“If we forget that in every criminal there is a potential saint, we are dishonouring all of the great spiritual traditions,” writes prison reform activist and founder of the Prison Ashram Project, Bo Lozoff, for New Renaissance Magazine. “Saul of Tarsus persecuted and killed Christians before becoming Saint Paul, author of much of the New Testament… Milarepa, one of the greatest Tibetan Buddhist gurus, killed 37 people before becoming a saint… We must remember that even the worst of us can change.”
The Prison Ashram Project was the 1973 brainchild of Lozoff and renowned spiritual teacher Ram Dass. The idea was to encourage both prisoners and prison staff to recognise the inmates’ “depth as human beings.” Ashram, which comes from the Sanskrit meaning ‘House of God’, refers to a spiritual space, originally in reference to Hindu hermitages, but now often applied to any retreat where the likes of yoga and meditation are practised. Prison cells, they argued, had the potential to become such personal paradises (incidentally, the rooms of monasteries are also known as cells). By the time Lozoff passed away in 2012, the programme had been embraced by over 500 US prisons. Now under the umbrella of the Human Kindness Foundation, the Prison Ashram Project has a sister organisation in the United Kingdom called the Prison Phoenix Trust. Classes are offered in the majority of British prisons.
The Prison Phoenix Trust aims to encourage prisoners, “in the development of their spiritual welfare, through the practices of meditation and yoga, working with silence and breath.” Former head of residence of at Glen Parva Prison, Simon Cass, says that the introduction of yoga paid dividends, contributing to an overall reduction of fighting at the facility: “Some very challenging young men have been able to use techniques learnt in yoga to control some of their impulsive and violent behaviour.” An Oxford University study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research concluded that yoga, “improves behavioural control and decreases distress in a prison population.”
In Uganda, the introduction of an elaborate prison football league has been hailed as one of the leading reasons for some startling reoffending reforms. Upper Prison in the capital Luzira was once one of the nation’s most unforgiving institutions but has since become one of Africa’s most progressive prisons, with a recidivism rate of less than 30%. To put that into context, Norway has one of the lowest rates on earth with 20%, while in the US, over three-quarters of released inmates are re-arrested within five years (the US also incarcerates over ten times more citizens per 100,000 than its Scandinavian counterpart).
The inmates of Upper Prison are an imaginative bunch, having formed a raft of classes for drama, dance and music played on homemade instruments. The most popular prison pastime, however, is soccer and the most loved league, the English Premier. Though there are prison teams named after the likes of Barcelona and Juventus, the majority of the ten clubs have taken names such as Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea and it is taken very seriously indeed. Each team must have a chairman, coach, secretary and treasurer, with a minimum of 16 registered players and no more than 25. A full-size pitch is accommodated within the main prison yard — Boma A — and though grass grows occasionally during the rainy season, for most of the year it is an earthy orange soil. Crowds are regularly in the hundreds, sometimes over a thousand and fans donate food and kits to their team as a means of enticing the best players.
New Zealand has some of the highest incarceration rates in the developed world, with 155 inmates per 100,000 citizens (nations such as Japan and those in northern Europe range from 37 to 73 per 100,000), and nearly half of the prison population are Māori. Earlier this year saw the launch of the Te Tirohanga programme at Whanganui prison, the final stage of a nationwide initiative aiming to better rehabilitate and reduce rates of recidivism through Māori-focussed education, though the programme is open to inmates of any descent. Activities include learning waiata and practising the haka.
“We must remember that even the worst of us can change.”
“Some of these guys, when they come here they actually have a very distorted view of what it is to be Māori,” director of Māori for the Department of Corrections, Neil Campbell, tells the Guardian, “and those distorted views often justify offending behaviour.” One such distortion, he adds, may be the mistreatment of women, but he says that the programme aims to deliberately turn that on its head: “We actually come from a matriarchal culture that isn’t about suppressing women. In fact, women lead all the events. Men do some of the show-pony stuff, but women are coordinating everything.”
While the Department of Corrections wants to reduce reoffending by 25% by 2017, the Te Teirohanga programme is aiming for 30%. The programme places real emphasis on the involvement of inmates’ whānau, with them playing a leading role in the rehabilitation process. “Being Māori, family is a huge component of our lives,” an inmate at Manawatu Prison tells Stuff. “It gives us an opportunity to reconnect with our families when we’ve made bad choices. This is our opportunity, this is our chance.”