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/

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.