SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - An ancient spiritual practice is helping rehabilitate men and women at the Santa Barbara County Jail.
Prison Yoga Santa Barbara (PYSB) invites inmates to practice yoga, meditation and mindfulness during incarceration at no cost to taxpayers.
Ginny Kuhn is the force behind the non-profit staffed by volunteers. The program is modeled after The Prison Yoga Project which was started yogi James Fox at California’s San Quentin State Prison 15 years ago.
Kuhn's motto for PYSB is 'Working Freedom from the Inside'.
"I just wanted to touch an underserved population," Kuhn said. "I went to teach a class and I was blown away at how receptive and appreciative the women were."
A female inmate said, "It gets me out of my head, you know like, I get peace and comfort, especially being in here. "Yoga really does help me. It just settles, my mind, my body, my soul."
Studies show a majority of people incarcerated are dealing with unresolved trauma which leads to impulsive and reactive behaviors, drug and alcohol abuse.
Kuhn said empirical data shows yoga and meditation are effective in reducing anxiety, stress, violence and depression.
Kuhn and volunteer Mike Lewis also teach classes to male inmates.
"There really is no separation. We're the same," Lewis said. We're both human beings. Just like I am deserving of serenity and peace of mind, so is he."
Lewis said the men want to gain strength, so he offers them a rigorous practice and follows up with relaxation techniques.
Lewis recently filmed a yoga DVD, which will be shown to inmates in a special holding unit at the Lompoc Penitentiary. He is also working on training inmates to teach yoga to fellow inmates.
Custody deputies at the Santa Barbara County Jail said they are seeing the difference the yoga classes are making on the inmates.
"It's a stressful place, not only for the officers but for people who are incarcerated here," said custody deputy Autumn Long. "The instructor who volunteers her time, spends a lot of extra time helping them find their inner peace and self awareness. Things they were never taught at a young age."
Chief Custody Deputy Vincent Wasilewski said inmates also are more calm and rational which helps make the facility more secure. He also said the lessons learned from yoga will likely help inmates reintegrate back into society once they are released. "If we don't put them back better than when they got here, then we are not doing our job."
According to the Legislative Analyst's Office, it costs an average of $71,000 to incarcerate an inmate in prison in California every year. The Prison Yoga Santa Barbara program is offered for free.
Recidivism rates in California are also among the highest in the country. According to a 2012 report by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, just over 65% of those released from California’s prison system return within three years.
"The question really is, what kind of neighbor do you want?" Kuhn said about restorative justice. "Do they want someone who has gone through rehabilitation? Or do they want someone who has just been behind bars?"
Kuhn said rehabilitation does not mitigate the crimes inmates have committed or are accused of, but she believes they should be offered supplemental programs to help them while they serve time.
"If they are able to take a breath, before that drink or before that punch, before that instinct or impulse to do something, I feel like we are doing a great job," Kuhn said.
Kuhn wants to add more classes and instructors to the program. To learn more or donate, click here.