Gavrila Nikhila: The women on Highway 49
I pull up to the Wayne Brown Correctional Facility off Highway 49, and turn right on Maidu Ave. When I mention our county jail, curious faces inquire, “We have a jail? Where’s the jail?”
Many people do not realize that when they drive on Highway 49, right past the North Bloomfield traffic light, they pass a concrete building housing up to 250 inmates. Two hundred and fifty humans, tucked away, incarcerated for myriad reasons.
Today is Day 1 of the eight-week Mindfulness Course that I’ll be offering. Due to the urging and initiative of Wayne Brown’s onsite therapist, Julie Lang, and local psychotherapist John Eby, multiple courses focused on self improvement and mindfulness are now offered to the inmates at the jail. From classes on the Four Agreements, Yoga classes, and this Mindfulness Course, volunteer teachers come to offer another way — in my opinion, a more useful way — to utilize their time in jail for self bettering and healing.
As I enter the building, I lock up all my belongings. The officer alerts the team of my entrance, unlocking the three consecutive doors that keep the outside from the in. As I walk down the hallway into the unit I’ll be teaching, I smell the lack of air circulation. All I see are three colors — white walls, gray floors and orange jumpers. I enter the activity room, waiting for the women to be informed that anyone who is interested is now invited to Mindfulness class.
About 15 ladies walk into the room, eying me over. Each week, the number changes, some faces change and some remain familiar. They look at me skeptically, yet longingly, hungry for possibility. Many have never meditated in their lives, many have no idea what mindfulness is, but they showed up, curious for the benefits this may bring them.
“I’ve never been in jail,” I tell them after introducing myself. “But I believe that you have one of the greatest opportunities of your life being in here.”
Faces furrow or go blank, confused at my words.
“You are now in an incubator. The rest of the world’s distractions are outside of these walls. There’s not much distracting you from you in here. You become wildly aware of the hours and minutes of the day, you become aware of your thoughts, your mind, your aggravations, your fears. This class is an opportunity to really get to know all of those aspects of yourself, all of those parts, that you’ve turned away from over and over again. Perhaps in the outside world, you’ve found ways to numb yourself, to ignore the parts within you that remain in unrest, but here, you have the opportunity to see another way. Not everyone gets this wake up call.”
Over the next eight weeks, I watch as students become teachers.
Ruth, who told me from the beginning that she hates herself and hasn’t yet grieved the death of her daughter, will later tell me how she was able to fall apart, tend to her emotions, as her lawyer delivered hopeless news. Karen comes in week after week, telling me how she practices mindful breathing in her corner bed as chaos circulates around her, the jail reaching capacity — 17 women to a room.
Story after story flows in each week, now veteran mindfulness students share with new students the benefits they are gaining from this practice. How instead of screaming out in anger, they can acknowledge and sit with their anger. How moving rooms, which once seemed petrifying, is now understood as change, as impermanence, a law of life. How finally, rather than reactivity, tears can be released in the safe container that we’re creating together.
Together, we will come to face the busy mind, the fearful thoughts, the buried pain. Using the practices of mindfulness, we will begin to understand, we will strengthen our awareness, in what the landscape of our reality really looks like. We will teach the mind how to remain present to what is happening in the here and now. And in this, find empowerment and freedom and choice.
In these thick, cement walls, in this concealed container, I watch in awe as women shift their perspective, taste a freedom that they didn’t know was possible.
Gavrila Nikhila lives in Nevada City.
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