May 6, 2011

Yoga at San Quentin: Prisoner Interviews and Photos.

Photography Robert Sturman.

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series on Elephant.

The crimes

“I’m here for first degree murder,” Stefan Liebb says softly.

“Accessory to murder,” answers Ke Lam.

“I’m here for taking somebody’s life,” says Robert Fry with unequivocal clarity.

These are the voices of James Fox’ yoga class for prisoners serving a life sentence at the San Quentin State Prison in California’s Bay Area.

“Possession of methamphetamine,” says Bilal Chatman, the first African American of the four men I interview.  He looks very powerful, calm and soft-spoken. He adds: “About $100 worth in street value – that is about $30-$40 worth.”

Bilal Chatman in Warrior pose

Anneke: “No violence?”

Bilal: “Not at all.”

Bilal Chatman was sentenced under the California Three Strikes law, serving 25-to life for an offense warranting a 16-month to two-year  sentence, or possibly participation in a drug program. His two first strikes were also drug related, and he did time for those back in the eighties, volunteering as a fire fighter of the minimum-security facility where he was warehoused.

Bilal Chatman: “I can’t honestly say that I’ve accepted my circumstances. Three strikers have to do the whole 25 years, so I won’t be up for parole until I’m 70 years old. To think that it costs California taxpayers $46,000 each year to have me sitting here, while teachers are losing their jobs and Cal Berkeley cut baseball because the state is running out of money!”

“There are no victims in this case except that I’m a victim of my own stupidity and drug use. I didn’t rob or go into people’s houses or hurt anyone to get the money for drugs: that would be different.”

A: “Are you clean now?”

Bilal: “Oh, yes. I haven’t touched any drugs or alcohol since March 13, 2003, the day I came here. Of course drugs are readily available in prison; they’re all over… Many people here are really strung out.  I don’t judge them; it’s just not my thing. I work on my sobriety because I know that it will give me a better life.”

Sefan Liebb.

Stefan Liebb was one of the first students to sign up for James Fox’ class, nine years ago. He speaks with an accent you’d expect from a senior in a kosher New Jersey diner, not the strapping, square jawed man with the buzz cut in the photo above.

A: “Did you commit the murder that brought you here?”

Stefan: Yes, I’m guilty, and it is something I’m very ashamed of. I caused a lot of suffering. This was in 1981. I’m here for my own wrongdoing.”

A: Would you mind speaking of the circumstances of the murder?

Stefan: “Basically, it was someone who had been a friend of mine, the brother of my girlfriend. I allowed a series of conflicts to escalate that could have been resolved without any type of violence. I stabbed an innocent person to death.”

“I have taken full responsibility, and for many years it was very hard to live with the weight of what I have done. At first I was in denial.  A lot of people here are – it’s easy to stay in denial when you’re in prison, but I thought about what I had done. When I started to get in touch with the harm and grief I caused, it was very, very hard to live with, especially the first years. I felt so guilty I couldn’t see how I could ever be good again.”

“Yoga helped me to be more present in the moment and observe what came up. The insights that this gave me helped me to move on from that paralyzing state of guilt. It helped me to understand myself better. Before, I had not really dealt with the anger inside of me and had no tools to handle my emotions. I don’t mean in any way to diminish accountability for what I’ve done: I’m the one who made all the decisions in my life – including stabbing an innocent man – I don’t use any of the understanding I’ve gained to deflect responsibility for what I’ve done.”

Robert Fry (right) with yoga teacher James Fox.

I speak to Robert Fry, a.k.a. ‘Red’ a.k.a. ‘Rojo,’ on his 41st birthday. When I wish him a happy birthday, he quips: “Another year in paradise!”With his shaven head, big build and serious expression, he could be intimidating if it weren’t for his sincere and respectful manner. He was 19 when he came to prison, 22 years ago.

A: “Did you commit the murder for which you received a life sentence?”

Robert: “I was part of a robbery gone bad. I was the person driving the getaway vehicle and my co-defendant was the one who unfortunately took somebody’s life. Under the California felony murder rule, I’m just as culpable as the person who committed the murder.”

“I was in the throes of addiction at that time and I wasn’t really thinking clearly… Was I aware that we were committing a robbery? Yes. Was I aware that he had a gun? Yes. Did I know that he was going to take somebody’s life? Absolutely not.”

A: “What was your addiction?”

Robert: “Metamphetamine.”

A: “Did you kick the habit?”

Robert: “Yes, I’ve been sober for almost 14 years.”


A: “What do you do in prison?”

Robert Fry: “Oh, my goodness, I’ve been doing a myriad of things. I earned a college degree, I facilitate classes to my fellow men, I teach ESL – mostly to Mexican inmates – I mentor at-risk youth in the community… I do many things of that nature. I think it’s very beautiful here [at San Quentin] because there are so many outside volunteers that come in from the community to support us in so many ways. I’m just very grateful.”

