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Tracy Lease: Why offer mindfulness in the Nevada County jail?

Tracy Lease

“Your grandpa hires ex-cons to work in his business.”

“What’re ex-cons, Dad?”

“They’re people who have made a bad mistake and gone to jail. Grandpa thinks they deserve another chance.”

Fast-forward 40 years. I volunteer to teach in the Wayne Brown Correctional Facility, the local jail, with my colleague Kate Flore.

Like my grandpa, I believe in second chances.

We typically teach between 12 and 18 men eight-week sessions of mindfulness in a jail with a 250-person capacity. About eight different volunteers guide mindfulness practice throughout the year. Those who started the program hoped to reduce stress and violence in the jail, help inmates develop stress management techniques, and give inmates a way to pause and stop automatic behaviors that get them into trouble.

The first time I walked through the double-airlock doors into the cinderblock hallway I felt nauseous — no windows, no daylight. Can one teach in here? As soon as I was with the students who had chosen to come to class, I forgot about being locked in.

We set the ground rules:

What we say in here stays here. We can share how we feel, but not other people’s stories.

We respect each other as we speak; no cross-talk.

We use appropriate language and conversation.

They all agreed.

We guided these men — ages ranging from 19 into their 60s — through practices to tune into their breath, to pay attention to passing thoughts and emotions, to learn to pause before reacting.

Kate and I teach mindfulness through movement and quiet sitting, through mirroring exercises and partner conversations. During each closing circle I am moved by what I hear. They are surprised others have hard stories similar to their own, the class makes them feel less alone, they like the breathing practices or the movement, or learning to listen. Before we go, they thank us. They are some of the most appreciative students I have ever taught.

I grew up with two loving parents. They fed me three meals a day, watched over how I did in school (sometimes too closely), read me books, and hugged me before I went to bed. They took me traveling and taught me to love learning. They also modeled how to behave in the world.

Having been a school teacher for 14 years, I know not all kids are that lucky. I know when kids don’t have the support they need, they may not learn the skills to live a healthy life and make positive decisions. I believe all people can learn. I believe we all want to be loved and to love. Like my grandpa, I believe in second chances.

Insight-out.org’s research page reports, “The average recidivism rate in California is 61% of parolees returning to prison within three years. It costs $75,000 per year to incarcerate a prisoner in California.” They go on to say their mindfulness program is “saving around 15 million dollars in tax payers’ money each year, while improving public safety and preventing re-victimization.”

Nancy Wolff and Jing Shi, in a journal article about Childhood and Adult Trauma of Incarcerated Persons note, “Experiencing physical, sexual, or emotional abuse (referred to as “trauma”) during childhood is known to have predictable immediate and distal impacts on personality development.” They go on to say, “Rates of childhood and adult trauma are notably elevated among incarcerated men.”

All the men I have worked with will leave the jail. They will walk our streets again. For the wellbeing of our community I want to support them to learn and grow, to become as healthy and self-aware as they can be.

With more inmates in prison, convicts are spending more time in jail. Jails do not have the funds for the programs prisons have. These men may spend 22 hours a day in their cells. The classes give them food for thought and conversation with their cellmates, give them skills to practice while they sit, and offer alternative possibilities.

Mindfulness in the jails may help inmates tap into an authentic self that exists beneath the trauma they have experienced, offering inmates a variety of ways to respond to past pain and stressful situations. I have witnessed how classes develop awareness when an inmate shared that he was able to pause to avoid blowing up at a guard when he felt misunderstood. Another said he practiced authentic listening when his girlfriend visited and it felt good to pay attention. Healthy behavior is learned behavior.

I hope our community will support giving these guys as many tools as possible, so we all live in a healthier community.

Tracy Lease, owner and director of Full Life Yoga Studio has a passion for teaching Yoga, Mindfulness, and Pilates. An experienced registered yoga teacher and certified Pilates teacher, she can be reached at tracy@fulllifeyogastudio.com.


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