At Nanaimo Correctional Centre, one example of a program giving clients a sense of purpose is the Prison Yoga Project.
In custody, life is very different. For safety and security reasons, movement between spaces is restricted, privacy is limited, and often, living space is shared with people you don’t know. This would be challenging for anyone to adapt to, but can be even more complex for clients in custody, many of whom have experienced trauma, chronic health conditions, addiction issues, and barriers to health care and education.
In 2019, Tara McCaffery, a mental health and addiction supervisor at Nanaimo Correctional Centre, saw an opportunity to bring mindfulness programming to the centre. A counsellor by background, McCaffery understood just how important mindful activities are for mental health, and teaches the program at the centre.
"After a month of taking part, I really started to look forward to yoga. When I didn't go for a week, I felt disconnected. I feel like it is a crucial part of my recovery."
“Every day, we see and hear about the trauma that our clients in corrections have experienced,” Tara said. “Many of them have had really tough lives and find it difficult to switch off, relax, and let go of stress, anxiety and fear. That’s why programs like the Prison Yoga Project are so important. We are providing a safe space and an opportunity to relax and reconnect — even if it’s just for a couple of hours a week — a time where participants don’t feel on edge, stressed or in defense mode.”
“I feel more relaxed and rested from it,” said J.H., a participant in the program. “After a month of taking part, I really started to look forward to yoga. When I didn't go for a week, I felt disconnected. I feel like it is a crucial part of my recovery, and I highly recommend it to anyone else that is in early recovery.”
The Prison Yoga Project was started in 2002 in San Quentin, San Diego, and has been adopted by facilities around the world. It is based on the principle that most people in custody have a history of complex, interpersonal trauma and, unless this unresolved trauma is addressed, the tendency to re-offend will remain.
Though there are similarities with more common forms of yoga, the prison-yoga style has been very thoughtfully developed with incarcerated individuals in mind. It is trauma-informed to help them feel safe and to reconnect with themselves in what can be a difficult setting for mindfulness. Practice focuses mainly on poses that are designed to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system — the part of the nervous system that helps us relax and recover — and avoids anything that may cause physical discomfort or stress.
According to Nader Sharifi, the former medical director of Correctional Health Services, the human body goes into “fight-or-flight mode” when in danger or stressed. Muscles tense up, adrenaline starts pumping, and only when safe, the body and mind relax back into a normal resting state.
“When people have experienced a traumatic event like an assault, or an invasion of their personal space, both the body and mind are constantly looking for threats,” says Dr. Sharifi. “They’re constantly in that ‘fight-or-flight’ state, they’re on guard, numb to emotion, and assuming they cannot trust anybody. This means that their relaxation state never switches on, even when it should, like when they are lying in bed at night or watching TV. The impact this has on mental health is significant.”
In her classes, McCaffery creates a safe setting for each practice. The room is set up in a circle so students are facing each other. They can see what’s going on around them and feel safe and in control. Throughout the class, participants are reminded they have choices — to close their eyes or not, to challenge themselves or not. They are guided, rather than directed, which is important in a correctional setting where people may feel their autonomy is sometimes limited.
In the last year and a half, the Prison Yoga Project at Nanaimo Correctional Centre, an all-male facility, has had 35 regular participants attending two yoga classes per week. During the pandemic, these numbers were somewhat limited, but there is an appetite among the clients and staff to continue building the program.
As well as the benefits to client health, this type of yoga in correctional facilities builds rapport between clients and staff, expanding the opportunities for connection outside of regular clinical programming.
"When we participate together in activities where our roles are not the priority, barriers begin to come down and we can work together to ensure a safe space for everyone."
“The reaction to the yoga program here has been very positive,” says Teri DuTemple, the warden at Nanaimo Correctional Centre. “I have enjoyed seeing staff and residents take part side by side. It supports a normalized healthy activity where our roles as staff and residents are secondary. When we participate together in activities where our roles are not the priority, barriers begin to come down and we can work together to ensure a safe space for everyone. My hope is that the yoga program will continue to grow and that residents consider incorporating additional healthy activities in their lives.”
In time, McCaffery hopes to do a study on the impact of this type of programming on clients, and there is the potential to expand the program to other sites.
“This program is having such positive impacts on participants,” says Nancy Desrosiers, provincial executive director of Correctional Health Services. “In time, we would like it expand to other centres and sites as an additional avenue for clients to manage their mental health and build resilience. Returning to the community after spending time in custody can be stressful and having the skills to connect with how they are feeling and to relieve the stresses of daily life will undoubtedly help people in the long run.”