Episode 23: Yoga Behind Bars: Trauma-Informed Yoga to Help the Incarcerated to Heal
Episode 23: Yoga Behind Bars: Trauma-Informed Yoga to Help the Incarcerated to Heal
Alyssa is kicking off the new year with Jess Frank, the program director of Yoga Behind Bars. YBB is a nonprofit organization aimed at providing trauma-informed yoga and meditation classes to help transform and heal those who are incarcerated.
Find out more about YBB here: https://yogabehindbars.org
Alyssa Scolari [00:21]:
Hey, y’all. What’s up? Happy New Year. It’s 2021. This is the first episode of the new year. I am pumped for all of the great stuff that I have coming your way this year. This week’s episode is with Jess Frank who is the Program Director of the Yoga Behind Bars program, which is a nonprofit organization, and their mission is to provide trauma-informed yoga and meditation services for people who have been incarcerated in order to promote rehabilitation, personal transformation, and a more just society for all.
So, this has been a really interesting episode to record. I learned a lot about Yoga Behind Bars, the transformative powers that trauma-informed yoga can have, and I’m recording this intro actually after the episode was already recorded. So, I recorded it with Jess in December of 2020, and this is the first episode to launch for 2021. So, I hope that you enjoy it. I hope that it provides a lot of education out there. I personally have found yoga to be so healing and so transformative in my personal life, and knowing that there is a program out there like this that is working to help transform the lives of people who are incarcerated is really heartwarming and a great way to kick off 2021, so enjoy.
Would you be able to just talk a little bit about the concept and the creation of Yoga Behind Bars?
Jess Frank [02:11]:
Sure. So, Yoga Behind Bars started a little before 2008. We became a nonprofit in 2008 officially, but a few years before that, it was started by one woman named Shaina Traisman, who kind of fell into it a little bit. She was a yoga teacher, and she met someone who had been incarcerated, and they talked about how much yoga helped them post-incarceration and that they encourage her to teach in a jail setting. So, she ended up contacting the King County Jail here in Seattle, and next thing, there was one yoga class that she was teaching, and then it kind of just slowly grew from there and expanded to other facilities, more people coming on board to teach. Really, since then, it has just continued to grow although has stabilized in terms of the reach of the program in the last few years as we’ve really tried to deepen the work now that we are really operating across all of Washington state.
Alyssa Scolari [03:18]:
Now, so you guys are all just in Washington state, but there are also other … Aren’t there other versions of Yoga Behind Bars that span across the United States as well?
Jess Frank [03:32]:
There are similar organizations, and we’re [inaudible 00:03:35]-
Alyssa Scolari [03:35]:
Jess Frank [03:36]:
… to quite a few of them actually. We have kind of like an informal email chain, and we’ve had a few conferences where different folks have come together across the country, so I think I’m aware of most of the established ones and they do … They are all over the country, and there are a few that span multiple states, but I think most of them tend to recognize that this work is really different state by state because the majority of incarceration happens on the county and state level, and it’s just such a disparate system from state to state, so it’s kind of hard to really extend our work outside of our geographic area and do it well.
Alyssa Scolari [04:18]:
That’s a good point. That’s something I didn’t even think about, but that’s a very good point. So, wow, you guys are coming up on … or it’s been 12 years since you’ve been officially a nonprofit. How long have you been with the nonprofit organization?
Jess Frank [04:36]:
I came on as the Program Director five and a half years ago, and I was a volunteer for a few years before that. I actually did our training. That was kind of my entry point, which is required for anyone who volunteers with the organization inside the facilities. I did that training in 2013. So, I’ve been pretty at least adjacent or directly involved with the organization for over half of its time and existence, and I’ve definitely gotten to witness it grow in some pretty exciting ways that the YBB that I knew when I first got started and the YBB that exists today, there’s been some really big and, I think, necessary changes that have come along that growth that I can definitely get into if we get there.
Alyssa Scolari [05:27]:
Yes. Can you please talk about that because I just … The work that you’re doing is so, it’s crucial, and unfortunately, I think controversial in some ways. So, yeah, could you talk a little bit more about that and what you stand for with social justice and everything like that?
