Long Road to London

By Mike

I left prison in 2018 after serving a total of three years and four months. When I arrived home, whilst delighted to be out, there were many problems. My mother-in-law had moved in and brought her advanced dementia with her. I returned to a small island community where I was permanently labelled as a criminal. I struggled to find meaningful work, and so undertook all sorts of low paid work. The parole people in Guernsey were unhelpful – their only concern was to restrict my travel and places I could stay. It was a nightmare and I was trapped.

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Yoga returns to support wellbeing in prisons, as Covid challenges continue

Yoga classes helping to reduce the time prisoners spend behind their cell doors

Across British and Irish prisons, Covid restrictions are still having a big impact on life inside, with prisons cautiously relaxing regimes and almost all still operating some kind of ‘lockdown’.

The Prison Phoenix Trust is playing a part in helping to get prisoners out of their cells with the resumption of yoga and meditation classes. In the last month, numbers of class have grown by 32%. 

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Silent meditation day – online, Saturday 4th September

Join prison yoga teachers and letter writers for a powerful shared experience of silent meditation on Zoom 9am-4pm, Saturday 4th September 2021.

Sitting silently with the breath as a focus for the mind is the simplest – and can be the most powerful – of practices. It is the heart of what we teach in prisons, so effective is it in supporting the wellbeing and personal development of prisoners and staff.

For prison yoga teachers and volunteer letter writers, it is also an essential part of their own practice. The support we give to people in prison depends on us also being nourished and resourced by regularly sitting with our breath.

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Yoga helps prison officers cope with Covid-19 stress

Prison officers are taking yoga and meditation classes to help them cope with the stresses of work as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to put extra pressure on staff working in prisons.

A confidential survey of prison officers published in May (1) found high levels of anxiety and burn out. These feelings were exacerbated amongst those with caring responsibilities fearing their frontline work may put their families’ health at risk.

With staff shortages and illness affecting an already challenging work environment, the Prison Phoenix Trust is supporting yoga and meditation classes for staff in eight UK prisons (2) and is well placed to extend this to all interested prisons. The classes are currently held via Zoom, with yoga teachers ready to start face-to-face classes once Covid-19 restrictions allow.

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Yoga comes to the aid of women’s mental health in prisons

In-cell yoga handouts support wellbeing alongside yoga classes

The Prison Phoenix Trust has developed a set of 12 guided practices to support good mental health  in response to concerns about the impact of lockdown restrictions on women prisoners. 

It follows reports that the lack of family visits and increased isolation of lockdown regimes has had a particularly severe impact on women (1).

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Aging prison population gets support from yoga and meditation

The Prison Phoenix Trust yoga class inside HMP Winchester.

The Prison Phoenix Trust is helping prisons to support the health and wellbeing of older prisoners with yoga and meditation resources that can be used safely in cells by older bodies and those with health conditions or restricted mobility.

The charity, which has been supporting yoga and meditation in prisons since 1988, has produced a set of nine printed handouts, each one illustrating a practice to help prisoners tackle issues such as back pain, low mood and poor sleep.

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Through the gates: what to expect returning to prison teaching after lockdown

As lockdown lifts, prison Yoga Teachers have been meeting to discuss some of the challenges that might await them as prisons begin to open up to outside teachers again. Here are some key issues facing yoga teachers as our prison classes resume.

Coming out of isolation

The threat from COVID to people living and working in close proximity to each other in prison was very real and stringent lockdown regimes have been in place to keep people safe, with prisoners being locked in their cells for 23 hours a day. The need for this was compounded by staff absences, due to illness or self-isolation.

“When there are high levels of staff off work, there is little the prison regime can do except get food and medication to cell doors.”

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Penny shares a birthday treat with people in prison

Supporter and trustee Penny Boreham explains how her birthday raised money for the Prison Phoenix Trust – with a Facebook Fundraiser


What is a Facebook Fundraiser?

About two weeks before your birthday, Facebook sends you a message in a News Feed giving you the option to create a fundraiser for your birthday. They list thousands of charities and non-profits available for fundraising. One of the charities available to choose is the Prison Phoenix Trust. So when I chose the PPT, my Facebook friends then received a notification inviting them to support the cause for my special day and some of my friends donated which was great !

Why did you think it was a good idea?
To be honest I am wary of being targeted and sent things by Facebook and of the way they use my data, but this did seem like a good opportunity. I had previously donated to my friends’ birthday fundraisers and I liked the fact that I found out about a charity they felt passionately about. It felt positive to support both a good cause and their passion on their birthday.

Why did you choose the Prison Phoenix Trust?
As a trustee, I have had the privilege of finding out about and witnessing, at first hand, the huge value of the work of the trust. I also know that every penny donated and raised will be well spent. On top of that, this was an opportunity to spread the word about the PPT.

