Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Give A Little, Get A Little?

Available as part of The Sweetest Little Thing auction to benefit Struts & Faucet Artist-Run Centre.
Every Tuesday (almost) since September, I have been going to the Manhattan Detention Complex to teach a yoga class to inmates there.  Specifically, those in the Transgender Unit, which is a new concept in the prison world.  The unit was created as a way of allowing transgender inmates to do their time more safely.  As you can imagine, they are at risk for and targets of all sorts of violence.  Each week, there are a dozen or so people in the unit.  Some stay for months or longer as they await sentencing and transfer to a prison facility.  Some with shorter sentences spend their whole time there.  Sometimes there are men who are openly gay there as well, as they also suffer from an increased risk of violence among the rest of the population.

Teaching yoga in jail (they call this place jail and the upstate facilities, prison) is very challenging.  One of the most challenging parts is simply getting in.  About 50% of the time, we don't get in.  Sometimes the whole building is on lockdown and no one is getting in or out.  Other times, there is no one available to escort us up to the unit.  Either way, we arrive and leave without teaching.  Getting up to the unit is another challenge as one never knows what one will encounter in the hallways or elevators.  Search teams with dogs.  "Sitting on a body" as they call it - restraining an inmate who was acting up.  Or just blatant stares at my body.  It's all happened.

Then there is the unit itself, which is all cement and metal and wired glass.  Not cozy.  It is very loud between the television, which is always on, and shouting inmates and corrections officers.  Leading a meditation while "The Price is Right" is blaring in the background is a very interesting challenge in staying focused.  Sometimes, midway through a class, there will be a call for medication or social workers and everyone will just get up and leave.  I don't blame them - it is just how things go.  Jail isn't meant to be a nice place and it decidedly isn't.

Everything I have just described feels manageable to me.  I get it - yoga in jail is considered a luxury and we are not a priority.  If things were soft and comforting, it would not be part of a penal system.  Now, I have some strong opinions about the system and what it actually does to people in it - not to mention the glaring, unavoidable fact that I have only seen a total of four white inmates in the whole time I have been going in there, at a facility housing 800 men (and a dozen or so transgender women).  So, there are plenty of systemic issues to debate about the current state of so-called justice in this country.  But I am talking about teaching yoga.

The truth is, the inmates just aren't that into it.  When we manage to get up there to teach, often only one or two will be interested or available to participate.  More than the lockdowns and the lewd stares, this is what is most challenging.  My heart and my intention are totally directed towards offering this potentially very healing practice to a population that could really use it...but what if they don't want it?  Then what?  I have been tossing this question around in my head for a couple of months.  I suspect most of the ladies in this unit have had very difficult lives, full of abuse and disappointment (to say the least).  Am I going to be one more person who gives up on them?  Isn't there a huge lesson being offered just by showing up?

And yet...

And yet, it is hard to keep coming back, going through everything it takes to get up there to teach, and feel like no one gives a damn. What then?  I have often said that it isn't my responsibility to know how the gift is received.  My responsibility is to offer the gift.  This is where the rubber meets the road, I guess.

And yet?

3 comments:

Helen Griffin said...

1--a pendantic quibble--Jail is short term (while awaiting trial, or for a sentence under 1 year), Prison is for those with convictions, and sentences longer than 1 year (some judges will make a sentence 1 year,1 day, as a way of forcing an person into prison)

2--sometimes, you get a gift, and don't know its value. it becomes a part of your life, but.... Then, like a long dormant seed, when the need arises, the gift is there, waiting, patiencely. and suddenly, you see how wonderful it is, and it is, after a long time, put to good use.

I have recieved valuable gift--and been blind to the value.. But, then, suddenly, i need what they offer, and i receive them. I see these gifts as grace. Grace is never wasted, it always remain pure. and it is always amazing.

Robyn said...

Yes, your point #2 is well taken. We just don't know either how what we offer will be received (or when) and what we take in will come to fruition. The mysteries of life! I guess, as I reflect more, I am weighing whether this work is the best way to spend my time and energy. I am beginning to better see my yoga therapy path so I can see the direction I need to head. As for point #1 - I think I made mention of that early in the post...no? Anyway, the CO's are pretty clear about the distinction, not to mention that inmates are inmates (not prisoners) and CO's are CO's, not guards.

Jan Morrison said...

Hi Robyn, yep, that is difficult. And it is just hanging in the not-knowing and being okay with it. Not sure if you know of these guys but thought if you didn't you would like to -Kate Crisp is an old dharma pal of mine and Fleet Maull is a dharma brother who l haven't yet met. Fleet began the Prison Mindfulness Institute and Kate is the Executive Director. Do you know of it? Fleet was in prison for many years and went in as a meditator. Check it out if you haven't. They have a membership where they support the sort of work you are doing. Happy New Year and tonnes of love!