PEACE IN PRISON: FOLLOWING-UP ON GRADUATES
MATSUNAGA INSTITUTE FOR PEACE
University of Hawai'i
Annual Report 1998/1999
Louisa Di Grazia, a 1997 Peace Studies graduate, focused her work on "peace and well-being." After graduating in May 1997, she took her skills and knowledge to a most unusal place,Halawa Prison, as she tell us in this follow-up essay.
Problems pertaining to Hawaii's prison system have been in many news stories recently. Actually, the stories are not breaking news. Prisons have been the end road of the legal justice system in the United States for the past 200 years. In our state, prisons are now referred to as "correctional centers." Despite the name change, prison is still a place for society's rejects to be punished with isolation and cruelty.
However, the correction of criminal behavior has more to do with an inmate's individual initiative than any state system plan. The inmate must seek out and accept the available programs to begin to correct his or her old patterns, which led them into the penal system. Otherwise, for a person who has already faltered by poor life decisions, a prison sentence can exacerbate criminal behavior and make it even worse. Most inmates will be out of prison someday, no matter how bad their crimes. This is reality. As a society working toward a safer world, we need to help rehabilitate criminal minds starting with prevention. Then, if prevention tactics fail us, we can resign to prison punishment, but not without reform, transformation, and rehabilitation as an integral part of the inmates' overall payment to society. They not only need to serve time, but learn how to be honest and disciplined members of society.
It's a great opportunity for a yoga-peacemaking program. I've been teaching a Yoga Peace Prison Class at Halawa High Security since February 1998, and I've also started a class at Oahu's Windward Women's Facility. I do not separate yoga from peace; they are the same. My work is facilitated by Maureen Tito, the state correctional system education director.
There is no one more aware of his part in the karmic wheel than an inmate who calls his locked cell "home." It's interesting that my imprisoned students are very clear that they are on a path of healing and transformation, almost more than my students in the general population. However, some inmates are not willing to do the work. Some are too full of revenge, anger, fear and selfdestruction to see that yoga's peaceful disciplines of wellbeing are ready made to free their conditioned minds.
What I have discovered is that prisoners are not always ready for the discipline of stillness and to go very deep within to understand themselves. This statement, of course, describes many people from all walks of life. However, inmates suffer from a great deal of depression, low self-esteem, and brutality in their environment. But, the students who rise above all of this would be remarkable students anywhere.
In one particular yoga class, three out of five students at Halawa Prison described trying to commit suicide as teenagers. These individuals have fallen through society's cracks. Many were not nurtured as children. We can all learn to nurture our inward child to become freer and healthier adults. There is so much tension inside the correction centers and yoga with its calming and self-disciplining effects is the perfect discipline for inmates. Yoga has helped my students teach themselves techniques to release tension. They are exposed to stillness, relaxation and meditation, as well as peacemaking and conflict resolution techniques.
One of the most profound insights one has in working with inmates is that they are just like you and I. They suffer, they have addictions, aches and pains, insecurities, fears and joys and miss their families and children. People ask me about my fear going inside. If I gave too much energy to this thought, I would be incapable of doing my work there. Neither can one be naïve. Many of my students have exhibited violent behaviors and have paid a huge debt for their actions. Awareness is not only what I teach, but also what I do.
There are many times inside the yoga-peace classroom when we all have our eyes closed. The peace, tranquillity and sense of well-being is so palpable that all fears are dispelled. We could all be by a quiet stream or in a silent meadow.
Rewarding? Yes. In many ways, working with this population is more rewarding than working with the general public because the inmates are so grateful for one's energy and attention. As one inmate wrote to me, "Lu struck me as a person who is sincere, truthful and honest, a person that comes from the heart. To have a person of this unique quality to come behind these concrete walls and offer herself is a real blessing. It has in itself had a positive and decisive effect on us. I personally feel tremendous definite energy coming from our instructor. So I say to you Ms. Lu DiGrazia, much Mahalo! To have a person like yourself to help us convicts better ourselves physically, mentally and help us reach our spiritual goals is and achievement worthwhile. I can't wait for the overall outcome of this class."
As I said before, the men and women who come to a rigorous and disciplined class are also the one's who would excel in any setting where they are challenged to make something better of themselves. But, they all need the option to choose.
The real news about Hawaii's prisons should be, "Paradigm shift: one giant step for humankind; hard timers transform violent tendencies to peacemaking, conflict resolution and personal discipline of body, mind, and spirit consciousness."
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