Inmates breathe easier after meditative classes

The qigong meditative class begins with instructor David Ezra asking the participants if they have any worries this week.

A burly man with tattoos running down his arms speaks up.

“Any little thing will set me off,” Sonny Mitchell says.

Ezra tells Mitchell to control his emotions and then instructs all the men in orange jumpsuits to stand in two rows of five or six. He turns on a portable CD player, which plays soothing melodies.

Several feet away, Deputy Frank Oathout, a guard at County Jail in Martinez, watches to ensure the inmates behave while they’re performing their slow movements and controlled breathing techniques.

Mitchell was arrested on suspicion of stealing a car and leading police on a high-speed chase. He also faces a charge of possessing stolen property and violating parole. The 36-year-old Antioch resident has a trial scheduled for May 24, and this has him stressed.

To cope with the stress, as well as the anger he often feels, he joined the weekly qigong (chee-KUNG’) and meditation class in his jail module. Ezra, a psychotherapist with Contra Costa Health Services, teaches several of these classes to inmates each week.

Oathout said he has seen a decrease in the number of fights among inmates in the cellblocks. Suicide attempts and medical emergencies have also decreased, Ezra said.

“It helps me relax and stay grounded,” Mitchell said. “I wish this class was more than once a week.

I look forward to it.”

Ezra works at the county’s detention facilities. He assesses the mental states of inmates when they are booked and provides suicide prevention and intervention services, among other duties.

For 30 years he has taught yoga and qigong — a holistic system of breathing techniques and exercises with postures and slow movements that require concentration. He got the idea to teach qigong to inmates after he saw that many of them respond better to nonverbal communication.

“Talking to people in anxious states doesn’t work very well,” he said. “Some of these people have poor verbal skills “… or are suffering from mental illnesses. They have poor impulse control.”

When he met inmates having anxiety attacks, he would show them how to breathe slowly and stretch to calm them down.

In 2003, he was allowed to teach qigong to one group of inmates. Since then, his workload has increased to about five groups each week, including one in the mental health module in the Martinez jail and a class at West County Jail in Richmond.

The inmates begin with a salute, in a stance similar to that of a martial artist greeting his opponent. But instead of fighting, the qigong participants slowly rise, lower and rotate their arms as Ezra guides them with directions such as: “Bring heaven to earth” and “Let go of all the stress you are holding.”

Ezra tells them to practice restraint.

“Think with your mind, not your emotions,” he says. “Think of yourself as an eagle looking down over your life.”

At the end of the exercise, the inmates put their hands together and bow. They take their seats on chairs brought from their cells, and Ezra has them close their eyes to meditate.

“Situations rise, last for a moment and pass away,” Ezra says. “Feelings are temporary.”

Inmates get no perks for taking part. To apply, they send a letter to Ezra. He meets with them, where they have to convince him they will take the classes seriously. He has turned away inmates he thought would be a distraction. Inmates commit to attending 20 classes unless they have to attend court or are released.

“If they don’t come every week, I kick them out,” he said. “I have 50 people on a waiting list.”

In return, they develop a sense of community with other participants and get instruction on lowering stress.

“I’ve always had anger issues,” said inmate Casey Moore. “I found (the class is) an easy way to let go of my anger, rather than trying to bottle it up like I have.”

Moore has been an inmate at the jail for six months and is facing five counts of lewd and lascivious acts on a child. He is jittery because his trial has been pushed back.

“Where I’m at, here — most of it is due to my anger,” he said. “It hasn’t gotten me anywhere good. I may as well try and do something the positive way.”

[Roman Gokhman, Conta-Costra Times]

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