There are usually between 18 and 22 guys in Betsy Duncombe’s yoga class. They file in each Tuesday and Thursday, always at least a couple minutes before the 8:30 a.m. start time. They come wearing T-shirts and shorts or even jeans. Most are in slippers, though some choose to come to class in work boots. Some are stretching on worn mats, but most are simply spread out on white towels.
At the moment, they’re all laying on their stomachs, trying to arch their backs as far as they can.
“For those of you in this posture,” says Duncombe, “feel how wide open your lungs are.”
The guys grunt and strain and cough. Most can’t bend their backs more than a few inches, but some have their heads pointed almost straight up, their eyes closed in sublime relaxation.
Duncombe asks the guys to turn over onto their backs—a request they happily carry out. Laying flat on her back, she proceeds to raise both her upper body and her legs off the ground, bending her body into a V. The older guys closest to her look aghast. Just one guy succeeds in duplicating her effort.
A few moments later, they’re kneeling, bending their arms above their heads.
“The center of this practice is non-aggression,” says Duncombe.
“I smell perfume,” says one guy near the back, shattering the room’s silence.
Duncombe ignores him. “There’s a way to achieve strength without doing harm,” she says. “To push ourselves to the edge without pushing beyond it.”
Welcome to Free Inside, Duncombe’s experimental yoga class for inmates at Maui Community Correctional Center (MCCC). Her students are for the most part nearing the end of their sentences, in some cases 10 to 15 years. Their convictions are harsh and include murder, assault, rape and drug trafficking.
Not quite four months old, the course is part of a research study Duncombe is conducting as part of her University of Hawaii masters’ degree work. Having already taught one 12-week class late last year, Duncombe is now in the third week of her next group of students.
As far as anyone close to the program can tell, Free Inside is one of the only attempts anywhere in the U.S. at using ancient yoga, chi gung and meditative techniques to rehabilitate prisoners. Its goals, as written out in Duncombe’s guidebook, are considerably ambitious:
“Lower recidivism in its inmate participants; lower staff turnover… improve the physical and mental health of all its participants; result in calmer, kinder prison behavior in all of its participants; improve reunification success of paroled inmate participants with their families and employers.”
“When you see the interconnectedness of people, it’s very hard to go out and hurt people,” said Duncombe. “I’m just getting them to a place within themselves that they may have lost touch with. But no matter what I see in these guys, it’s what they do under stress that counts. What’s important is making habitual what they learn in this class.”
According to Duncombe, something like 70 percent of released prisoners continue to commit crimes, eventually ending up back behind bars. For many decades, centuries even, Western correctional thinking has focused on the punishment aspects of incarceration—beating down and isolating prisoners. With so few “reformed criminals” coming out of prison these days, it would seem something isn’t working.
I sat down with Duncombe a week before visiting her MCCC class. She’s a slight 43-year-old woman with brown hair and green eyes. Married to Mana’o Radio disc jockey Scott Mills, the couple has two daughters, age eight and 17.
“I’m aware of my white imperialist roots,” she said, curled up in a chair beneath a ladder leading to the loft of her Haiku home. “We’ve done a lot of damage around the world. But I grew up in a family of human rights activists. On the plane to Maui I made a promise—I kid you not—that I would give back.”
Duncombe, who said she’s been practicing yoga for 20 years, also teaches a yoga class at the homeless shelter next to the prison. Like the MCCC inmates, many of her students have a history of drug abuse. But that’s not exactly new to her.
“When I was in my early 20s, I used drugs more than was healthy,” she said. She credits her discovery of yoga and mediation with pulling her “out of a very dark place.” During her class, Duncombe references that past.
“It’s important for me to relate to the inmates,” she said. “Otherwise they might assume I read all this in a book.”
Yoga is thousands of years old. It is really quite simple, actually—just a series of meditative exercises designed to heal the body physically and mentally.
“Meditation helps people to do nothing,” said Evaon Wong-Kim, an assistant professor of social work at San Jose State University who is advising Duncombe on her Free Inside project. “It clears their mind. You come to a place where you can see what you’ve been doing.”
Both Duncombe and Wong-Kim pointed out that prison ought to be the ideal place for yoga—lots of people with emotional and physical problems who have a lot of time to practice.
Duncombe interviewed her students when the course began, asking them questions they’ve likely never faced before:
What do you think of this world?
What kind of changes can you make?
Do you feel connected to other people?
When the course is over, Duncombe will ask the same questions again and then compare the results, which she’ll write up in hopes of attracting state or federal funding.
I asked Wong-Kim how they could test effectiveness.
“That’s a good question,” she said. “Consider this the starting point of a larger program. Just a pilot project.”
“Busy day today!” says MCCC deputy warden Alan Nouchi a half hour before Duncombe’s class begins. Short with a mop of dark hair reminiscent of the early Beatles, Nouchi agreed to escort Duncombe, a photographer and myself over to Dorm 6/7 for the morning’s class.