Jess Frank [05:50]:
Yeah. So, as with, I think, a lot of nonprofits, they’re not always started by people who have a direct experience with the issue at hand. I think that’s pretty common, and that’s definitely YBB’s experience with our founding. Honestly, when we think about the world of yoga too and who has access to yoga, who typically becomes a yoga teacher, there’s also just sometimes not a lot of diversity or seeing … We can see even in the United States like the people that maybe have most access to teach yoga are not always the people who have come from the parts of the world where yoga has been developed in India and also actually in Egypt where some of yoga was evolved as well.
So, across the spectrum of yoga, nonprofit work, we really, in the beginning, started as an organization I think with a lot of very well-intentioned people doing impactful work, but over time, it’s become just increasingly essential to the organization and I think reflected in the greater community of doing social justice work that we have, really have representation in our teachers and our leaders in the organization of people who’ve been impacted by the criminal legal system, people who’ve been impacted by trauma and systemic oppression. That’s really the direction that our organization has moved slowly but effectively to the point now where our leadership and the majority of our classes and who teaches them really does reflect the community that we serve.
Alyssa Scolari [07:40]:
So, you have brought on people who basically have lived the experience, who have been incarcerated, know what it’s like, and can touch people in different ways.
Jess Frank [07:58]:
Exactly, and can also just understand aspects of the work and how to do it well from their own experience. I think that the organization has, in some ways, just become more effective at maybe not always the numbers but at the impact and the ability to really see that we’re shifting not just things on an individual level but shifting some of the policies in this state that specifically impact people in the incarceration system, and trying to shift some of the just cultural, community culture understanding especially within the yoga community, especially within people who want to offer trauma-informed services, to just really expand people’s awareness of this criminal legal system, which I keep calling that because it’s not really criminal justice system.
Alyssa Scolari [08:55]:
I love that you call it that. Right. There’s nothing just about it, right? Actually, it leads me to my next question. As I was sitting here, listening to you talk, I’m thinking to myself, how do you … and I know the answer to this, but I think it might be helpful for our listeners out there who don’t know so much about the criminal justice system. It might be helpful for them to hear this. So, what is the connection between trauma-informed yoga and incarceration? All right. How did the two go hand in hand? How do we get from one to the other, and why is it so necessary?
Jess Frank [09:36]:
Yeah, it’s a really great question, and it’s interesting because I think when I tell people what I do, there’s never just this like, “Oh, cool. That’s what you do?” That’s never the answer. It’s always like, “Oh, interesting,” like [crosstalk 00:09:49].
Alyssa Scolari [09:49]:
Jess Frank [09:51]:
… had kind of like, “What? How do these things all go together?” Right?
Alyssa Scolari [09:51]:
Jess Frank [09:55]:
Yeah, there’s a lot to that, and I think it’s one reason why when people work at our organization, it takes a long time to onboard them because we’re dealing in spheres that are really misunderstood and charged and where there’s a lot of complexity to really being able to, I think, operate within these systems in a way that doesn’t cause harm. So, I’m talking yoga and the criminal legal space, and trauma is a connecting piece because on the one hand in the yoga industry, there can be so much healing. There can be so much trauma recovery and other kinds of recovery possible and aided by these practices and these communities, and at the same time, we also know that for many people, those environments can be re-traumatizing. They can feel very uninclusive, not safe. People don’t know what exactly will happen. Are they going to be touching appropriately? Are they going to be just triggered constantly? Are they going to feel accepted, and they can show up as their full selves and not be kind of alienated or stand out?
So, we have the kind of dualistic side there like both the recovery and re-traumatizing, and then there’s a whole other scope of like, who has access, right, like the costs and where yoga class is located, and who is welcomed into these spaces. So, there’s also the access point where when we go now to look at the criminal legal system if people were incarcerated and impacted, and not just the people incarcerated but their family members and even people who are survivors of the criminal legal system and crimes that have happened and that have affected their lives, all sides of that. Also, we see a lack of access to the yoga based tools in the yoga communities. There is a disconnect of like who is impacted primarily when we look at poor people, people of color, people with mental health and addiction challenges. They’re the same group of people maybe we’re not very likely to see in yoga classes in our communities.
