One Way To Handle Our Explosive Prison Population

Joel Turner was only 19 when three men broke into his house and stabbed him to death. His mother, Janet Connors, had already spent four decades as a social activist in Dorchester, Boston’s largest neighborhood. Practically living in court over the next two years watching the fate of the four men (one was the driver) be decided by the justice system, she knew too well what would happen: those convicted of lesser charges would eventually be dumped back into the streets.


So Connors put forward an idea that many mothers would never be able to stomach: she asked to meet with the murderers. One said he would do so. This rare and intimate case of what is known as restorative justice is a trend slowly gaining traction in the American legal system for one overarching reason: retributive justice isn’t working.

According to the Pew Research Center, more than one in every 100 American adults are currently in prison. When discussing men between the ages of 20 and 34, that number jumps to one in 30; black men in that age range, one out of nine. The United States comprises only 4% of the world’s population, yet we boast 25% of the planet’s prisoners. Not only are we a leader in sheer numbers; we’re also tops in the rate in which we imprison our citizenry. 

James Fox has taught yoga to prisoners at San Quentin since 2002. He’s mailed his book, Prison Yoga Project: A Path for Healing and Recovery, to over 8,000 inmates. Founder of the Prison Yoga Project, James has developed one of the most unique and potentially therapeutic applications of restorative justice in our country: treat the trauma that prisoners go (and have gone) through, not the crime. That isn't to say ignore the crime—restorative justice brings you into direct contact with the consequences. Just don't only focus on the crime. Focus on the human being. 

Spending this past weekend with James at the Prison Yoga training in Venice, we discussed the practical applications that yoga has to offer to prisoners. With so many takes on the term ‘yoga’ being offered around the world, teaching to a population that is constantly on edge and painfully aware of surroundings requires precision and skill. Most importantly, it demands humility. 

Most non-practitioners associate yoga with bendy females on magazine covers and Instagram stars wearing skimpy outfits while contorting themselves. (A number of practitioners also make this mistake.) The discipline becomes about the pose, or asana, which is but one of the eight limbs of classical yoga. The first two deal with morals and ethics; the latter five, turning inward through meditation. This is predominantly where benefits are received. 

There is nothing wrong with postures. Teaching them is what has paid my rent for over ten years. But there is a large disparity between teaching public classes and bringing this reflective discipline to a population that is as far, physically and mentally, from the public as possible.

During the training James referred to the common stance of prisoners, a ‘puffing up’ of their torso to appear larger than they are—a practice cats also do when frightened or preparing for battle. He called this ‘gross body armory,’ a survival tactic in tough environments. If the armor is never abandoned, however, your body remains brittle and hardened. As we know from neuroscience, our emotions do not only affect our body. It’s a two-way process. The armoring occurs inside as well. 

To soften requires yin style yoga postures; nothing too agitating on the nervous system, no breath work that will kick up a heightened amount of physiological response. This was most telling to me: I had assumed that men would want to ‘burn off’ the emotional tear occurring on a daily basis. But as James pointed out, their cortisol levels are already constantly elevated. Gentler yoga postures and ‘cooling’ breathing techniques, such as nadi shodhana, are much more beneficial.

Human beings seem much more suited for reactivity than proactivity. We respond better than we foresee. Even after being presented with evidence—global warming, the horrors of our factory farm-dominated food industry—it usually takes a tragedy to produce change in how we act.

I would say that we’ve reached tragic levels in how and who we imprison. The system is straining our society: according to James, California spends $9 billion annually on prisons, with the nation as a whole dropping $65 billion into the system, much of which goes to healthcare. While our cultural reflexes demand retribution for crimes, often without questioning the circumstances that led to the act, what we need is compassion and understanding. And then treatment that works. 

In an example of ironic timing, the morning after I completed the training I walked out to my car at 6:40 am to find a man staring into the window and pulling at the door handle. My sympathetic response immediately triggered fight, as I was too close to flee and freezing wasn’t an option.

And then…I talked to him. Upon doing so I recognized that he was disoriented, confused. He wasn’t actually trying to break into my car; he probably wasn’t sure where he was. Granted, I was lucky, as it could have much worse. But the immediate shift that occurs when you begin a dialogue instead of acting out of anger or fear was apparent.

Imprisoning those we don’t understand or don’t want to deal with has only harmed us over the last thirty years. While we are, in one sense, all prisoners of our own mind, the explosion and overpopulation of actual prisons damages all of us. James Fox has created an important initiative that helps deal with the root cause of trauma and suffering instead of wiping it under the rug. It is a trend we can all hope continues. 

Image: Mopic/shutterstock.com

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