“Of all my teaching, it’s my prison class I miss the most,” says Jane, echoing the feelings of all of us who have been unable to teach face-to-face classes for most of the last 12 months. While many have moved our community classes online, this just isn’t possible for prisons where internet access is limited.
“It’s frustrating,” says Jane, who has taught adults and young offenders at HMP Forest Bank in Salford since 2016. “It was rewarding to see the young men benefit from the practice and they are really keen for it to resume.”
Living under extreme restrictions
Since 4th January all adult UK prisons have been fully locked down with chapels, education, and gym sessions cancelled. Family visits have been replaced with secure video calls.
The effect of these heavy restrictions on prisoners’ wellbeing is profound, according to prisoners’ comments in recent reports on the impact of the pandemic in prisons by the Prison Reform Trust (PRT) and the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT):
“The main problem for me is having nothing of any meaning or consequence to do; i.e., the usual feelings experienced in prison but taken to the extreme.”Prison Reform Trust
“It often feels that the small group I go to the yard with […] are the only prisoners in the place. This virus has sucked the life out of everything, even this prison.”Irish Penal Reform Trust
Finding new ways to share and teach
The need to prioritise mental health and wellbeing has now been recognised by prison authorities. Lessons are being learnt from last year, when lockdown became the mother of invention in some prisons, sparking new and creative ways of getting through.
One yoga teacher has been submitting audio recordings of guided meditations and relaxations with photographs of nature, which are shown nightly on prison TV in Limerick Prison Republic of Ireland.
Judy, another teacher, has worked with HMP Winchester’s education team to produce a series of three-minute seated practices to be broadcast on the hour, every hour, for a week. Bryan, from the team, has also recorded videos of woodland and seaside walks for prisoners to watch in their cells.
Gary is providing a Tuesday night Zoom class for prison officers and has filmed four yoga sessions that are being shown on prison television for men to practise in their cells at HMP Full Sutton.
Many prisons have to rely on books and paper for in-cell activity packs. The PPT has received hundreds of requests for its printed yoga and meditation handouts. Kate, who teaches yoga at HMP Low Moss near Glasgow, organised for PPT newsletters to be delivered to the gym.
Yoga teacher Jen sent a questionnaire to her students at Portlaoise Prison in Ireland, asking what would help them during lockdown. “Some responses included requests for postures to alleviate back pain, nerve pain, and knee pain,” says Jen. “Also a set of stretches to do after a gym workout.”
At HMP Berwyn in Wales, Philippa has been emailing yoga lesson plans for men to do in their cells. The prison recently started providing laptops, which opens up more possibilities for virtual teaching.
“The books have helped me to maintain a routine each day to the point where I have a set time, usually over lunch when we’re all locked up, and look forward to doing the practice.”A prisoner from HMP Hewell
Taking nothing for granted
We may all have felt a little ‘imprisoned’ at times this last year, stuck indoors, unable to see friends and family, thinking longingly ahead to our ‘release’. Covid-19 has given us a glimpse of how we respond when restrictions are imposed on our normal way of life.
“The pandemic is teaching us a lot about uncertainty,” says prison yoga teacher Jane. “We thought there was certainty and now we know there wasn’t!”
Fellow teacher Kate says: “It has been a difficult time for everyone but at least with the vaccine now available there is some light ahead. It will be some time yet before classes resume but I’m sure they will be well attended when that day comes.”