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.


New Research Shows Mental Health Boost From Prison Yoga

Prisoners who took part in regular yoga classes at HMP Dovegate in Staffordshire experienced measurable improvements in their mental health, according to research just published by health care provider Practice Plus Group, (formerly Care UK).

Some 67 prisoners completed a questionnaire before starting yoga and again after three months of classes. They were also encouraged to write thoughts in a notebook after each session.

They reported improved mood, better sleep, less aggression, less anxiety and agitation, and increased ability to relax and manage stressful situations.

Yoga teacher Fiona, who taught four one-hour classes twice a month for different groups of prisoners, said, “Some of the differences in prisoners’ notebook comments from the start to the finish were incredible.”

“Very relaxed, full of energy for the day ahead. Thanks.”
“Feel good no anger, I’d like to thank you. Respect.”
“This yoga really helps my aching muscles and brightens up my day, giving me some release from my sentence. Thank you.”
“I think this class is great and I am taking a lot from it. Would like to have more classes more frequently. I always feel relaxed and refreshed after.”

Prisoner feedback from the course

Questionnaire answers were quantified on a scale of 14–70 and showed an average increase in score of 8.1, with 52 of 67 the prisoners experiencing a score improvement considered to be ‘meaningful’ by psychologists.

Before practising yoga, 19 of the prisoners’ questionnaire scores put them in the bottom 15 per cent of the UK population for mental health. After three months, the scores of 13 these prisoners had risen to more average levels. The number of prisoners whose mental health scored ‘high’ rose from 5 to 18 after three months of yoga.

Fiona said, “I know the power of yoga from my teaching and other research I have done in sport and in prisons, but to see it quantified is wonderful. It’s amazing to see that empirical scientific studies show that it works and in so many different ways.”

Prison healthcare provider Practice Plus Group, which carried out the research, now plans three further pilot projects in Midlands prisons and Young Offenders Institutions, with a view to rolling out nationally in the future. These projects will assess the impact of regular yoga on sleep, pain relief, and the management of long-term health conditions.

The project at HMP Dovegate took place over a 12-month period, with a rolling programme of fortnightly yoga classes for prisoners. Priority was given to men suffering poor mental health, addiction, and other difficulties.

Read the final report on the programme here.


Lockdown is the Mother of Invention

“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.

An image sent in by a teacher to be shown on prison TV

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.”


Free Yoga and Meditation Handouts

Choose from 28 handouts to give you inspiration to do yoga and meditation inside. They are organised by themes and include some that are relaxing – others more energetic. Plus breathing breathing exercises to help find calm. Feel free to print them out and share.

Please phone us for the password on 01865 512 521 or contact us by email and let us know what establishment you are contacting from.


Yoga Practice Reduces the Psychological Distress Levels of Prison Inmates

A new Swedish study has shown that a 10-week yoga course can lead to a reduction of levels of psychological distress in prisoners, which can in turn make them less likely to reoffend. The study also links regular yoga practice to reduction in obsessive-compulsive and paranoid thinking, as well as a reduction in “somatisation” (mental distress leading to physical symptoms).

You can read the full study here and find more studies on yoga and meditation in prison on our evidence page.


Yoga Mats Now Allowed in Cells

Often prisoners want a mat of their own so they can practise in their cells. For many years, people imprisoned in England & Wales couldn’t keep yoga mats in their cells (though all prisons don’t always follow all regulations so some prisoners did have mats). But it is now permissible for prisoners to keep yoga mats in their cells. A prisoner at HMP Frankland made a complaint to the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman about needing a mat in his cell for health and safety reasons. The Ombudsman contacted The Prison Phoenix Trust, who presented a range of arguments that the Ombudsman could use in lobbying for this change. As a result Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 30/2013 was updated.
On page 2 of the 70 page document you will find: “Yoga mats have been added to the standardised facilities list…”, meaning the list of things that prisoners are allowed to have. They can usually order things from the facilities list from approved suppliers, like Argos. So if your prisoner students ask if they can have yoga mats, you can let them know the prison service instruction number. If you search and find PSI 30/2013 on-line, the section about the yoga mats is on the second page.


Summer Newsletter Now Out

Our summer newsletter is now available to read online here. In this issue we  feature two practical yoga and breathing routines as well as many letters from prisoners, telling of how yoga and meditation have been helping them behind bars. We have an article on the importance of taking the time to lament when we are met with national tragedy – an article sadly very relevant at the moment.

View the newsletter online here!

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