Rikers Yoga- Solitary Confinement

solitary phone

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.

npr.org

 

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.

 

 

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Rikers Yoga – Holding Space

1-mountain-cabin--rural-idaho-gary-whitton

3EastA of Rosie (RMSC)

My class on the third floor was small. One student had recently had surgery, one was struggling emotionally and two other students had never done yoga before. In situations like this I like to talk about what students hope to get from yoga. One woman stated that she’s pretty sure that prison was a way for her to stop running from herself and her drug problem. She had just started going to church again and has a few back to back days clean. She was in class for a moment last week but confessed that she was still struggling with sobriety and couldn’t concentrate.  She was fit and hoping that doing some yoga could help her feel better. Walking around the yard during rec (recreation time) was helping but it wasn’t  enough.

‘You have no idea what it’s like in here. There’s no privacy. I feel like an animal. When I first got here I was out of it, ya know so I didn’t really know what was going on. But now I do. And this is hell.’

Everyone was nodding in agreement with what she was saying. She said she just wanted some quiet.

It made sense to start class with creating some private space. We sat up on blocks and gently bowed our heads with our eyes open but  kept our gaze soft and without focus. I offered the class a chance to just sit in this space. With the eyes down on the mat, it gives a sense of privacy. Next, I extended the invitation to close the eyes if it felt safe. We sat this way with my voice guiding  them through inhales and exhales. It was a noisy day on the third floor. In the middle of this a group of women were placed in the dorm. You could feel the shift of energy as everyone stopped to take the new people in. It’s at moments like this, I have to stay focused on holding the space.

If you aren’t a teacher or work with support groups you may be asking, what is holding space? In a setting where I am the person responsible to creating a place to learn or breathe, it’s critical that I make sure the space is ‘safe’. In my previous retail life this meant making sure that folks could respectfully share or disagree with me and each other. It also meant that the room was safe- what was said in there, stayed in there. As the leader, it was my job to make sure that happened. In prison, it’s a challenge.

I am not in control of the surroundings. Class takes place in a room that is filled with other people. I sensed that a few of the women were teasing another who is focused on her sobriety. Instead of getting caught up in things that can’t be controlled I have my class focus on what they can do. They can learn how to breathe. They can learn how to cultivate a bit more peace inside them instead of looking for it outside.

The more I teach, the more I see the real challenges that these women face. It’s my role to help them open up ways to feel empowered. At the end of class I hung around. I got this advice from Kim who teaches prenatal at Rikers. I’ve shortened the class so I can chat, talk and answer some questions that students may not feel ready to share in front of everyone. This has been the most powerful part of class.

I did get told something I could share:

‘I wanted to thank you for giving me a chance to spend some time back with my grandmother during meditation. She used to have coffee in the morning at a house in the woods and look at nature. I imagined that today.’

– Student, RMSC

May all beings everywhere be peaceful and free.

Namaste y’all.

Adventures in Teaching Yoga – Rikers Island

Discipline Working with the Inner Chaos

Today was my last class with the women on the fifth floor of Rosie (RSMC).

Our last class began with a dharma talk about mindfulness. What did everyone think the word meant?

‘Respect’ said someone from the back of the room. ‘Paying attention.’ said another student. ‘Being open to change.’

I asked them to add the word breathing to their definition of mindful. As we practiced I invited them to pay attention to their breathing, using their own definitions of what it meant to be mindful. We started class with meditation and a body scan. This theme of staying in touch with the body and breathing was with us every movement. I noticed today that every seemed focused inward, which was really lovely. While it’s great to see that people are engaged when I’m teaching, the real transformation is for these women to be able to give themselves a chance to breathe and get in touch with their own feelings off the yoga mat. I’m hopeful that this may have been a way to do that.

We practiced a therapeutic class with gentle yoga in between the postures. I have one student who practices sitting at the table. With her feedback we we able to put together table therapeutic practice (bolster and blocks included). It was fantastic because I’ve watched her grow from watching the class, to moving her arms and eventually sitting at a table right next to us. For the past three weeks I’ve incorporated table poses (I’ve been careful not to call them modifications-empowerment v. limitations). The best part is that she was able to use the bolster. The students at Riker’s don’t have opportunities to truly be comfortable. Getting a chance to rest on a bolster or hug something soft is a great release.

We spent almost two hours together and though I was sad, I’m confident that a few women feel empowered to breathe a little better.

