Even though some politicians have derided prison yoga programs as unnecessary inmate “coddling,” there’s a growing push for their expansion across Canada.
Advocates say yoga and meditation boost inmates’ mental well-being and help to reduce prison violence. They point to the success of programs in the U.S., including one at California’s San Quentin State Prison, notorious for housing some of the most dangerous offenders.
The question – can the downward dog really benefit those doing hard time? – will be the focus of a discussion next month at a conference of the Canadian Criminal Justice Association.
“We’re interested in promoting (offenders’) return to the community with better skills than when they left it. If meditation helps them become more self-aware and helps them control their anger, then it’s really advantageous,” said Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, which advocates for prisoners’ rights. “It contributes to the successful re-integration of people.”
The society is in the process of taking over administration of Freeing the Human Spirit, a Canadian charity that has provided yoga and meditation classes at more than two-dozen provincial and federal institutions, mostly in Ontario, using volunteer instructors.
Latimer said she is now hoping to expand the yoga and meditation programs – which she says cost very little to run – to more institutions across the country.
This summer, a study out of Oxford University found prisoners who went through a 10-week yoga program had a more positive mood, were less stressed and performed better on a computer test of their impulse control.
Expansion of yoga in Canadian prisons may still be a tough sell for some. The federal Conservatives appear to question the value of prison yoga. Asked this week if the federal government would consider
providing funds to help expand such programs, a spokesman for Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney said via email: “Our government’s focus is on making sure the correctional system actually corrects criminal behaviour. Let me be clear: No taxpayer dollars have been spent on this program.”
Edmonton-area yoga instructor Chantele Theroux, a speaker at the upcoming criminal justice conference, doesn’t understand what the fuss is about. Theroux, who also works as a provincial investigator specializing in fraud and forensic investigations, said prison inmates often have anger issues, impulse-control issues, and post-traumatic stress disorder – in other words, they’re prime candidates for exposure to yoga’s calming effects.