by Carmela Caruso
“It can happen to anybody,” says Sybriea Lundy, 40, a former high school valedictorian who spent the better part of a decade in prison for a first-time drug offense.
As she speaks, Lundy pushes a double-wide stroller carrying her daughters, ages 2 and 3, born a year and a day apart. With her hair pulled into a simple ponytail and a strawberry print mask gathered beneath her chin, she looks like any mom taking her kids for a walk in the park.
Lundy was tried on drug trafficking charges in 2010. Her subsequent conviction, which followed prior lesser charges, brought a mandatory minimum sentence of 7 ½ years.
According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, over 46% of those now in prison are serving sentences related to drug charges. The vast majority of those who are incarcerated — 95% — will eventually be released back into society. But their prospects will be grim: Within three years of being released, two out of three returning citizens will be rearrested, and 50% will face repeat incarceration, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Programs aimed at rehabilitation vary within correctional facilities. Although an estimated 65% of the prison population is actively dealing with issues of substance abuse, only about 11% receive treatment, according to the American Public Health Association.
“There needs to be more care and nurturing,” says Lundy. “I understand it’s not summer camp and we’re not there for being good Girl Scouts, but there has to be a human element to it. The first thing they do when you get there is they strip your name and give you a number. Have we not learned anything?”
Sense of freedom
Lundy counts herself lucky to have been able to participate in programs offered by Light a Path, an Asheville-based nonprofit that brings yoga and movement to underserved populations, while serving the final 2 ½ years of her sentence at the Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women.
Light a Path was founded in 2014 with the mission of creating resilience through connection. Youths, older adults, the unhoused, those in recovery, veterans and the incarcerated may participate in LAP programs. Andie Morgenladner, who served until recently as program coordinator, explains the organization’s work in the community.
“The hope is,” says Morgenladner, “that by sharing a yoga practice that is decolonized even within these systems that are oppressive, that we can create some sense of freedom, some sense of autonomy.”
Participants have a choice about how much — or how little — they engage during class. Being able to feel body sensations helps establish feelings of regulation and safety, especially for individuals who have endured trauma.
“Light a Path’s mission is all about creating connection and creating both individual and collective resilience through connection,” says Morgenladner. She stresses that volunteers and teachers heal alongside the populations they serve.
Finding her place
The sense of connection, not only with herself and her body, but also with others, was a key factor in Lundy’s healing.
“To be in prison and to have somebody willing to come in and shake your hand and not look at you like you’re a disease, that means more than I can ever express,” says Lundy through tears.
The notion of belonging was a powerful one for Lundy, and something she says ultimately led to her prison sentence. She describes a childhood of not fitting in and finding community through selling marijuana when she was 14. “It just kind of snowballed from there,” she says, describing how she turned down a college scholarship because she was making too much money selling LSD.
“I didn’t think people like me could go to prison, and that is just as presumptuous as it sounds,” says Lundy. “When I got there, I was nothing. I had no self-esteem left. And when I started my practice [with LAP], it was like rebuilding me from the ground up. Like I had been stripped down to rock bottom and had to put roots down there. And my practice is what helped me to center myself.”
After being released from prison, Lundy attended LAP’s Saturday morning running group, which she says was instrumental in helping her transition into Asheville, a city where she had no previous ties.
“Light a Path is a perfect name for them because that’s exactly what they do. They gave me that tether,” says Lundy. “I felt like I was coming out to people I knew who actually cared about me and wanted me to be successful. That was major. I don’t feel I could have come out and found my place in the community like I did without them.”
In addition to her role as a mother of young children, Lundy now works with a local nonprofit and takes classes at A-B Tech.
The challenge of reentry
Transitioning back into the community is difficult for many who have been incarcerated. Brent Bailey, Buncombe County reentry coordinator, explains, “They come out and continue to have the collateral consequences of their conviction, and that hurts people.”
Bailey, who was also formerly incarcerated, helps connect returning citizens with housing, employment, transportation and education. He cites social stigma as one of the major challenges that returning citizens must overcome, especially when reentering the workforce.
“I think some companies are missing out on some really good employees,” says Bailey, “because they’re so bound to that criminal background when a lot of times … it’s in the background.” He waves his hands to emphasize his talking points. “Most people do not have a life sentence. If they are coming back to the community, then it does benefit the community to receive them and embrace them.”
When she was 12 weeks pregnant with her first child, Lundy learned her daughter would have Down syndrome. Volunteers at LAP offered support, care and encouragement through the pregnancy and beyond, she recalls.
“I finally felt accepted and welcomed,” says Lundy. “They were OK with me. They actually wanted me. And I can’t tell you how much that meant.”