A fluorescent-lit, cinderblock room may not be the ideal space for yoga, meditation or dog training, but for Buncombe County’s prison population, it’s often the only place for a dose of freedom and a little peace and quiet.
“We believe providing opportunities that produce positive behavior both inside and out is a step in the right direction,” says Val Lamberti, volunteer program services coordinator at the Buncombe County Detention Center. “If done right, these programs can provide inmates the resources to truly heal old wounds. It teaches them how worthy a peaceful state of mind can feel and, in turn, inspire them to lead better lives [and] become productive contributors to our society.”
With that in mind, last month, Lamberti, Detention Division Commander Captain Scott Allen and local wellness practitioners launched a pilot yoga program for women, with plans to expand to include one for men as well.
“What we are looking at is recidivism,” says Allen, showing Xpress an empty housing unit and a small recreation room at the center. The spaces are similar to those used for inmates on other floors. The white, windowless recreation room and small bedrooms are all some people will see for the next four years, he explains.
“We cannot say for a fact that the overall behavior of the women has been altered,” Lamberti says. “We can say that we have noticed a dramatic decrease in the level of violence amongst the inmates who are participating in the yoga program. Within that group, we have also seen a level of bonding and camaraderie that we feel is unique to the setting of the yoga room. The women are developing a sense of trust within themselves, which is affecting the ways in which they interact with each other. The women are very present and comment on the positive impact yoga has on their daily lives while being incarcerated.”
At the end of the yoga program, inmates receive a book to help them continue their studies and a completion certificate from Asheville Yoga Center. For some of the women, it’s the only certificate they have ever received, even since childhood, says Allen.
Recent research shows that yoga improves mood and decreases anxiety. And given that people in neighborhoods with high incarceration rates have elevated levels of depression and anxiety (as reported in the American Journal of Public Health in 2015), inmates in Buncombe County’s jails and prisons may need the practice of yoga even more than Asheville locals who attend classes in beautiful studios.
Paige Gilchrist and Julia Brenn arrive weekly to teach yoga and breathing exercises to the women at the center. “We’ve been able to create an incredible sense of community among the women participating in this pilot program,” Gilchrist says. “Most had never done any yoga before, but they have been so open and receptive to what we’ve offered that they have almost been on a fast track — embracing not only the physical practice but the parts of yoga that extend into areas such as focus, concentration, self-awareness, compassion and a deep sense of connection to themselves and others.”
Gilchrist also teaches men at Craggy Correctional Center. “For me it is one of the most meaningful and fulfilling things I do all week,” she says. The men incarcerated at Craggy “are certainly among the most grateful students, and they are very open and willing to expand. And they are curious, super-respectful and kind. We focus on a lot of relaxation. They tell me yoga is one of the only times it is quiet.”
Her students commonly ask, “Why do you ‘Om’? Why ‘namaste?’” she says. Such questions get “at the heart of what yoga really is, down to the heart of what we are doing and how it is accessible and useful.”
With similar goals, YMCA yoga instructor Connie Coady and AYC yoga instructor Sierra Hollister started Light a Path, a local nonprofit that connects volunteers with wellness programs for youth-at-risk and incarcerated residents. Both women volunteer at the Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women and feel their work there is some of the most important they have done as yoga instructors. “There is a lot of humor in the classes, and in a place like prison, where it is hard to laugh, it important not to take yourself too seriously,” Rose says. “Yoga can lighten the mood. The rest of their life is so regulated, they don’t have choices about what to eat or see. They have an hour for asana or to lie there with a blanket, and it is freedom.”
“The women are so receptive,” says Hollister of the class she teaches at the facility. “It seems that for some of these women, this might be some of the first times that they have practiced any kind of deeper self-care. You can literally see them soak up the ways in which they can learn how to care for themselves, from learning yoga postures that address the various discomforts and conditions they might be dealing with physically to learning pranayamas [breathing techniques] that help alleviate stress and tension. They are eager to learn.”
Yoga is not the only way Asheville locals work to create wellness in prisons. Randal Pride has been guiding men in meditation techniques since 2008 at Craggy Correctional Center. “I enjoy doing it,” he says. “Sometimes when you sit down, your mind is so busy, and you think there is no point to staying here. The idea is to not judge whether it is good or bad, but to just sit through it, and then afterwards feel the difference in body and mind. I keep coming back to that with these guys.”
Pride says that when he first started teaching at Craggy, “Initially there was a ‘What’s this?’ feeling from the staff. Over the years, though, they’ve become friendly and accepting of the Buddhist meditation and class. Perhaps seeing the inmates sitting perfectly still in an upright meditation posture for a half hour facing a white wall … has had an effect on the guards. … There’s an understanding that ‘hey, they take this meditation stuff seriously.’”
Jenny White, owner of Dog-Ed, offers another way to help inmates find solace and peace of mind. With her help, inmates at Swannanoa Prison and men at Craggy Correctional Facility train dogs for basic obedience skills to help make the animals more adoptable. The men in her classes “feel like they are giving back to the community,” says White. “Some of these guys are in there for a very long time, and it gives them that connection that they are giving back. Not only are they changing the dog’s life, but they are also changing the lives of those who adopt the dogs,” she says.
“It is pretty amazing to see the videos of the guys every week,” she continues. “You would not think of these people as prisoners. They are doing bodywork and baby-talking [the dogs] and being concerned because there is a bump on a dog’s leg. They have told me they have never felt this type of love before.”
The dogs’ love and requirement for care provide a therapeutic setting for the men and women serving time in prison. “It gives the inmates another way of interacting with each other because they need to work as a team to take care of dogs.”
White has also started Pups on Parole, in which volunteers take the dogs beyond the prison walls to meet potential new dog owners and spread the word about the program at such locations as the Aloft Hotel in downtown Asheville.
Hollister sums up what all of these healing modalities for incarcerated residents aim to do: “We want our inmates to be healed. We want the incarcerated to have the chance to heal, to be healthier in all ways — body, mind and spirit. I would like to believe that we want this healing for the sake of healing, but for those that doubt, I would say we also want this healing to take place so we are able to receive healthier individuals back into our communities when they are released from prison.”
Buncombe County Detention Center is looking for programs that provide skills and tools to assist in building a positive productive life, including anger management, adult education, literacy, reading, basic skill building and resume writing. If you are interested, please contact Val Lamberti at firstname.lastname@example.org or 250-4585.