Kristin Bender, Alameda Times-Star, California: Inmates practice yoga and meditation.
MARCEL McRae is not a guy you’d want to meet in a dark alley. He weighs 270 pounds and can nearly bench press his own weight.
He has arms the size of some people’s legs and a linebacker’s torso. He grew up on some of the Bay Area’s meanest streets and is still roiled with pain from a gunshot wound sustained in a drive-by shooting as a teen.
Through the years, the 32-year-old has been arrested for weapons possession, burglary, robbery. He’s currently doing time in San Francisco County Jail. It’s certainly not his first stay. A third striker, he says he’s been in and out of jails and prisons nine times in the past 13 years.
But on Tuesday nights, McRae forgets his past.
He forgets the pain he’s caused his family, himself and his community, he says. He tries to concentrate on the positive. He attempts to look forward, not back. He sets his sights on internal peace.
Once a week, McRae and about a dozen other inmates practice meditation and yoga on the jail’s cold, hard cement floors. The physical and mental results, inmates and teachers say, have been truly amazing.
“I’ve lifted a lot of weights in my life,” says McRae, shaking out his arms after a recent class. “My first time doing yoga, I was more sore than a rigorous workout. I was mad at myself. I thought, ‘I’m not supposed to get sore doing yoga.’”
The classes are part of the “Resolve to Stop the Violence Program,” an effort to reintegrate violent offenders into society and decrease the likelihood that they’ll wind up back behind bars. Inmates say they are calmer and fight less. They take time out before reacting.
“It helps me a lot with clarity and being aware of myself and my mind. Awareness is a big part of it. Sometimes I even forget I’m in jail for two hours,” says Derek Holcomb, a 32-year-old inmate arrested several times on drug charges.
Holcomb says yoga class is the one peaceful place in the joint.
“It’s quiet in here. … It’s exactly the opposite of the regular population where there are 60 guys in one room, and it’s loud and chaotic.”
A similar program in Alameda County Juvenile Hall called the Mind Body Awareness Project teaches the ancient practices of yoga and meditation to give young people ways to handle anger, think clearly and avoid violence.
The San Francisco program, known as RSVP, requires inmates, people serving a sentence, to participate in violence “reeducation,” job training, life skills training, theater and parenting skills classes. But they also have electives such as meditation and yoga.
While there is no hard evidence that doing yoga and meditation is reducing the recidivism rate or making the jail a calmer, nicer place, there are statistics on the RSVP program. In the first year of operation, 1997, there was one in-custody fight among participants, compared to 297 violent incidents among the general jail population.
But participants are the ones who really sing the praises of deep thinking and the downward dog pose.
“The meditation has definitely helped because I am depressed. I am incarcerated, and I haven’t found nothing happy about being incarcerated,” says McRae.
McRae said the meditation allows him to escape, if only temporarily.
“After the first time I tried it, I immediately felt the results mentally and physically,” he says.
San Francisco County Sheriff Michael Hennessey was a prison rights attorney who became a sheriff. “So his perspective is on rehabilitation,” says Eileen Hirst, his chief of staff.
“All of these people are coming out to the community. How do you want them to come out to the community? Having learned something to deal with their anger or not having learned something?” she says. ”(The sheriff) sees this as a golden opportunity.”
Inmates say one reason the meditation and yoga have been successful is the quality of the teachers. Donnelle Malnik, a 34- year-old San Francisco hairdresser and part-time yoga instructor, has been coming to the jail for about a year. She is also a survivor of physical and sexual abuse and finds working with the men cathartic.
“It’s pretty intense when you start hearing the (jail) doors close behind you, and you realize you are the only woman in there. It can be a little overwhelming,” she says
“But I’ve really enjoyed working with the men. A lot of them are victims themselves and have never figured out how to deal with victimization and the cycle of violence.”
Malnik and meditation instructor Bill Scheinman arrive in the room where they will hold class a few minutes before the inmates. The room is a unused dormitory, and there are signs of jail life—stainless steel tables, a row of silver sinks and multiple shower heads jutting out of one wall.
The inmates quickly arrange themselves in a circle, which becomes a sea of jail-issue orange. The dark blue, purple and green yoga mats stand out among the orange jumpsuits and socks. The men introduce themselves, and there are no newcomers. Everyone is returning for a third or fourth or even 12th time.
Malnik, covered in tattoos and with red streaked hair, sits at the head of the circle and cautions the class to avoid thinking about what happened before they arrived or what will happen later.
“Just the present moment,” she says. They roll their necks and shoulders and check for injuries. As they stretch, the faint sound of cracking backs and necks breaks the silence.
Malnik demonstrates a balancing pose. “I like to do these when I have something on my mind,” she says. The men stretch just a little deeper, a bit longer.
Once everyone has warmed up, Scheinman, 47, takes them through a meditation practice called “The Loving Kindness Practice.”
It asks each participant to bring to mind first themselves, then a good friend, then a person who is seen in daily life but remains a stranger, then a difficult person. The fifth stage is to bring all four people together and wish them good will and happiness.
Scheinman, who has been teaching meditation inside the jail for more than three years, has noticed immense changes in his students.
“You notice changes in their insight, the way their minds work, the way their emotions work,” he says. The men who come in angry and ready to pick a fight leave a lot calmer. “They are in a volatile environment, and in our class they have two hours of peace.”
After the meditation, they debrief.
“The discussions are usually so interesting. They talk about things you wouldn’t believe because they’ve been silent for two hours,” Malnik says.
But the real payoff comes when the guys mix back in the day-to- day interactions in the jail.
Inmate Peter Flores, 40, says the yoga and meditation helps him deal with the everyday situations that crop up in jail.
Recently, he returned from playing cards with some guys to find an inmate sitting on his bed. “Initially I felt angry. This person didn’t ask me if he could sit on my bed,” he says. “Instead of reacting, I went over and drank some water and then he said, ‘Hey man, can I sit here?’ I took the time to do something else. I have a lot of anxiety … and I don’t want to take it out on anyone else.”
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