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Stafford Creek Corrections Center Inmates Train to Become Yoga Instructors

January 20, 2016

By Rachel Friederich

Department of Corrections

An infographic on Yoga in the prison system.

(Tim Kelly , DOC Communications) See photo gallery...

ABERDEEN – Dwayne Satterfield places one arm atop a colorful, Styrofoam block, while stretching the other arm behind his back. Dressed in gray sweatpants and a white t-shirt, the 43-year-old raises one leg, balancing with grace and poise.

“Yoga is a life-changing thing,” Satterfield said. “If you truly delve into it, you get into a different state of mind. Things around here don’t bother me anymore.”

The “here” he’s referring to is prison. Satterfield is an inmate currently serving a life without parole sentence for aggravated murder. He’s one of ten inmates serving long term or life sentences from Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) prisons across the state who are temporarily taking residence at Washington Corrections Center (SCCC) to become yoga teachers through the Yoga Behind Bars program. Yoga Behind Bars is a Seattle-based non-profit organization in which professional yoga instructors volunteer to teach yoga and meditation to inmates in prisons, jails and detention centers across Washington in hopes of helping them through the rehabilitation process.

Teaching inmates to become yoga teachers at SCCC is a six-month pilot program, which began in August, according to Rosa Vissers, executive director for Yoga Behind Bars. During that time, inmates complete 100 hours of training from professional yoga teachers. Upon completion of training, the inmates will receive certificates and work with Yoga Behind Bars and corrections staff to return to their regularly assigned prisons to launch yoga classes. The teaching program, which is the first of its kind at any Washington state prison, is funded entirely by grants and private donations made to Yoga Behind Bars. Inmates in the program will complete their training Jan. 24 and graduate during a ceremony at the prison Feb. 2.

In addition to the long-term sentence requirement, inmates who want to be considered for training to become an yoga teacher must remain infraction free for at least six months and preferably have past experience with yoga (either personally or through Yoga Behind Bars classes). They must also fill out an application and be willing to serve as a mentor to other inmates.

Most of the inmates participating in the yoga classes and teacher training program at SCCC have been convicted of violent crimes such as robbery, assault and murder. Their sentences range from as short as 11 years to life without parole, or LWOP. The intent on using those with long or life sentences as instructors is to have a positive impact on prison culture while giving inmates tools for personal growth, according to Yoga Behind Bars staff. While some outsiders might be quick to peg these men as “lost causes,” Yoga Behind Bars instructor Dawn Hanson says yoga helps these inmates change their behavior, even if they will never be reprieved from the confines of prison.

“They are better able to deal with their anger or any difficult emotions and they are much more easily able to remain calm in difficult situations,” Hanson said.

Dawn Taylor, a corrections specialist at SCCC, said another benefit yoga gives to inmates serving long sentences is calming techniques and self-awareness skills, which can reduce the likelihood of inmates engaging in violent or harmful behavior.

“Yoga is motivator for them,” Taylor said. “It has a positive effect on their demeanor and it makes it a safer environment for staff and other inmates.”

She also said offering yoga in prisons has the potential to make communities safer because inmates who will completing their sentences will be able to use the calming and self-care techniques learned in yoga class to help them to cope with difficulties they’ll face when they eventually return to society.

Several studies support this claim. For example, a 2014 Washington State University study of fathers in jail who participated in yoga classes found the inmates experienced improved physical, emotional and spiritual states. It also found incarcerated fathers who participated in yoga reported feeling more resilient and had a renewed desire to respond to their children’s needs. Another study of prisons in the United Kingdom found that inmates who regularly practiced yoga had reduced stress levels and improved behavior.

Hanson added the same health benefits of yoga people in the community experience is also seen among incarcerated populations. These include improved cognitive function and memory, better flexibility, reduced anxiety and increased lung capacity. She also said yoga has been known to reduce headaches, boost the immune system and improve sleep patterns.

Meeting a Need

Vissers says yoga classes are often not available at corrections facilities across the state, and the ones that do offer them often have long waiting lists. She says training inmates with long sentences to become yoga teachers will help them make yoga—and the wellness benefits linked to it—available to inmates at prisons that don’t offer yoga programming.

“We whole-heartedly believe that every incarcerated person, whether they will be released or not, should have access to opportunities for personal growth and professional development,” Vissers said.

Michael Lar, 63, says he’s proof that yoga can improve wellness of those who have been incarcerated. At 6 feet two inches tall and 215 pounds, Lar hardly looks like a blithe yogi.

Lar, who is currently serving a life sentence for burglary, kidnapping and attempted robbery charges, came to SCCC from the Washington State Penitentiary (WSP) to learn to become a yoga instructor.

He says he began teaching himself yoga by reading books about it during his incarceration at the WSP, and was eager to be part of the pilot program at SCCC because it gave him the opportunity to learn yoga from a professional instructor. He now practices yoga three times a week and says as he gets older, yoga has helped keep him in shape.

“It really helps clear the mind and I appreciate the physical aspect of it,” Lar said. “It invigorates you and takes the stress away.”

Satterfield, on the other hand, whose assigned prison is SCCC, will be using the skills he learned to maintain and strengthen yoga classes at his facility. He says yoga has provided him with a boost of confidence and hope he thought he’d never be able to find while incarcerated.

He knows the actions he takes in prison will have no impact on reducing his sentence, but says becoming a yoga teacher will allow him to reach those who can still make different choices outside prison walls.

“This class is a motivator,” Satterfield said. “Yoga Behind Bars has given me good tools to use and explore the class and I can only hope I’ll be a good teacher.”

Read the Seattle Weekly article on Yoga Behind Bars.