The hope that inmates are reformed while serving prison sentences has been a longstanding one. Today, there are new reasons to believe that hope will become a reality — thanks to creative solutions arising not only from the justice system but also from inmates who are starting and running programs meant to enhance both their lives and the lives of those around them.
A less-heard but not uncommon narrative is that of war veterans behind bars. Regardless of the crime committed, all veterans deserve the benefits to which they are entitled for serving their country and being a part of the U.S. military. A program behind the bars of Soledad Correctional Training Facility in California’s Salinas Valley is striving to provide those benefits. With warden approval, incarcerated vets are able to take advantage of an inmate-run Veteran Service Office to get help with filing, fighting for and obtaining the VA benefits they have earned. These inmates are working to improve their daily lives, as well as the lives of others in every prison throughout the state of California and in 23 other states, by mail. The goal is to make prison life more humane and manageable for incarcerated individuals.
Another interesting turn of events is the rise of yoga in prisons. San Quentin Prison in California founded the Prison Yoga Project, a rehabilitation program for inmates based on the belief that changing negative behavioral patterns begins with cognitive, emotional work that addresses issues of violence. With mindfulness as the foundation, the exercise is meant to impact components of trauma, such as the lack of safety, predictability and control — scarcities that are prevalent in prisons. The Prison Yoga Project aims to give prisoners coping mechanisms for calming down in tense situations, such as an escalated argument with another inmate or a prison guard. Prisoners cite an ability to disengage and interrupt their typical reactive behavior as a positive outcome of the yoga classes; when inmates can come to terms with, and successfully work through, trauma and pain experienced earlier in life, their environment becomes happier and more productive.
One of the hardest parts of incarceration for most inmates is simply their day-to-day living situations. Prisons are extremely loud, with little space to move and think independently. For this reason, U.K. prison systems have designed portable therapy pods for their inmates, to give them more comfortable access to healthcare. The egg-shaped structures have an inner-foam core used to dampen and mask external sounds of prison life so that the conversations that take place inside are more relaxing, and there is no reason for people to raise their voices. The therapy pod is designed for either one-on-one use or group sessions of up to four people. Using the portable pods means inmate patients can be seen during the work day and more frequently than before, and with many prisoners suffering from mental health disorders, the pods are a safe and engaging alternative space for them to receive care.
The takeaway from these programs and implementations is the understanding that prison inmates are still human beings, and if we wish for them to be rehabilitated and return to any semblance of a normal life, we must continue to nurture and provide for them just as we do ourselves. Modern society is beginning to understand the correlation between a safer environment and the quality of mental health in prison systems. Hopefully, we can continue to improve upon and expand these programs to all who are incarcerated and seeking assistance.