So, in prisons and jails, trauma is just pervasive not only for people coming in and their pre-existing trauma. Childhood trauma is immensely common. Upwards of 90% of people who are incarcerated have experienced severe trauma before incarceration, and then the experience of being incarcerated is traumatic. It’s traumatic not only for the side of people who are sentenced, but it’s often very traumatic for also survivors, and I’ve witnessed that firsthand in my own family. When I was in college, my brother, he survived a very senseless, violent assault that really impacted him profoundly for several years, took him several years to recover from. My family witnessed just how the whole process of the people who attacked him getting arrested, sentenced, sent to prison. There was no healing that came from that process for our family-
Alyssa Scolari [13:31]:
Jess Frank [13:32]:
… brother. It was just so impersonal and detached and legal and like there was no healing. There was no invitation to heal in that experience or help. So, across the board and then within the prison, within the jail environment, people have to be incredibly hypervigilant all the time, which is exhausting for their nervous system. There’s violence. There’s varying degrees of safety depending on where in the country you are. So, we know that some environments are more safe, but some are very, very unsafe. Historically, prisons have been some of the most unsafe places with the most violence of any place really in the country, so that’s where the connect we feel is, that there’s this cycle of trauma and stress in our lives and that people end up in the system where they encounter more trauma and stress, and then they just … The cycle repeats whether it’s then passed to other family members, or the individual gets out of prison and then goes back into prison.
So, we find that these tools can help people really kind of reclaim themselves and heal that dysregulation within their nervous systems to kind of reclaim themselves and heal themselves hopefully to stay out of prison and to keep their families from also being impacted by that system, but we don’t go that far because we don’t … We’re a little organization, and we’re not trying to say we’re solving this problem. We’re just doing what we can to help.
Alyssa Scolari [15:17]:
You’re doing what you can. Yes. Solving a problem is often not done on a global level anyway, right? It’s bit by bit, person by person. You change one person, you change the world. I really think that you touched on so many different parts of why what you do is phenomenal and crucial, which is 90%, as you said, or higher of folks who go to prison have a history of trauma. Oftentimes, it is very extensive, and for the listeners out there, I know you already know this because our good friends, Michael DeLeon own who spent his life incarcerated and now runs and is the founder of a program called Steered Straight, which is about drug abuse prevention, you all know out there how deep that trauma can run.
Then, usually, as a result of unprocessed or untreated trauma, they engage in a crime, whatever that may be. Then, they end up in prison, which becomes just as traumatizing, if not more traumatizing than the way life was outside of prison. They have to be, like you said, hypervigilant all the time, so constantly aware, and their nervous systems have to be amped up 24 hours a day. They can’t even sleep peacefully. So, yoga is just a way to regulate a nervous system for folks whose nervous system has probably never been regulated since the moment that they were born. I also think that it serves as such a great tool for when they come out of prison. Can you talk a little bit about like why it’s also so important for them to have yoga as a tool for when they’re released?
Jess Frank [17:22]:
Yeah, and I’m sensitive again to speaking for other people’s experience, but I will say that what I have heard from many of our students and from my colleagues who have been in prison is that the immense stress and overwhelm of re-entering where not only have people finished their sentence and finished prison, but then there’s like this whole second prison to re-entering where housing and jobs and access to services, all of this can become just very stressful, very difficult.
A lot of the people that I talk to that have been our students who’ve gotten out of prison are working two or three jobs on top of still supporting other people who are in prison and trying to reconnect with family, don’t have a car, don’t have a license, all this stuff. So, the stress and the overwhelm is pretty much unavoidable, but if people have a tool inside themselves … One of our teachers named Nova talks a lot about this. She talks about how having a tool that couldn’t be taken away from her inside of her to be able to just breathe and regulate herself with this kind of unavoidable stress is the difference from kind of like slipping into another decision, right, or another moment that can land one back in the same situation that they just came from.