How did friends react?
My Facebook friends who donated were very enthusiastic and also interested to hear more about the work of the PPT.

How much did it raise?
A few hundred pounds, so I was delighted. Also Facebook used to charge a fee but, thankfully, abolished the fee in 2017, so 100% of the donations go directly to the charity.

How else did you celebrate your birthday?
My birthday was just before Christmas and, at that point, it was possible to go out for supper and so my family and I went out to a local restaurant on the river. That felt like a very big treat.


Yoga Teacher Interview – Gill

Gill recently retired from teaching in prisons for many years at HMP Bronzefield and HMP Coldingley in Surrey. She completed the Prison Phoenix Trust British Wheel of Yoga five-day module ‘Teaching Yoga in Prisons’ in 2012.

What’s your most memorable moment?
At a staff wellbeing day at Bronzefield Prison with Jason. We had our stand set up and were ready as staff began to arrive. The hall was full of officers in full uniform with keys jangling on chains. The governor presented awards and gave them lots of praise for their team work to which there was much cheering and clapping and the room was full of camaraderie and fun. She then handed me the microphone and told them I would be introducing them to yoga. I’ve taught for many years, but never to a group in big boots with no room to sit and no mats! We did lots of standing postures and I recall suggesting Tree Pose and saying they looked like a forest.

Any funny moments?
Laughter was usually part of the class, especially when a newcomer arrived and I explained briefly the principles of yoga and how the class would be structured. One resident would add, “and be prepared for torture,” which really broke the ice. I usually deliver a strong practice before meditation and they always returned.

Any difficult situations?
I finished a class and was chatting to the gym instructor. We said our farewells and he left, locking the door behind him. I went to collect my keys (safely locked away during the class) but the door was locked, as was the door to the office with a phone in it. I was stranded. Deep breathing, be in the moment, don’t think about the future or whether he might not be back ‘til morning, still mind, count the breath. Luckily it was only about 10 minutes but it seemed very much longer!

Top tip for staying aware of boundaries
Engage in conversation but to try to keep the focus on the events of their week, or their experiences of the practice, without disclosing anything about yourself.

Your biggest challenge?
When a young resident with a prosthetic leg arrived in class. I had to think quickly to adjust the practice for him without compromising the class for the others.

One piece of advice for new teachers
Teach as you would teach any class. Once you are through all the formalities, passes, security checks etc., and on your mat, relax and enjoy the session. It will show and students will do the same and feel the benefits.


Teaching Troubled Teens

Jules, a former group work facilitator for the probation service, teaches at HMP Styal in Cheshire. Although her regular classes in the prison gym were halted in 2020, in the gap between the first two lockdowns she and fellow yoga teacher Paul started new classes for vulnerable women. Jules reflects on the challenges of teaching a group of women in their teens and early 20s.

The young women are classed as ‘vulnerable’ for a variety of reasons. For some, it’s because they are less mobile and not engaging with the prison regime in some way, others might be self-harming or have confidence and body image issues. They are a more troubled group and less likely to come to a regular gym class.

For the first class, only two women took part. One was quite challenging and found it hard to be still. She wanted to move while the other wanted to relax. We ended up doing both!

It’s important to gain trust. I do this by being quite relaxed and informal, asking everyone how they are. If they aren’t feeling great, I acknowledge that. By checking in with everyone at the beginning and end of the class, I get a feel for what is going on. If anyone is feeling resistant because of physical pain they can tell me what it is and they don’t feel judged if they don’t want to do something. It gives them permission to be in control of what they do with their own body, and learn to listen to it.

Self-harm is a big issue. Lots of the women have scarring and sometimes recent wounds. I don’t make a big fuss but acknowledge it if necessary, for example by being aware of movements that might aggravate recent wounds and stitches. I feel my role is to be accepting of whatever experience they are having.

They are here because they have heard about yoga and meditation and want to try it, and for this particular group the potential benefits are great. My job is to make yoga accessible to them, as they often tend to push back. For me, it’s about being very kind and open and treating them with respect.

We are in quite a small room and practise in a circle. I know it can be a big ask for them to come and do yoga in front of each other – they can be very self-conscious – so I ask what they feel like doing: stretches, breathing, meditation? Often we do a mix. I give them as much control as I can.

It can also be challenging for them to truly relax. But I have had them all lying down for a full 20 minutes at the end, with the option of eyes open or closed.

I also find lots of genuine praise is important. If they have poor body image it helps them to have the confidence to give it a go. It can be hard for them to practise in front of others, but if they are told they are doing well, they will feel good and want to come back next time.

After that first session, both women came back, and kept coming back, and the class grew in size to five or six women. That felt really good.