcohol abuse, and witnessing crime – including murder.”
At the time of such trauma, the central nervous system buffers overwhelming pain. It shuts down parts of the brain involved in connection, emotion and feeling. This leaves the body feeling disconnected, or dissociated from the painful event. The individual may experience their body as a stranger or an enemy. The body however still holds the trauma.
Consequently, unresolved feelings such as fear, lack of self-worth and chronic self-blame develop into anxiety, depression, addictions and other mental health concerns. The result can be violent, chaotic and unpredictable behaviour.
Trauma has affected everyone in some way. For instance a relationship break up can trigger our early childhood wounds. When this happens, our unconscious mind wants to escape from pain. It tries different tactics to protect our vulnerability. We might self-soothe with ice cream, or seek solace in work, sex, drugs or alcohol. Obviously, this defense response can cause harm to ourselves and others.
However for some, the extreme nature of their trauma results in equally extreme outcomes.
The Prison Yoga Project are tackling such extreme trauma head on. Teachers encourage prisoners to reestablish a more friendly, communicative relationship with their own bodies. They do this by inviting students to slowly reconnect with their experience of breath, movement and physical sensations. In such a way, mind, body and heart become more integrated.
Impressively, such mindfulness-based work is evidence-based. In the last two decades neuroscientists have proven that the brain can be retrained through yoga and meditation. Recently the Swedish prison system completed the largest ever Randomised Controlled Trial of yoga in correctional settings. The results concluded that yoga practice can play an important part in the rehabilitation of prison inmates.
Most men will enter prison believing masculinity means withstanding pain. PYP teachers respond to this by using the body as a metaphor: if you push it too hard, it breaks. Of course, this holds relevance to anyone who has experienced self-punishing behaviour.
Most importantly, a mindfulness-based practice explores the edges between comfort/discomfort and effort/non-effort. It provides a useful exercise in empathy, self-compassion and self-control. By repeating such practices, inmates become more sensitive. They see how much pain they have routinely caused themselves and others. They see how trauma has impacted on their behaviour.
“I have been hurt, and so I hurt others.”
Naturally, it requires strength and bravery to admit vulnerability, especially in a prison environment. It usually takes multiple personal catastrophes before an individual is ready to address their trauma, and hence PYP teachers provide important support. This is equally true for those of us making changes on the outside of prison, where we might feel supported by mindfulness, yoga and/or psychotherapy.
James took us to a different part of the prison after each yoga class. We met the newspaper team at the San Quentin News. In 2012 they were handing out newsletters within the facility. They have now grown to distributing quality newspapers to 69 prisons across the USA. We were interviewed by the award-winning prison radio station. We found both prisoner-run departments focus heavily on issues such as victim support and offender education programmes.
During these meetings I discovered I’d practiced yoga next to men who are giants in every sense. Men who are warm, compassionate, kind and charismatic. These men had received the support to achieve deep personal self-insight. In turn, they use their healing and growth to help others. Their self-compassion has led to compassion for others.
The men I met are leaders; they have achieved success against the odds and are driven to inspire others by example. It felt sad and unjust to think some might never get out.
It was raining as we tried to leave. We were unexpectedly held between locked gates at the prison exit. It was dark and there was only a tiny glimmer of natural light visible at the top of the gate. Everything went quiet. I could smell the damp stone and old metal. We waited and waited. I felt the pit of my stomach experience powerlessness, frustration, and uncertainty. I got a very small taste of what it’s like to live there. It felt like San Quentin prison was giving us a parting gift. A final lesson.
The gates opened and I felt a surge of relief to be outside again.
Thank you to Josefin Wikstrøm, James Fox, and the men and staff of San Quentin prison for making this experience possible.
This post is dedicated to the memory of Arnulfo Garcia, former editor-in-chief of the San Quentin News, and one of the fine men who inspired this article. Tragically Arnulfo was killed in a car accident two months after being released, at the age of 65.