A: “When did you start doing yoga with James Fox?”

Robert: “I started in its infancy when James made this generous offer to try teaching yoga [at San Quentin]. I had a stereotypical idea of yoga: I thought it was for girls.  I really didn’t know much about it, but I’m so glad that I started. It’s really been a transformative piece of my life.”

A: Could you describe what the yoga classes have done for you?

Robert: “It’s a mind-body and spiritual practice; Yoga gave me the opportunity to grow and become introspective. I saw myself through the eyes of others before; I always looked out. I started to look inside and see myself: the good, the bad and the ugly!”

A: “Is James Fox a role model for you?”

Robert: “Absolutely. Ultimately I think everybody is my teacher, even the person who gets on my nerves and pushes my buttons. That person makes me ask: ‘What is it about him that is allowing to trigger me?”

A: “Does yoga help you in specific situations like violence?”

Robert: “One of the things I learned is non-judgment, and not to get attached to things. I used to get a lot of negative reinforcement, so now I try to see the positive in myself and others and respond as opposed to react. I take the time to internalize whatever happens and think about it, and that has really been beneficial. I want to empathize and understand which needs of that other person are not being met. When someone is aggressive towards me, as may happen with the teens that come to the youth-at-risk program, it may have nothing to do with me; it could be some transference, from some issue with which they’re contending; I just try not to be judgmental, stay open, and sit with it.”

”I’ve been following the news about the earthquake in Japan, and the catastrophic things going on there, and the pain and suffering and anguish, and wish that I could have an opportunity to go to Japan and be there and help in any way I can. Unfortunately we can’t do that.”

Ke Lam pictured at left.

Ke Lam is Asian, with rippling muscles and gentle facial features. He was sentenced to life 15 years ago for accessory to murder, and has been taking the yoga class at San Quentin for one year.  He speaks a heavily accented English, very quickly and hard to understand with the non-stop background noise of yelling voices and clanging of metal doors being shut.

A: “Do you feel the yoga has changed you in any way?”

Ke: “Yes it has. It has made me more conscious of my breathing. When I’m in a situation and my body is responding, I just go to my breathing. James [Fox] has a way of instilling that awareness.”

A: “Are there other effects you’ve experienced?”

Ke: “This is the first time I’ve done yoga; I’m new to the practice.”

A: “Do you like it?”

Ke: “I – I love it! It’s helped me calm me down. It calms by body down; it calms my mind down… it gives me a sense of peace, I should say.”

A: “What have you learned since you came here?”

Ke: “13 Years ago, I couldn’t walk away from an argument without being violent. And I was afraid about change, and so wasn’t open to it. Also, thinking about my actions, you know, like what I did, wasn’t high on my list, but thinking about it helps me breathe, you know, like yoga does.”

A: “Thank you for speaking with me.”

Stefan Liebb, the Jewish prisoner incarcerated for stabbing a man to death, continues his private conversation with me:

A: “You have been in prison 30 years. The last 8 or 9 years you’ve been in the yoga program?”

Stefan: “Yes, since it started, about eight years ago.”

A: “How would you say James Fox, as a yoga teacher, has influenced you?”

Stefan: “You know, I practice every day on my own. I learned the asanas; I study everything in class, because his example is so powerful. Occasionally we have guest teachers, and maybe they’re wonderful athletes in the way they do these asanas, but James is a wonderful teacher; he teaches from his heart, without ego.”

“James de-emphasizes the whole competitive part of the practice. For me, it’s an individual struggle with myself, to make it fresh every time, and not have expectations about what I did yesterday, or last week, or where I want to be tomorrow with a certain asana, and he is so patient and gentle in his approach, it guides me to what I need, so I feel really, really fortunate to have this teacher and have him teach me still. He’s an example of yoga in the way he conducts himself. I feel like if he had been someone else, I wouldn’t have taken to yoga the way I have.”

“I remember the feeling I had after the very first class: I could feel the effect in my body, in my mind… everything felt different. I felt peace and calmness, and I said ‘You know what? I want to keep this.’ I try to keep practicing with the right attitude, and James shows the patience.”

A: “How do you practice on your own?”

Stefan: “If the doors are open to the yard, I’m out there, barefoot, whether it’s cold or if it’s raining. I like the fresh air. It feels liberating. I don’t feel like I’m in prison when I’m practicing.”

Stefan also meditates daily and has recently added pranayama exercises to his routine.

A: “Are you addicted to yoga?”

Stefan: “When there is a lockdown and I can’t go outside, I miss it. We had a quarantine recently because there were chickenpox. There were days when we didn’t leave the building, and it’s an old prison, and the ventilation is terrible. When we got to go out on the tier, I did a basic practice, but it’s not the same because you’ve got hundreds of inmates running around. It’s like doing yoga in a gas station with engines running.”

