February 22, 2013

Serving Time: My Prison Volunteer Experience.

In response to my recent volunteer work with the Art of Living, in two of the maximum-security male prisons in Kingston, Jamaica—notorious for being the murder capital of the world—a friend’s glib comment invited me to pause and reflect upon my recent experience there.

He said “If you really want to see what powers drive a society, go to [visit] a prison.”

One of my greatest fears—being claustrophobic—is being incarcerated. Thus, I was surprised at the level of peace I felt while assisting inmates with yoga and breath-work.

Clad in baggy trousers, a loose-fitting long sleeve shirt and my mane of dreadlocks atop my head, my efforts to become invisible were somewhat futile. My female-ness defied me. Strolling towards the chapel where our sessions were held, my colleague and I were escorted by the officer in charge of prison activities.

With my head hung low, I was keenly aware of the reference being made to me as inmates acknowledged me as Empress; an endeared term of respect within Rastafari, the indigenous component of Jamaica. Not wanting to entirely ignore, I nodded my head while bringing my fisted left-hand to my chest; “I see you” was my intention by this act.

Dressed in uniforms of confinement—white t-shirts and khaki trousers—these men of all ages, colors and sizes absorbed the ancient teachings of yoga being imparted to them like a stiff, dry sponge being in water.

As the prison warden shared with us, after our sessions there is a sense of calm among the prisoners. He further noted that for those who had already completed the basic course, misbehavior fell to zero percent. While other activities such as soccer and the gym exist, the end result is usually increased aggression among the inmates.

At the end of the first session where I was responsible for taking attendance, each prisoner stood over me as I wrote their names out on the lined piece of paper, ensuring that I had spelled their names correctly. I realized that in such conditions where just about every inalienable human right has been stripped bare to instill conformity, their names are all that they are left with— to be guarded like a prized possession.

My week spent visiting these institutions brought me front and center to me with the underbelly of Jamaican society, one where corruption and deception run wild.

Standing firm in tadasana (mountain pose), I took a panoramic view of the class, witnessing the weight of regret spread before me. While not so naïve as to believe that once these men are released from captivity that they will be reformed, it was plain to see and feel their sense of remorse, for whatever heinous crime they may have committed.

The Art of Living basic course to which they were being introduced is loosely described as an anger management and stress release tool that employs powerful breath techniques. In a society where yoga often conflicts with mainstream Christianity, due largely to a lack of information about the former, the teacher intentionally used language that the inmates could relate to.

Chanting the sacred sound of Om for example, inmates reported feeling an inner sense of peace and relaxation. A few of the participants who had already gone through the initial Art of Living program shared how armed with this new information, they were now able to sleep better and enjoy a greater sense of peace within themselves.

Serving time, as a prison sentence is often referred to, the one thing that is abundant is time; inquiries such as how do you spend your time take on a whole new meaning. Being able to access one’s inner self through breath helps to reduce anger, anxiety, fear and tension.

Why in God’s name would I want to spend my time volunteering at a prison facility, one might (understandably) argue; my response to to this is that until, and unless, we understand the underbelly of any society, we’re unable to heal it and progress. The prison dynamic is one that invites humans’ four main archetypes—victim, child, saboteur and prostitute—to the fore, for the imprisoned as well as the persecutor.

Some of our greatest minds are behind bars for one reason or another. No one in their right mind has an ambition of going to prison but once there, time is all you have.

To close the sessions, inmates were guided into yoga nidra (deep yogic sleep). Upon returning to a full state of consciousness, that initial feeling of remorse and heaviness that filled the room at the outset had dissipated.

As one inmate reported, through the breath-work, he experienced a lightness in his body as he released pent-up negativity through his forced exhalations.

As we exited the institution above the gate I saw the prison’s motto: NO ONE SHALL ESCAPE. The warden explained to me that it had been there for over 50 years.

I wondered: had anything at all changed during that time?

The mere fact that I was there volunteering in the name of peace, through the gift of yoga, served as an encouraging indicative of  change being imminent and that my time spent there was not in vain.

And so it is.



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Ed: Bryonie Wise


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