Though “deputy” remains in his title, Nouchi has been overall head of the prison since last June, when then-warden Albert Murashige got himself arrested on four charges of sexually assaulting a female inmate. He later pleaded no contest.
Nouchi’s been on the MCCC staff for the last 28 years. Things have changed a lot since he began.
“Today’s headcount is 366,” he says, looking at the daily roster at the front desk of the gatehouse. “We’re rated to hold 209. Even that’s a lot more than when I started, which was 16.”
“Sixty?!” says the desk guard. “Wow.”
“No, 16,” corrects Nouchi. “One-six.”
The guard’s eyes bug out.
For a prison official with so many years’ experience in corrections, Nouchi—as well as MCCC Programming Director James Hirano, who did a lot to guide Duncombe into the prison—is remarkably open-minded about Duncombe’s course.
“I’m willing to try anything that could possibly reduce recidivism rates,” he said. “If it can change peoples’ lives, so be it, man. More power to her. Whatever works. I’m willing to try anything.”
After exchanging our driver’s licenses for yellow visitor badges, the desk guard electronically unlocks the gatehouse’s back door, leading us into a small cage. After the gatehouse door closes, he unlocks the cage door, allowing us access onto the prison yard.
Walking down a short road to another locked gate, we cross a basketball court that offers a tremendous view of Wailuku Heights to get to a plus-sign-shaped building called Dorm 6/7. Inside are individual showers, bookshelves and other recreational facilities. In the center is another desk, always staffed by two guards. From there, the guards can see directly into the dining room where Duncombe teaches her class.
Within a few minutes of her arrival, two inmates have stacked the dining room’s brown metal folding chairs against the wall and are mopping the floor. Duncombe places a sign-in sheet near the door as prisoners begin filing in. Assigned to the class at random, they would otherwise be on prison work detail at this hour.
One inmate, Jason Camara, brings a couple colorful drawings for an artistic and literary journal Duncombe also publishes. One sheet shows an elaborate pink turtle, while the other is of an intricately drawn bamboo forest outlining a large heart with the caption “A heart of bamboo/It splits and shatters/But doesn’t break!!”
“It clears my mind,” he says when I ask him about his involvement in the class. “Because of the class, I’ve started to get into Chinese calligraphy. And a lot of spiritual things.”
“All the time I forget these are criminals,” Duncombe had said earlier. “Then the guys will talk about having bullets in them. I see a lot of tears and remorse in their eyes. And a lot of wisdom. I hope they start a daily practice that they don’t forget when they’re back on the street and tempted in different ways.”
I asked her how receptive they were to her presence and teachings.
“They put up a lot of resistance at first,” she said. “There are a lot of tough guys, but also a lot of jokesters. I don’t take them very seriously. To be honest, I haven’t been concerned about my safety.”
Duncombe said she’d only cried once during a class. It was back in December, when she told the students she wanted to teach a class on Christmas.
“A few of my usual jokesters said something like it was the last thing they wanted,” she said. “I turned around and tried to pull myself together. But then they got concerned. They saw me as a human being instead of a teacher.”
“When you drink the water, remember its source,” Duncombe says a number of times during her class. The students listen, but say nothing.
The room is quiet but periodically interrupted by birds chirping outside and the guard’s squawking radio. Every few minutes, a guard walks through the room, carefully stepping over the mats.
Duncombe talks to her students constantly, explaining which organs the various poses help or the importance of meditation.
“Gather strength from your breath like it’s food.
“Sit in a way to feel balanced.
“The tongue corresponds to the heart, sends energy to the heart.”
At one point, while discussing the lungs, she asks her students what object in nature the organs resemble. Like a high school class, the inmates begin shouting out all sorts of answers.
“Sponge… fungus… mushrooms… artichokes… cauliflower… artichokes… asparagus… artichokes…”
“You know if you spread out the lungs they’ll cover a whole tennis court,” says one guy who hadn’t spoken before, pretty much ending the discussion.
Then they begin meditation, which considering the patrolling guards and kitchen sounds and occasionally blaring radio would be tough for any yoga student.
“We’ve been using physical means to access our organs,” she says. “In meditation we’re using our minds. This is something that is accessible to everyone. The reason this isn’t taught in school today, in my opinion, is that there isn’t a way to make a profit.”
Most sit cross-legged, but only a few close their eyes and seem to slow their thinking. Duncombe asks the inmates to think of a time when they were at peace.
“Every time you breathe out, breathe that feeling out,” she says. “Breathe in physical pain, then exhale that feeling of peace. We are inviting pain right into our body… but we have the ability to transform it.”
She asks them to breathe in the pain of someone they love. Then someone they don’t like. Then someone they don’t know.
“The ultimate way to heal ourselves,” she tells them, “is to help other people.”
Class is over a few minutes later. The students hurriedly put their mats and towels in a closet, then take off. Duncombe thanks her students and the guards, picks up her clipboard and leaves. Now it’s simply a matter of passing through two more locked gates. The last one, at the cage leading to the gatehouse, has a small sign posted near the latch:
“Please do not slam gate. Be gentle.”