YOGA and Pollsmoor Prison may seem an incongruous match, but more than 90 inmates are taking advantage of weekly classes offered by volunteers keen to effect positive change.
And now the public will get a chance to see the results, thanks to a photo exhibition in the city next month of the work of Lee-Ann Olwage, an artist dedicated to social causes.
Olwage partnered with SevaUnite, a local community service organisation, to snapshot moments from yoga sessions taught in the prison, as part of the Prison Freedom Project.
Founded in 2010 by Brian Bergman and Leela Codron, the Prison Freedom Project, largely funded by the National Lotteries Commission, started with one yoga and mindfulness course at the admissions centre of Pollsmoor.
Since then, more than 350 inmates at several facilities in South Africa, including Malmesbury Medium Facility, have enrolled.
Olwage explains that her aim was to display the rehabilitative effects of yoga on prisoners.
“I was very passionate about the project from the beginning, wanting people to see how yoga was creating true transformation in prisons,” she says.
“I wanted to tell a positive story about change.”
Through volunteer-led yoga classes, distribution of yoga manuals and mentorship of inmates through letter writing, the programme attempts to achieve change at a behavioural level.
Codron, co-founder of the Prison Freedom Project, says: “If you want to tackle crime and you get so scared by the statistics and your own personal safety, this is a programme that is actually addressing that.”
Of the 8 300 Pollsmoor inmates, there are 21 male offenders and 60 female offenders who take part in the weekly yoga programme.
During the sessions, inmates practise different breathing exercises, meditation techniques and postures.
“Yoga has tremendous potential to rehabilitate an inmate and give them the opportunity to become more self-reflective,” says Lewies Davids,communications manager at Pollsmoor.
“The affirming, healing and rehabilitative benefits of yoga for people living in stressful environments are enormously beneficial.”
For years, yoga has been taught to various prison populations in countries like the US, the UK and New Zealand.
In 1988, the Prison Phoenix Trust began offering yoga and meditation courses to prisons in the UK. In 2002, the Prison Yoga Project started teaching yoga to inmates at San Quentin State Prison in California.
And for several years, the Yoga Education in Prisons Trust has provided yoga and meditation education to prisoners in New Zealand.
Few studies have examined the effects of yoga and meditation on prison populations, however.
A 2012 University of Oxford Experimental Psychology department study of 103 prisoners aged between 18 and 68 found that prisoners who do yoga and meditation experience less stress, reduced psychological distress, improved mood and concentration, and enhanced concentration and ability to override impulse.
Another 2012 study, by the University of Alabama, looked at the effects of a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat on 60 inmates at a maximum security Alabama prison.
It found that participants demonstrated improved levels of mindfulness and emotional intelligence compared to their counterparts.
“Instead of just punishing someone for an act they committed, we need a more holistic approach to offender rehabilitation that will help stop people from committing these same crimes in the future,” Olwage says.
l The Yoga in Pollsmoor photography exhibition, sponsored by Ongaro Studio, BadHen Lab, Spaces Framing and The Om Revolution, will include 10 of Olwage’s photos. There will also be talks by the founders of SevaUnite and Chris Malgas, a Pollsmoor employee of 30 years.
The exhibition opens on November 4 at the Ongaro Studio on Dunkley Square, Cape Town.