I discovered this week that the max section had been moved (thankfully) to a different block. And while it’s still a sh*thole, it’s like the Four Seasons compared to the previous block. When class ended I saw someone with her hand raised- it was Mona (not her real name). She wanted to join class but came back late from work detail and wasn’t sure if it was okay to sit down once class had begun.
Mona didn’t participate but watched the first class I taught in max with curious eyes, peeking over the top of a book. We spoke briefly. After telling me that she liked the class she asked, ‘What’s your dharma?’ I laughed still unsure what it was. She needed a meditation at night when she got stuck in her head. She had an ethereal personality combined with a level of frankness that I appreciate. The following week I brought with me a few more meditations but she was gone.
You don’t ask a lot of questions when you don’t see someone- because it’s not your business. If people share that’s fine, but prying isn’t okay. I wondered where she went and if she was alright. When teaching in a short-term prison facility, you get used to students leaving without notice. Closure is a luxury.
‘How’s your dharma?’ she said.
‘A work in progress. How’s yours?’ I asked.
‘I’ve been locked down, so…’ her voice trailed off. There was a problem with another woman which resulted in a stint in solitary.
In the prison system when an inmate poses a threat to themselves, COs or other inmates they are placed in a solitary housing unit or solitary confinement. Confinement times can be for a day, a month, a week or a year. The US has more people in isolation than in any other country in the Western world. Solitary confinement started out as an experiment in the 1800s. And while confining violent offenders is a necessary evil to protect inmates and corrections officers alike many prison administrators are saying that it’s overused.
When corrections officials talk about solitary confinement, they describe it as the prison within the prison, and for good reason. For 23 hours a day, inmates are kept inside a cell that is approximately 80 square feet, smaller than a typical horse stable. Cells are furnished with a bed, sink and toilet, but rarely much else. Food is delivered through a slot in the door, and each day inmates are allowed just one hour of exercise, in a cage.
For most of the 20th century, a typical stay in solitary amounted to just a few days, or several weeks in more extreme cases. Today, it’s not unusual for inmates to spend years at a time in solitary. Supporters say the practice helps keep prisons safe, but according to the medical literature, solitary confinement can also take a heavy mental toll.
According to a recent report from the ACLU women prisoners are put in solitary for many non-violent offenses.
“Women are put in the hole for small things,” said Craig, who now works as a supervisor at a domestic violence safe house in Washington, D.C. “Sometimes there’s a fight or something, but it can be for something stupid, like stealing a tomato from the kitchen, or having two blankets instead of one.”
Mona was locked down for six weeks.
New York City officials unanimously agreed Tuesday to eliminate solitary confinement for inmates ages 21 and younger. The decision is groundbreaking: Jails across the U.S. impose solitary confinement on misbehaving inmates.
She was reading a copy of Gavin De Becker’s The Gift of Fear. I had a copy of Sparks of Divinity, quotes and stories from BKS Iyengar as told by one of his first non-Indian female students. I gave it to her. We talked for a bit and I told her that she should jump in if class has started because she is always welcome. Mona thanked me and said, ‘This whole thing [incarceration] has been humbling. I’ve learned a lot about myself.’ As I got up to leave two students came over and asked if they could give me a hug. Mona said, ‘I think I’ll take one of those too.’
I know that these women are in this section for a variety of reasons and are considered to be high risk, but believe that if they can get opportunities to look inside beyond their case numbers, reputations with the COs, the system and their individual pasts they may see what I see- that they are capable, strong and empowered to make better choices. Meditation and yoga helps with impulse control. Meditation classes are starting to pop up in super-max prisons across the country. It’s not a miracle cure, but many people have ‘light bulb’ moments. Once the switch is turned on, change is possible.
For a great conversation about solitary confinement reform you can listen to the podcast below. If you haven’t seen Frontline’s Locked Up in America check it out. It’s very raw and gritty but well done.
To learn more about Liberation Prison Yoga and its programs, click here.