In the end that’s really what it’s all about.

Next Tuesday begins a new adventure in building 16.

I am grateful.

Namaste y’all.

If you are interested in learning more about Liberation Prison Yoga click here

 

 

Riker’s Island – Three Tuesdays, One Lesson

city-storm

Writing posts about Riker’s for the past three weeks has been tough…

I claimed writer’s block. But in the black recesses of my mind I knew it wasn’t. Until today, the past two Tuesdays at Riker’s seemed bleak. At first I wanted to pass it off on the weather. When the sky is gloomy and you’re headed to an island where more than half of the ‘residents’ can’t leave- it’s hard to find a bright spot.

Two Tuesdays Ago…

As a teacher I know that struggle means change is happening but in the moment it can feel shitty. Progress be damned. Two weeks ago one of my students wasn’t feeling great mentally and stopped coming to class and was in the infirmary. The politics that plague any dorm situation are amplified by incarceration and it seemed that some drama was occupying some of my students time.  Class felt disjointed and distracted. The respectful silence that had taken over the area where yoga and meditation happened had all but disappeared and newer faces meant really reevaluating what made sense with the program and the class. I was wrestling with topics- I didn’t want to repeat themes for women who had been through the program. Talking and writing about the themes was essential to the practice. At the same time I didn’t want women who had been coming faithfully to classes stop coming because they were bored or felt ‘been there, done that.’

It wasn’t just the class that felt off-kilter, the entire place felt edgy. With new leadership and uncertain of where things stand- tensions were high. It’s important to be alert in this environment. It’s the reality of the situation. It can’t change how you connect with with students, but it’s jail. I keep my eyes open. But my spidey senses were extra tingly.  There’s a meeting in a few weeks with the LPY teachers and I’m looking forward to hearing their experiences.

Last Tuesday

Anneke asked if I would be open to working in a different section of the building. And while I’m sad to give up the class on the fifth floor the timing seems right since a lot of the students have left. I’ll be able to get closure and say my goodbyes and transition to a new class. Class this week was much better for the students but there was still a lot of background noise. New guards who don’t seem to notice the yoga or meditation had bigger issues to discuss through the windows rather than using the phones. I get it. It’s tough all over. I smile at them. Though I haven’t been here long, it’s crazy how quickly you settle in.

With both classes I spent time on pranayama and slow gentle movements in the neck and shoulders. I can feel the release that women get when they do this. The mantra for meditation was focusing in the peace inside. With hands over eyes I seal our practice by saying, “This stillness that is in me is mine. I’ve created it and it something that I can call up whenever I need it.”

This Tuesday

On Monday I was in need of a class at my local studio.  Julie Fitzpatrick, who has quickly made her way into my yoga heart was talking about serene intelligence. As she talked about our ability to stay connected to our source (however we define that), I felt tears well up in my eyes. Instantly, I heard the song Woman in Chains by Tears for Fears pop in my head. Was I letting outside situations draw me away from my center? Was I feeling guilty about my own freedom?

No, it wasn’t guilt. I wasn’t feeling bad for being free knowing that so many of the women I teach aren’t. I was feeling untethered. For all the right reasons my life is busy and I drifted. But on my mat I was able to reconnect. It’s why I practice and what I hope to share with the women at Rosie. I decided after class that no matter how crappy the vibe was- I’d choose to react in a way that was compassionate.

At the entrance to Rosie (RSMC) the guard says, “Good morning, smiley.” There is no contempt in his voice. As I swap my ID for my visitor pass I’m jokingly told not to cause any trouble and have a good class. When I let the women on the fifth floor know that I was leaving a few were bummed, but quickly perked up when they realized that I was just leaving and not the yoga. Classes were good and in that moment a little peaceful.

Everything is temporary. Things are good. Things are bad. Things are whatever they are. But none of it is forever. I will try to remember this more often. It’s hard to do. Hard to do in my own life, I want to hold on tight to the good stuff and release the awful stuff quickfast like a hot potato.

The same was true with the classes I teach at Rosie. It’s okay to be okay with how things are. It doesn’t change how much compassion I have, but it releases my students (and me) from being attached.

As I continue to learn more about the system and how it works  hobbles along one thing is clear.

We all all bound by something and until we are all free, none of us are.

May all beings everywhere be happy and free.

Namaste y’all.