Unfortunately, we can’t solve all of that, and it’s something that we all have to be thinking about of reducing discrimination for people who’ve already served time and making it more possible for them to integrate. YBB is trying to think about that too, and we’re really excited for some upcoming partnerships that we’re building to start to actually help people with re-entry, not by ourselves but in conjunction with other service providers because we just see how essential it is that people have more support than just having the yoga tools when they get out, though those are very important.
Alyssa Scolari [19:47]:
Yes. Yes. While they may be important, they’re certainly, certainly not the be-all, end-all for the tools and the support that’s needed for re-entry. Now, what exactly do you do in your role as the program director of YBB?
Jess Frank [20:09]:
I do a few different things, and being a small nonprofit, sometimes have to do many things, but the primary focus of my role is that I oversee our programs, and I support our instructors. So, this both includes our volunteer instructors and our instructors who are themselves incarcerated. I didn’t mention that earlier, but that’s a big part of how our organization has changed. I’m really, really blessed that I get to work with people who are leading our programs from the inside. I support them any way that I can, and they do amazing work.
Alyssa Scolari [20:51]:
Wow. That is fantastic. So, YBB has transformed into actually employing those who are still incarcerated and training those to train others.
Jess Frank [21:08]:
Yeah. So, we, in 2015, we did the first yoga teacher training in prison. That might be the first one that happened in the country, although quite a few are now happening. It’s kind of taken off. There are others that have graduated people throughout the country as well, which is really exciting, but we did first one at Stafford Creek Correction Center in Aberdeen, Washington. We graduated 10 men from that facility, and then two years later, we did it at the Washington Correction Center for Women in Gig Harbor, Washington where we graduated five women. I’d say women and men with an asterisk because there are a lot of trans and non-binary people in prisons and jails, but it happens to be that all of the people in our trainings did identify that way, but we do want to just make sure that people know that when we refer to like men’s facility or women’s facility, that there are individuals in those facilities that don’t identify with those genders, so just a little side note there but-
Alyssa Scolari [22:14]:
Yes, that’s much appreciated. Much appreciated.
Jess Frank [22:18]:
Yeah. We did that, we noticed it didn’t have exactly the results that we anticipated in every way. People have a lot of competing priorities and things, so today, we have about seven of these 15 individuals that teach, actively teach for us, but the impact that they can have, because they’re on the ground, because it’s their full-time job, because they don’t have to drive three hours to get to the facility like our volunteers might have to, their impact is immense. Their classes are full. They’re able to teach four to six classes per week and really build relationships with the people that they serve to just have a much more influential role in the culture of the environment and also on the relationships that they have with others.
The people that we’ve trained most often have had life sentences or even life without parole sentences, and that was somewhat intentional because, one, they’re not often given very many programming opportunities. Laws change and kind of prioritize people close to release for programming. Two, they have been there for a long time. They’re leaders, and they just are able to really impact people because of the investment they have in building those communities because that’s their home, and so that’s been really impactful as well to have people doing that program that are a little bit just more kind of established and have a lot of relationships.
Alyssa Scolari [23:54]:
Wow, and it gives a sense of a hope and purpose, which is so important and I think probably makes for a much less stressful and toxic environment, I would imagine obviously. As you said earlier, I don’t want to pretend as if I know, and I don’t want to speak about others’ experiences, but I can imagine that that’s something that you witness as sort of like it just becomes a much less stressful environment.
Jess Frank [24:31]:
Exactly. Yeah. There’s a few of our teachers behind bars have been very forthright with their stories, and they’ve shared them with us and given us content for blogs, and so I know that in particular, a few of them are really open to sharing. This is part of the movement, right, and part of developing awareness is like, who gets to share their story, right? So, for me, in my role though, I’m the program director, a big part of my responsibility is to create avenues for others to have leadership and to create avenues for others to share their own stories.
