How do I even begin to describe last week’s events? I am teeming all at once with heartache, gratitude, and hope. On Tuesday, I attended the graduation for 5 women who just completed our teacher training behind bars, on Wednesday I taught the first Yoga Behind Bars class for men held in Washington’s only federal prison, and on Friday, I co-taught the first YBB class in Whatcom County’s (Bellingham) youth detention hall with our former Development Coordinator Celina.
Our graduate ceremony on Tuesday was a very emotional event, I doubt there were any dry eyes in the crowd. The women were replete with gratitude and nervous excitement. Throughout the training they demonstrated crazy courage and commitment, as it is no easy thing to become a yoga instructor, especially to prepare oneself to teach among one’s peers in prison. They are going to be incredible leaders and mentors in their community and will continue to expand YBB’s offering within their facility (with mentoring and time, some of them will hopefully teach in the pre- and post-natal mothers unit!). They all have release dates in the next 2-10 years and we can’t wait to help them find their place teaching in our community when that time comes.
This training was a TON of work, and I’m super proud of our Executive Director, Rosa Vissers, for her sheer gumption and dedication to this project!
Teaching the first men’s class at the Federal Detention Center (FDC) was a big deal. We’ve had women’s classes there for a while, but many staff have been apprehensive or even opposed to women teaching men. I’m really proud of YBB and our instructors for being so professional, and for how they bring both strong and loving boundaries to their interactions with our students. The staff finally gave the greenlight and I had the honor of teaching the first class.
We also had Susana with us for the first time, who as a native Spanish speaker was able to translate for the five Spanish-speaking women in the women’s class. 12 weeks from now we will launch our first Spanish-language yoga class at FDC!
Several things still shock me about this prison, and federal facilities in general. In the state system, “the primary offense for 16 percent of the prison population is a drug conviction. Conversely, in the federal system, drug offenses are the primary conviction for almost half (49 percent) of the prison population.”* This post isn’t about the war on drugs, and yet it is, because the criminalization of addiction and poverty has been one of the primary fuelers of mass incarceration and of the 700 percent increase in our country’s women’s prison population in the last 37 years.
The FDC students were utterly respectful, grateful, and also, they were pale. Perhaps a mistake, I mentioned the sun, and one of them joked, “what’s that?” They don’t see the sun. They don’t go outside. Unlike WA’s state prisons, the federal prison is in an urban setting in SeaTac and there is no prison yard of any kind save each unit’s concrete, mini gymnasium with air vents. Many of the facilities 630 inmates haven’t seen the sky or felt the ground for years. Pre-trial detainees, making up 2/3 of the population in county jails often endure the same experience (and they haven’t even been convicted of a crime). US prisons and jails aren’t designed to be comfortable, but can you imagine trying to learn and rehabilitate solely in a concrete block?
As if these two experiences weren’t enough to process for days, Friday my heart pretty much exploded at the kids’ jail in Bellingham. I didn’t know what to expect, as our youth programs are so different in each county. At the least, I expected a mix of rambunctious, skeptical, and distracted kids. From the first moment of class, the 11 kids (a mix of genders, mostly boys, from age 12-17) were attentive, and as one boy’s check-in word put it, “ready”. Only two had done yoga before (one of them, in another one of our programs). We learned that five of the youth are being tried as adults, and will thus be staying at the jail for many months as they await trial. I don’t know what will happen if they are convicted, but I truly hope they are sent to Echo Glen, our state long-term youth facility, instead of adult prison, where devastatingly,
Youth are 5x more likely to experience sexual abuse and up to 36x more likely to commit suicide than those kept at youth facilities. Often, to protect vulnerable youth, adult prison staff will keep them in solitary confinement for years. I don’t care what crime a child has committed, housing them in an adult facilitiy is unethical, dangerous, and scientifically and statistically proven to worsen their psychological and emotional conditions.**
These kids were so sweet and excited to be doing yoga. We laughed a bunch while trying to balance. I tried out some more serious prompts, like asking them to embrace the feeling of being a warrior for something important in their warrior poses, and they totally did it. I could see the determination in their faces and fists as we lunged and moved our arms up and down with the breath, squeezing and unfurling fists with the movement. I loved it when one boy asked, “what’s a quadricep?”
And the sweetest moments happened at the end of class. We brought eye pillows for them and they all tried them out while lying on their backs. I guided them through a meditation encouraging them to notice and release tension bit by bit. The room was so quiet and still as their palms gradually opened and the movement of their breathing chests and bellies deepened. When they sat up, I asked them to reflect on something or someone they felt grateful for and each of them looked so sincere and inward in their focus. We ended class going around and saying how we felt, and they shared things like, “relaxed”, “calm”, “tired”, “happy” and “I’m so grateful we get to do this program.”
I’m in awe of our ever-growing YBB family. The four volunteer instructors in Bellingham are going to be an amazing source of positive regard and compassion for these kiddos.
Taking deep breaths, feeling my feet on the ground. This world is so broken, and also there is so much to inspire and uplift the spirit. It is our volunteers and staff, our supporters, and most of all, our students, that give me the hope and strength to continue showing up and helping to create the world I want to live in.
Bit by bit, one act of love, of service, of equitable justice at a time, we can do this.
Photo Credit: Whatcom County Juvenile Detention Center