Emmanuel Samoglou, Healthzone.ca: A few weeks back, while Stephen Harper was on the hustings selling a tough-on-crime agenda, Sister Elaine MacInnes was in a Brampton prison hugging convicted criminals.
“I hugged them all,” the 87-year-old Catholic nun and Zen master says warmly, recalling her visit with about 50 inmates at the Ontario Correctional Institute, where she conducted a meditation class.
Sister Elaine — as she’s widely known — is the founding director of Freeing the Human Spirit (freeingspirit.com), a registered charity that provides yoga and meditation programs to inmates in provincial and federal correctional institutions in Southern Ontario. A Zen master of the Sanbo Kyodan, based in Kamakura, Japan, she spent 32 years in the East, studying the ancient spiritual practices of meditation and yoga.
She began working with prisoners in the Philippines in the early 1980s after she was contacted by a political prisoner who wanted to learn techniques to deal with the stress of imprisonment. Then followed a decade in England, as executive director of the Prison Phoenix Trust, a charity that offers medication and yoga at more than half the prisons in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. In 2001, she became an Officer of the Order of Canada for her work abroad.
After retiring from Phoenix, she returned to Canada and founded Freeing the Human Spirit.
The organization found itself in the spotlight last month after provincial Conservative leader Tim Hudak criticized Premier Dalton McGuinty’s government for spending funds on “perks” for prisoners. He described the yoga and meditation program as a “warped priority.”
The Liberals quickly countered that the charity receives no government funding, relying on donations and the efforts of more than 100 volunteers.
One such volunteer is Peter Brother. He has worked with Freeing the Human Spirit for the past six years teaching yoga to inmates at Kitchener’s Grand Valley Institution for women, a federal facility at which a fifth of the inmates are serving life sentences, according to a government website.
He says the salutary effects of his teachings are evident among inmates who attend the weekly classes: “They appear very, very relaxed when they leave our sessions,” says Brother, who has been practicing yoga and meditation for more than 20 years. “A lot of them feel stressed out, and they don’t know how to relax so we try to teach them how.” The prisoner students, he says, welcome the program. “By and large, they really appreciate what were doing. We’ve had some people who’ve come on a very regular basis and they try and recruit other people.”
Workers within the correctional system also regard Freeing the Human Spirit with favour, crediting it with creating a more serene prison environment.
“Correctional staff say that inmates who participate in the program are more relaxed and are able to deal with their stress and anxiety,” says Greg Flood, a spokesperson with the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services. “The program also provides inmates with techniques to control their behaviour in a non-violent matter, which promotes the safety of inmates and ministry staff working in these facilities.”
Flood’s assessment mirrors the experience of similar programs in the U.S. A 2008 study at Wake Correctional Center in Raleigh, N.C., followed 190 inmates who attended yoga, meditation and philosophy classes, accompanied by a vegetarian meal. Those who attended four or more classes had a reincarceration rate of 8.5 per cent compared to a statewide reincarceration rate as high as 41 per cent.
A 2003 study by the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington found that drug use and self-reported levels of depression and hostility were significantly lower among inmates who took a 10-day meditation course.
Linda Myler, the volunteer chair of Freeing the Human Spirit, has been teaching yoga and meditation at the Don Jail for five years. Most prisoners, she observes, are deeply aware that one day they will face the challenges of reintegrating into society.
“Unless you’ve committed some heinous crime and you’re in for life, you’re going to be rejoining the community at some point,” she says. “When people are incarcerated, they have the opportunity to grow and change, to think about the life they want when they rejoin the community.”
Myler, who has been meditating for three decades and has been teaching yoga at a downtown Toronto studio for the past seven years, says she believes the programs offered by Freeing the Human Spirit can make a difference in the reintegration effort — in part because the individuals who attend the courses are motivated to change: “People that join our program are the ones who want something different. They don’t want to keep living the life that they had before.”
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