So, in addition to supporting our teachers who live behind bars, I also train and oversee our trainings for people in the community to really help others understand the role of trauma-informed yoga and to learn how to utilize trauma-informed yoga tools to take back into their communities. We do this training all throughout the year. Right now, it’s virtually, but we prioritize making it accessible to formerly incarcerated people and to black, indigenous and people of color, which sometimes we say BIPOC, but basically prioritizing accessibility for people who don’t typically have as much access to our, not only yoga, a training, a several hundred dollar training, for instance.
Alyssa Scolari [26:02]:
So, you actually prioritize black, indigenous, persons of color to be able to get that training for free, or is it for a reduced price?
Jess Frank [26:12]:
Yeah. We do full ride scholarships. Some people tend to want to pay for part of it, but we just try to keep it really easy, and we do full ride scholarships for those folks. Then, we have a sliding scale for everybody else and have three different entry points.
Alyssa Scolari [26:30]:
Wow. I think you might’ve said this, and I’m so sorry if I missed it, but is that training just offered in the state of Washington as well? Or do you offer that training throughout the country now that it is virtual?
Jess Frank [26:43]:
Now that it’s virtual, we have people joining from all over. We actually have a training coming up this weekend, and we have people coming from Ohio, from Wisconsin, even from Canada. So, yeah. It’s really open to anybody that can make the time zone work. We have two coming up, and we just launched registration for one in March and one in February. They’re 21 hours stretched across five days. Right now, it’s all virtual, but when we are back to being able to gather in person, in groups, we will come back to doing it in person, which we travel and sometimes do it in … We’ve done it in Chicago. We’ve done it in Maine, in Denver, in Minneapolis and all over Washington, and so, yeah. We’ll see when that happens, but for now, the virtual training is actually going really well.
We have an amazing team of facilitators that I’m so blessed to work with, like a very intersectional team of people with different identities and different things to offer and different lived experiences. We all, because it’s virtual, we actually are all facilitating it right now, whereas when we’re in person, it’s usually like two or max, three of us. So, I think the training experience online is actually really special. We’re keeping it smaller, so it’s a little bit more intimate and max of about 22 people participating. So, it’s actually been surprising how Zoom has really facilitated an experience that has some perks in addition to being fully … We’ve been able to transfer all of our content online pretty well.
Alyssa Scolari [28:27]:
That’s fantastic, right? It’s amazing. As horrible as this pandemic has been, there have been some good things that have come out of it. So, the training is 21 hours stretched across five days, and what does that training look like? I’ve always wondered.
Jess Frank [28:48]:
Yeah. So, we kind of have three objectives for this training. The first is that people come away from it, feeling that they can implement the tools that we offer. Someone can’t necessarily come out and teach a full fledged, perfect trauma-informed yoga class especially because some people who take the training aren’t yoga instructors to begin with, and you don’t need to be one to really be able to implement a lot of the tools that we’re offering, but second to that is that we feel it’s crucial that people have awareness of their identity and how their various identities are going to be at play if they’re especially offering yoga in kind of a low access space, prisons, jails, shelters with trauma survivors, that we’re very aware of what we’re walking into those situations, of what the assumptions we might be carrying, the assumptions that people might have about us, and how all of this kind of unconscious stuff is at play, and we have to shine a light on it and understand basically our positionality.
So, we’ve spent some part of the training, also looking at that, looking at the criminal justice, criminal legal space and the impacts that that has on communities and just understanding it really from kind of the social justice angle. Then, the last part is really understanding the context of prison specifically. What is it like to teach in a prison? Who comes to our classes? What are some of the ways that we need to operate with boundaries and consent specific to that environment? How does that maybe translate over to really all settings because consent boundaries and understanding the context is important in any situation where we’re offering these kinds of tools? Then, lastly, to me, another objective is that we’re building community and that people can come to this training and really feel a sense of we’re in this together and meet other folks who are interested in doing this work, and so that’s another priority is really giving people time to meet one another.
Alyssa Scolari [30:57]:
So, you’re also doing this work, which we’ve touched on sort of but haven’t actually said directly, which is you’re breaking down stigma as well. That is another reason why this is so important because you are … You said this earlier, but I almost get the sense from you that you feel like you’re kind of laying down the groundwork to let other folks who have been oppressed in some way, shape or form really step into themselves, and I think that that’s very, very hard for those who have been oppressed. It’s not hard. It’s impossible if they do not have people like you laying down the groundwork for them to allow them to step into themselves because in a way, what you’re doing is you’re helping to fight systemic oppression and stigma with what you’re doing with Yoga Behind Bars.
