Volunteer in Jail

The walls are concrete. So are the floors. The halls echo. At noon, the aroma of spaghetti and boiled green beans floats in with a rolling cart.

When our children headed off to start their own lives, I was left pretty kid-hungry. One day, the paper featured a woman in her late seventies who taught meditation at the local juvenile justice center. She was looking for helpers. I signed up.

Meditation is not exactly my forte, but teaching yoga is. After completing the formalities — application, background check, orientation and training — the staff thought incorporating a weekly yoga class was a good idea.

Four sets of locked doors. The first three open with a CLACK at the swipe of an I.D. card, and close with a BANG. The fourth door has a window into the ‘pod,’ and requires a key, not issued to volunteers like me. I ring a very loud bell. Inside, heads turn, look, look away. One boy waves.

I wait.

At last, a buzz and click as the door is unlocked.

The boys, it’s usually just boys, are finishing a break. They mill around, play hacky sack, joke with each other. One plays a few notes on an electric piano.

“All right! Line up!” says a staffer. “Who wants to do yoga?”

The kids look at each other, wait for someone else to make the first move. A hand goes up. Then another. Sometimes seven or eight hands, which is too many, but we usually make a go of it anyway. The rest head to their room for a “quiet time.” That’s why some of them raised their hands. Better yoga than isolation.

In the classroom, I push back desks, roll out mats.

The juvenile justice center in our town is a relatively cheerful place, offering counseling and cooking lessons, as well as drug and alcohol treatment, an assessment center and shelter. The kids wear regular clothes — sweat pants, shorts, tee shirts, jeans and tennis shoes. No orange jumpsuits or other prison clothes. They act like regular kids. Counselors, nurses and lawyers come and go. School carries on, just as it does outside. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that everyone is here because there’s been trouble in these young lives.

How much trouble?

According to a federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention study:

  • 70% of youth in custody reported that they had “had something very bad or terrifying” happen to them in their lives.
  • 67% reported having seen someone severely injured or killed. 26% of those surveyed said felt as if “life was not worth living.”
  • 22% reported having tried to commit suicide at some point in their lives

We sit on the mats, practice good posture, and then slouch, not that any of us needs practice slouching, sit up straight again. “Close your eyes,” I say. Most do, but there is always someone who just can’t. “Listen to your breathing.” The room gets quiet. I turn off the light.

We work through easy postures, one or two guaranteed to make them laugh because laughter helps everyone relax. When there are distractions — farts, someone melodramatically yelling Ow! Ow! as if they’d just been dropped on their heads from four stories, or uncontrollable giggles,— we take a break and do pushups. Sometimes a lot of pushups. This makes them laugh, too. Go figure.

They love the last ten minutes. Rest time. The Sanskrit term is svansana, (shuhVAWsuhnuh), meaning ‘corpse pose.’ It refers to the ability of advanced yogis to slow down their metabolism when in deep meditation. For the kids though, it’s just a time to relax. Imagine, eight boys, at least two or three with no more than a 30-second attention span, lying perfectly still, eyes closed. Some fall asleep.

I play a singing bowl to signal the end of rest time. The ring is soothing and multi-toned, possibly the nicest wake up call ever. Often one or two want to try it out after class.

“Namaste,” I say, which roughly means “the light in me salutes the light in you.” “Namaste,” they say back. Once, some kids misheard me and said, “No mistakes.”

We use baby wipes to clean off the mats, roll them up, put them away.

“Awesome,” says one boy who managed to keep a baseball cap on for the whole class. “That was awesome.”

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  1. Great post. love that all this is being done for the kids, to help them.

  2. Julia, this is a wonderful piece. I take it there is a professional in the room with you. Didn’t this take courage?


  3. Thanks Paulette and Tess. Paulette — It is encouraging to see how far we’ve come in figuring out what kids in trouble need — way more than punishment.

    Tess — yes, there is a professional in the room, although there wasn’t for the first 3 years I volunteered, which was a pain, because we had to leave the door open and the lights on. It was pretty distracting. Now a staffer always joins us.

  4. Dear Julie,

    Thank you for writing and sharing this beautiful piece. To imagine the boys doing yoga starts my day off right!

    You are a gentle, implacable catalyst for light.


  5. How kind of you Ann! Best wishes —

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