CDCR Deuel Vocational Institution (DVI), Tracy, California
When photographer/artist Robert Sturman received an invitation to come and take photos by warden Ms. Salinas of Deuel Vocational Institution, DVI, a reception center in Tracy, California, he felt ready.
Robert Sturman became known for the vibrantly colored Polaroids that he manipulated to create impressionistic photo-paintings. The last series was on asana, like the one above of Vinnie Marino, the popular L.A. teacher who counts Robert Downey Jr., Kate Hudson and David Duchovny among his students. The dungeons sent Robert Sturman to the other side of fame, into the heart of pain. He made a drastic cut from his signature style: “I hadn’t used a regular camera since high school,” he says. “I was using natural light with the polaroids, but that beauty wasn’t prolific enough for the prison shoot.”
One photo of an inmate meditating on the bare prison floor was posted on Robert’s Facebook page. It quickly accumulated 82 likes and a string of admiring comments, until someone wrote: “I think you’re all in la-la-land… Get a grip. I would like to know if he killed someone… or if he raped a young girl before I got all sentimental… But… maybe it’s good to live in your head and the Lotus position and not in the real world…” Robert replied: “My hope is minds will be opened to a new paradigm that is neither uneducated new age la-la, or massive generalization. … We are not trying to shorten this inmate’s sentence.” Three People liked this comment. The dissenter fired back: “Admirable sentiment. However, I doubt that would mollify his victims or their families.”
“Are they actually getting it?” someone commented on the photo on Facebook of a convict doing Jyoti Mudra.
Prisoners have to deal with condescension and disrespect all the time, from correctional officers (the correct term for prison guards) and from each other, but they are also subjected to constant projections of darkness from the population at large. Inmates are finely attuned to all nuances of vilification. Possibly, this kind of transference is at the root of the psychological problems that landed them in jail in the first place. ‘Being bad’ may be a childish way to protect a parent’s skewed perception of them.
Judgment at a distance translates to fear up close. Inside the cage, Robert Sturman was briefly confronted with his own fears when he had each prisoner sign a release form. “As I was squatting down and talking and giving them the pen to sign,” he says, “I realized that every time I’m giving someone a pen I’m giving them a weapon that they can jab in my throat. But after that I thought: ‘Okay, no more Oz! No more Dexter! Too much television!’ I took a few breaths, and got over that stuff.”
He continues: “I was a little startled when I came face to face with someone who had eight teardrops tattooed on his face. In the gang world each teardrop represents a murder, and that threw me, but it passed quickly. He was actually the most responsive student, and spoke eloquently about how peaceful he felt from doing yoga. It was a beautiful experience. I realized that these men went astray for whatever reason, let their anger elevate to an uncontrollable level that is punishable and not okay in our world, but it’s the same kind of warrior energy and intelligence that, if directed properly, produces something entirely respectable and productive.”
Swapan Munshi (whose first name means ‘dream’ in Hindi) works as a Therapeutic Recreation Therapist at DVI, and also teaches the yoga class there. He says: “I feel yoga can be even more powerful than any psychological approach… Prison yoga offers solutions to a broken system. It can reduce medical costs of prisoners, decrease violence, reduce recidivism, [70% in California – the highest in the nation] and transform individuals and society.”
But what do you think?