Jess Frank [31:59]:
Yeah. I think we’re trying. It’s an immense issue, and we’re trying our best to really be humble, to ask questions, to examine ourselves and the impact that we have as an organization, as individuals in the organization, and it’s part of the work. It’s part of the work to be in that inquiry and to be really trying to just increasingly recognize like, where might harm be happening that I’m not aware of? Where can I step back and really listen and be led, and where does my positionality actually mean I need to step forward and do some of the work or speak up because others can’t?
So, for instance, with our teachers behind bars, they can’t advocate for themselves in a way that will really land well for the people who have custody of them. On the other hand, I can advocate for them to make sure they get paid, to make sure that they get support, the support they need to lead their programs. That’s something that I can do and that I might be listened or more credible or have people’s ears. So, you may have heard the term gatekeeping, but I think YBB is trying to be a responsible gatekeeper and to really be an organization that, yeah, can be in that discernment that’s required. It’s not just like, oh … It’s not a binary. It’s really being in the discernment of listening and being responsive to the changing needs that are happening all the time.
Alyssa Scolari [33:33]:
That’s amazing. Just to clarify to the listeners out there, so Yoga Behind Bars is a nonprofit, so they thrive off of donations and grant money and funders, so if you’re listening today and you really love the concept of Yoga Behind Bars and the work that they do and you’d like to support them, would you be able to talk a little bit just about where people can find you, where people might be able to donate or get involved or check out the trainings that are offered?
Jess Frank [34:12]:
Yeah. So, our website is http://www.yogabehindbars.org, and definitely check out the website. We have all of our information about our trainings and registration and scholarships there. Then, we have social media channels. Instagram is just @YogaBehindBars, Facebook. We aren’t huge social media users, but we do put information there about our trainings and events, and it’s a good place to just kind of stay in the know of what’s happening in the organization. Then, in addition, we do absolutely rely upon individual support for our work. We are primarily funded by individual donors, and we don’t get paid by the facilities with the exception of one out of the 15 that we teach in. We don’t get paid for the programs that we run in facilities, so we are really run off of individuals. You can donate and support us at yogabehindbars.org.
We also have a luminary program that’s our monthly donors. Monthly donating for any work is really, really impactful because you can just kind of think of it like a paycheck for yourself, like it helps with planning to have consistent income over time, so even $5 a month, $10 monthly is really impactful for our long-term sustainability for the organization.
Alyssa Scolari [35:43]:
Yes, it’s so helpful, and it’s so needed because this is a … Yoga Behind Bars is a … You’re making a difference day by day, but it’s a long-term goal, right? You’re fighting battles that result in trying to win a war essentially. Sorry for the barking in the background if you guys can hear it. It’s, well, one of my wild dogs, but so yes, to the listeners out there, I am actually looking at their website right now. I’ve looked it up before, but your website is very, very cool. I particularly appreciate the history and how it’s broken down into the timeline, but I am going to link the website in the show notes and also in the Life After Trauma private Facebook group for everybody to check out. When you go on the website, it is in the top right hand corner. It says donate. There is a little white box around the word, so you can click right on that, and you can donate. Anything that you can would be great for them. You are all doing phenomenal work, so thank you so, so much for sharing. I really appreciate it.
Jess Frank [36:57]:
Alyssa Scolari [36:57]:
Thanks for listening, everyone. For more information about today’s episode and to sign up for the Light After Trauma newsletter, head over to my website at alyssascolari.com. The really great thing about being a part of this newsletter is that not only do you get weekly updates on new podcast episodes and blog posts, but you also get access to the private Facebook community as well as access to all sorts of insider tips, resources, and infographs that supplement what we talk about on the show. You also can connect with me and other trauma warriors. I’m super active on the Facebook community, and I look forward to talking with you.