Yoga at the NC Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh.
Marcy Edwards leads a yoga class at the NC Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh. Photo credit Hyun Namkoong

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Inmates find peace of mind and inner strength during a yoga class at the state’s largest women’s prison.

By Hyun Namkoong

Rays of sunlight beam on the old wooden floors of a gym as Marcy Edwards, a yoga teacher, gently tells her eight students to inhale deeply and listen to their bodies. All of the students are dressed in identical oversized beige shirts and green cargo shorts, the standard uniform for inmates who have received long-term sentences at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women.

Under Edwards’ guidance, the women extend their arms and glide their bodies into downward-facing dog – hands and feet on the floor, hips high, stretching their leg muscles – before unfolding themselves onto lilac-colored mats.

This is their Monday-afternoon escape.

The program has been around for five years, and Warden Bianca Harris said she’s has seen a number of benefits from the class including a safer working environment for correctional officers.

Marcy Edwards leads a yoga class at the NC Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh. Photo credit Hyun Namkoong

“We don’t have staff assaults,” she said.

NCCIW is the only maximum-security prison for women in North Carolina and it houses the state’s largest overall inmate population, including women facing the death penalty and girls as young as 14.

Mendy Farris, an inmate, never misses a yoga class. “It helps me feel at peace with myself,” she said.

Trauma and abuse among prisoners

“Yoga isn’t just a bunch of poses; there’s a whole other piece with getting in touch with yourself,” Edwards said.

That “getting in touch” is also called self-reflection, or mindfulness, and Edwards believes that’s it’s important for anyone, anywhere, to take a deep breath, slow down and reflect on the past, present and future.

Yoga instructor Marcy Edwards says she believes practicing yoga can help women reach their goals once they leave prison. Photo credit Hyun Namkoong

“Everyone is two bad decisions away from being here,” she said. ”Maybe [taking] that breath is what separates you from making a bad decision and a decision that’s not going to have bad consequences.”

Many of those bad decisions that lead people to prison have their roots in mental health problems. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, more than 70 percent of female prisoners could be diagnosed with a mental health disorder.

Gerry Akland, president of the Wake County chapter for National Alliance on Mental Illness, said that in the past, programs weren’t set up in prisons to try to understand the histories of the people who are there. Whether they’ve experienced sexual abuse, for example. Are they dealing with things from their past that could interfere with how they function now?

Men and women who are incarcerated report a higher rate of abuse and trauma than the general population, and incarcerated women report significantly higher rates of physical and sexual abuse. Almost half of all female prisoners report physical or sexual victimization during childhood and nearly 80 percent report being physically or sexually abused prior to prison.

North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh is the largest women’s prison in the state, housing most of the state’s 2714 female inmates. Photo credit Hyun Namkoong

Abuse during childhood is strongly associated with adult victimization, substance use and criminal activity.

But research has shown that creating effective programs in prison that address the mental health needs of female prisoners can lower the recidivism rate and improve public safety. And other research has found that yoga programs in a prison can reduce depression, psychological distress and stress.

There are virtually no costs to taxpayers for implementing a yoga program in prison since teachers often volunteer their time, as in the case of Edwards.

Harris said that she supports programs that help the women process and work through any emotional difficulties they might have.

“Incarceration for a female is more about her mental state,” she said. “I support anything that helps them relax and come to terms with life.”

Ballooning prison population  

Akland said that big cuts to the number of beds in state psychiatric hospitals have left people who suffer from mental illnesses with few options.

“Many of them get into trouble and they end up in jail or prison,” he said. “This population of people with mental illness in prison is increasing.”

According to Harris, most women in NCCIW are incarcerated because of a drug-related offense.

The use of mandatory minimum sentencing laws to fight the War on Drugs has ballooned the national prison population from fewer than 200,000 in 1971 to more than two million in 2010 .

NCCIW warden Bianca Harris says she believes the yoga classes help to cut down on staff assaults and violence at the facility. Photo credit Hyun Namkoong

Women across the nation locked up behind bars are rising at a faster rate than any other segment of the population. From 2000 to 2010, the female prison population in North Carolina increased by 48 percent .

The increased prison population, as well as the high economic and social costs of incarceration, are starting to lead to discussions about coming up with alternatives to prison such as substance-abuse treatment programs.

“I think the system recognizes something needs to be done,” Akland said.

Recently, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called for reduced sentences on mandatory minimum sentencing laws as well as using alternatives to incarceration. Mandatory minimum sentencing for drug-related offenses requires judges to impose what many critics say are excessively harsh and long sentences.

Farris said that she plans to continue to do yoga even after release, which is only a few months away.

“It makes me feel tall when I come out of here,” she said.

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Hyun Namkoong

Hyun graduated from the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings Global School of Public Health in the health behavior department and she worked as the NC Health News intern from Jan-Aug 2014.