A: “And not very quiet, I suppose?”

Stefan: “No, but I’ve learned to kind of block out noise.”

Bilal Chatman is involved in the Muslim prison community, and part of an Islamic AA-type group at San Quentin. He is also part of a self-help group called IMPACT: Incarcerated Men Putting Away Childish Things, learning about violence prevention. He is in the sports program and on the baseball team. He has learned Spanish, and taken college courses in sociology, psychology and counseling.

A: “Do you like the yoga classes?”

Bilal:” My only problem with yoga is that we only have it one day a week. James is… I don’t know how to really put James in words because I’ve never known anybody who’s influenced me as he has. He’s like my Iman , like a preacher or a rabbi. I look at him as someone like that, because he’s soothing and his voice is really good and he’s very helpful. I started yoga because I do a lot of sports: I play football baseball; I coach basketball, am involved in a lot of other sports activities, and I work out. I had a sciatic nerve problem in my back, and someone told me that the yoga stretching would probably be very good for me. So I signed up for it and it took me 7 to 8 months to get into the class. It has helped some with the pain, but it’s helped me in so many other areas. It’s been very good.”

One of the students in Supta Virasana.

A:” What are the other benefits you get from the yoga?”

Bilal: “The benefits I get from the class are, I guess, the peace of mind and the serenity I get out of it. The serenity is very important and I started to utilize that. I started to really calm myself in different situations, just through the breathing that I learned from James. And the stretching that I’ve learned from him I use before engaging in sports activities. That’s been very helpful.”

A: “Was violence a problem here, and if so has it changed?”

Bilal:” I think I’m pretty easy going. I try to think things through and I’m pretty much at that age [48] where I don’t want to do any fighting. But at the same time, we are in prison, and let’s not sugarcoat this: there’s a whole bunch of idiots in here! We do need prisons. It’s really easy to find problems here if you look for them, but I’ve learned to walk away, and the peace and serenity I’ve found through the yoga help with that. Also, if you don’t engage in violence and homosexuality and don’t do drugs – things that get you in trouble – you don’t really have too many problems.”

A: “Not if you’re as strong as you are!”

Bilal: “I guess it’s good to look strong, and the yoga actually helps with that too. James doesn’t let us off the hook! But it’s not competitive. Sometimes he makes us stand still for several minutes in between standing poses, so those kinds of things stop you from just going for the physical benefit.”

A: “Thank you so much for speaking with me.

The future

Sefan Liebb won a Federal Court order overturning the decision denying him parole at a hearing in 2007, but just two months ago, the US Supreme Court ruled that Federal Courts can’t interfere with California Parole Board decisions. He’s waiting for his next board meeting, which will be in a year and a half.

A: “Are you ready to leave prison?”

Srefan Liebb: “Yes, I’ve arranged for transitional housing on my own in the Bay Area. I realize it’s going to be a huge challenge, but I feel that I’m equipped to transition to life outside of here and make a contribution. One of the things I want to do is stay involved with yoga out there and try to bring it to communities, especially those that were traumatized by growing up in violent circumstances, both in this country and in Israel.”

A: “What is your job in prison?”

Stefan: “I’m a porter, like a janitor.”

A: “What is your salary?”

Stefan: “I make about 11cents an hour, which more than covers what I need in here.”

A: “You’ve spent 30 years of your life in prison, more years inside than outside. Have you learned things you didn’t know before?”

Stefan: “Sure. I’ve been fortunate to be in this prison where I learned yoga and been involved in many programs and have had an opportunity to expand my education. I didn’t even know that I had an aptitude for mathematics, but I’ve taken classes and am moving on to Calculus now. And I’ve learned to speak Spanish.”

A: “Will you be able to use the skills you learned in prison on the outside?”

Stefan: “Definitely. I think the important thing is to communicate. What I learned from James by watching him and being around him is to communicate from the heart, but in dealing with other people it helps to speak their language and meet them on their terms. Even if both parties are fluent in English it can be better to speak in Spanish.”

A: “Thank you for speaking with me.”

Robert Fry in savasana, next to teacher James Fox.

I asked Robert Fry, or ‘Red,’ what, in an ideal world, the correctional system would look like.

Robert Fry: “ If I was going to have an opportunity to do anything, I would say I’d turn the system upside down and try to approach it from a restorative perspective, so that the needs of the victims or the survivors are being met as well as the needs of the perpetrators, as well as the whole community. Everybody is a piece of a community, and everybody has a stake in it.”

A: “Thank you.”


Before the interviews,  permission was requested from the men in this article to ask them about the crimes for which they were sentenced, which they kindly granted.

The second part of this article will be an interview with the yoga teacher at San Quentin James Fox.

Photographer Robert Sturman at San Quentin.

All photos were taken by artist/photographer Robert Sturman. More photos in this series can be viewed in the Facebook albums by Robert Sturman.

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