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Yoga on the menu for a healthy lifestyle at Henley State Jail

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Yoga on the menu for a healthy lifestyle at Henley State Jail

Yogurt isn’t on the menu at the Henley State Jail in Dayton, but Yoga is being eaten up by a group of offenders there.

Fonseca leading the class in a yoga pose.
Offender Ubense Fonseca leads her classmates in Yoga stretching exercises prior to the start of the session taught by volunteer instructor Jane Keep of Houston.
Photos by David Nunnelee
Yoga, a Hindu discipline aimed at training the consciousness for a state of perfect spiritual insight and tranquility, has been offered on a voluntary basis to 64 female offenders enrolled in the peer-driven Cognitive Restructuring Program at Henley for about six months. It was introduced there, minus the tights, following a casual conversation Rehabilitation & Reentry Programs Division Director Madeline Ortiz had on an airplane with Texas Board of Criminal Justice Chairman Christina Melton Crain. During the flight, the two discovered that each had long practiced the discipline and found it a soothing exercise for both the mind and body.

“And I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the offenders could feel that way?’” Ortiz recalled.

A search for a volunteer instructor led to Jane Keep of Houston, who makes a 100-mile roundtrip to teach the class one night a week.

“It’s been an exciting experiment for me,” Keep said. “It’s something I wanted to do.”

Ortiz, a New York City native, took to Yoga in 1984 following the birth of her second child. She and her husband Orlando had recently moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado where he was stationed with his U.S. Army field artillery unit.

Ortiz now starts each day with an early-morning Yoga session.

“The practice allows you to stop and reflect,” she said. “The meditation, stretching and breathing give you a sense of peace and allows you to connect with yourself. I think everybody would benefit from doing this. It allows you to relax, smile and not take things so seriously.”

Crain first tried Yoga at the Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas in 1998 after reading about its benefits for years.

“Once I tried it, I knew I would never give it up,” Crain said. “I can definitely tell if I have missed a day. Your body and mind become so used to the structure that they miss it.”

Crain, too, practices Yoga daily, whether she’s inside the state Capitol building or in a courtroom practicing law.

“A misnomer about Yoga is that you have to actually be sitting in a Yoga class in tights to reap the benefits,” she said. “Not true. You can incorporate Yoga into every aspect of your life. I can be standing up in the back of a hearing at the Capitol during the legislative session practicing Yoga or in court and no one is the wiser. Yet I still reap the benefits. It’s personal and non-disruptive.”

Crain said the Yoga discipline is well suited to a prison environment.

“Many offenders come to us filled with anger, hostility, and in many cases, poor to moderate health,” she said. “If they reap even a portion of the benefits, they are better off than when they first arrived at TDCJ. The women who have been engaged in the Yoga program have said that it helps them deal with the day-to-day issues that arise during their time of incarceration.”

Close up of female offender in a yoga pose.
Offender Jessica Breault concentrates on a breathing exercise during Yoga class at the Henley State Jail in Dayton.
At first, Assistant Warden Detrah Lacy, a 21-year veteran of TDCJ, doubted that Yoga belonged in prison. But she now sees it as an effective management tool, noting that disciplinary cases among the class participants are few.

“When I got the call that they had chosen this facility to introduce the Yoga program, I laughed,” she said. “But I’m now a firm believer that it works. When the last class started doing Yoga, the disciplinaries went down to almost nothing.”

Lacy said she initially worried that she wouldn’t be able to convince enough of the eligible offenders to take the weekly classes. She was wrong about that, too.

“The class has stayed full every night,” she said.

Ubense Fonseca, a 28-year-old offender from Corpus Christi sentenced to two years in state jail for drug possession, has participated in all three of the 12-week Yoga sessions that have been offered since last summer. She now serves as a “facilitator” for offenders new to the Cognitive Restructuring Program and the Yoga classes.

“I love Yoga,” she said. “I wish I had had it a long time ago because now I realize that if I would have had Yoga in my life I probably wouldn’t have had drugs in my life.”

Fonseca said Yoga helps her to escape the stresses associated with incarceration.

“I’ve learned that when I’m in the dorm and it’s really loud I can lay in my bed and mediate and block it all out,” she said.

Antoinette Smith, a six-time offender from Houston, didn’t think she would see Yoga offered as part of a prison rehabilitation program.

“I thought it was kind of strange, but I’m willing to do anything at this point,” said Smith, 40, on the eve of her first Yoga class in January. “If Yoga is going to help me from coming back here, then so be it.”

Also a first-timer, offender Jessica Breault of San Antonio, a self-described “(disciplinary) case queen,” said she hoped to find “peace” and “patience” through Yoga.

“The meditation will help me focus on myself and maybe I won’t snap as much,” she said.

“Yoga is a good fit to the Cognitive Restructuring Program that is also occurring at the Henley Unit because both focus on thoughts and trains you to think in a positive manner,” Ortiz said. “It also allows for moments to self reflect, to look back at where you’ve been in life, and find the direction you want to go. In order to do this, you must establish a positive vision of where you want to go. Most offenders don’t have a vision. This is a way they can feel good about themselves and reconnect with who they are. I think that’s why it’s been so successful.”

As volunteer instructors can be recruited, both Crain and Ortiz would like to see Yoga classes introduced at other prison facilities, including those that house only male offenders.

“I am thrilled with the enactment of this program and look forward to it expanding throughout the TDCJ system,” Crain said. “We need to get men involved.”

“My focus is the best interest of the offender,” Ortiz said. “We want them to return to society in a better state than when they entered. It cost the taxpayers nothing. And it’s a win-win because now with this, in addition to the other programs offered, offenders leaving this agency have a better chance of leading a successful life.”

“Yoga is definitely something that I’m going to continue to do,” said offender Fonseca, who is being released to a halfway house in October. “I’m into anything that is going to help me feel better and feel more positive about myself.”

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