Bringing Yoga to Prison

Women are a fast-growing portion of the incarcerated population. In New York, a new yoga program focused on prenatal care is fostering courage, control, and mental health among inmates.
Susana Vera/Reuters

Kimberleigh Weiss-Lewit and eight other women made a makeshift circle in the middle of the cell.

“It’s just you, your baby, and your breath,” Kim said.

One woman got up and left for the yard. Two others drifted off soon after.

“Let’s try to connect and trust one another,” Kim said.

“You don’t trust anybody in here,” scoffed one of the remaining four mothers-to-be.  This is how Weiss-Lewit recalled her first prenatal yoga class, through Prison Yoga Project-NY (PYP-NY) at the Rose M. Singer Center, the women’s section of Rikers Island.

Weiss-Lewit says she has to remind herself, “My version of Rikers is not theirs.”

Entering any prison to help pregnant women prisoners relax always made her feel like she was walking on eggshells. A corrections officer stood at the door with a big smile and maintained it for most of the class, “Girl, you can do it!”

For years, Weiss-Lewit has taught yoga and art therapy in New York State correctional facilities. She had her first pregnancy while teaching at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility (its prison nursery, founded in 1901, is the oldest in the nation) and bonded with mothers serving time with children outside.

It is one of only nine prison nurseries in the nation, four of which have been created within the past five years. She had developed relationships with many of the women she met at Bedford Hills who were serving long sentences. At Rikers, inmates serve one year or less, often for things as minor as missing bail. Kim might not see the same women from one week to the next.

Being pregnant in prison is extremely stressful, and the majority of pregnant women come to Rikers in a state of arrested development, unprepared and young. Three-fourths of women in prison are mothers. On average, six to ten percent of incarcerated women are pregnant, with the highest rates in local jails. Without a standard of treatment for pregnant women prisoners in the United States, the needs of women during pregnancy often conflict with the demands and priorities of the prison system. According to the National Women’s Law Center, many states have laws that penalize women based on their actions while pregnant, which they argue are misguided, often exceeding legislative intent and turning public health issues, such as substance abuse, into criminal ones.

New York has taken steps to address the unique healthcare needs of women prisoners. In 2009, New York ended its practice of shackling of prisoners in labor, an act that was found unconstitutional under the 8th Amendment. Throughout the U.S., it’s far from the same. There are several reasons for the schism.

Women are the fastest-growing incarcerated population, but there are scant data on women’s healthcare in prison. Some things are clear according to the Sentencing Project­­—between the 1980s when mandatory minimum sentencing laws were introduced, and 2012, the number of incarcerated women in the U.S. grew by 646 percent. That is almost twice as fast as male prisoners.

Women of color are also almost three times as likely to be incarcerated, though recent studies have shown an increase for white women. Two-thirds of women are in jails and prisons serve time for nonviolent crimes, mainly drug offenses. This isn’t a new thing. The first federal women’s prison, opened in 1927, almost exclusively held women for drug and alcohol charges imposed during Prohibition.

Women have disproportionate histories of abuse and mental illness in prison. Over the decades the U.S. prison system, with much exasperation, has become surrogate for the nation’s mentally ill, blurring of the lines between criminal and mentally ill. In fact, Rikers has one of the largest psych wards in the country.

Controversially, many prisons have turned to privatization as a solution to overcrowding, which the U.S. Department of Justice in a report found had “diminishing returns.”

A 2009 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that the outsourcing of private health care providers in New York directly correlated with the state’s rising prison population. Last year the state attorney general's office announced an investigation of one of the state’s largest private contractor’s role in the death of nine inmates, the AP reported.

While many states cut back on healthcare and education programs in correctional facilities, volunteer-led programs like yoga are increasingly practiced in prisons across the country.

Yoga has been around for 5,000 years, and these days the practice is associated with everything from spiritual enlightenment to yogurt. In prison, there are no superficialities and the classes are broken down into the most basic of yoga rules: being present.

“There are rules, but being in the moment is much more important in prison. It’s more immediate and present, there’s no room for yoga lingo or preachiness,” says Anneke Lucas, Director of PYP-NY.

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Dana Ullman is a freelance photographer and writer based in New York City.

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