Maximus H. Escouri
Hawaii Yoga Prison Project Report
Halawa Correctional Facility
I taught a yoga class at the Halawa Correctional Facility on Monday, April 27th 2015. The experience of being an educator inside prison has no parallel. In this report I will recount the details of this event.
I woke up with a mixed feeling about the experience. I was excited but also overwhelmed. Lu, the founder of Hawaii Yoga Prison Project, has taught inside the prison for over twenty years. She had given me a taste of the nature of work by allowing me to shadow with her in one of the sessions. However, conducting a class on my own in a room with many inmates was a whole new ball game.
The closer I got to the facility the more the mixed feeling persisted. I arrived at the parking lot at 11:15 am. I picked up my driver’s license, the memo and I walked toward the security entrance. The lady at the desk recognized me from the last visit. I signed in, I surrendered my keys and ID and I proceeded toward a maze of dark hallways. Between each hallway there is a big heavy rusty door. There is a button that you push, you hear a click then you have half of a second to open the gate. If you miss it, you will have to wait longer and repeat the whole process again. The door is so heavy that when It slams behind you, it sounds like a bomb. The hallways echo the sound and the walls vibrate causing my entire body to shake, imagination stops, the thought itself freezes and consciousness is jailed. The institution is designed to constantly remind you that you are inside the prison system. Nevertheless, I gathered myself and I took a long deep breath, I walked up the stairs and I made my way to the main street.
The main street is literally a street that runs in the middle of the entire prison. The sidewalks on each side are marked by yellow lines that are parallel to the sides of the street. The sidewalk is one foot wide and it can only fit one person. Inmates cannot walk in pairs instead they walk in line, one behind the other for security reasons I suppose. There was a long line on each sidewalk of men wearing striped jump suits. They walked slowly and in unison. They looked like ants from far away. I walked past them, and they were curious at my presence. Some of them greeted me, some waved at me and others shouted words that I didn’t clearly hear.
I saw Eric, the life long inmate in front of the chapel, the learning center. He is in his mid fifties, he has a long beard and a long pony tail. He looks like a wizard, not only because of his appearance but also because he emanates that energy. He is calm and he seemed more free than all inmates, in fact he seemed more free than many people outside the prison. He helps the staff in the chapel. Nobody knows his story but Lu told me that she had met him more than twenty years go. I shook his hand and he seemed uncomfortable because I wasn’t supposed to make any physical contact with inmates. I walked inside and I went to pick up the supplies for my class.
The staff and the guards were very helpful, they weren’t as bad as Lu had described them. they gave me tips and last minute warnings about pens, pencils, chairs and even papers, anything that can potentially turn into a weapon.
There were some chairs in the middle of the classroom, and at the corner there was a box that had the mats in it. The students walked into the class in different groups because they came from different cells. They already knew the routine so I didn’t have to direct them. They were very polite, they shook my hand, they signed in, they picked up their designated yoga mats and they sat in a circular formation. They were present and excited to fully receive from their new instructor Maximus.
I introduced myself and I told the story of my life, I talked about my village in Africa, my donkey excursions to get water for my family in the desert…etc. One of the inmates said that he had never been appreciative of the fact that at least he has the utility of water, food and shelter in prison. They asked me different questions about different subjects, including the justice system and prisons in Africa. My answer was general and informative. I said: “anything that you think is bad in the US. it is often always worse in third world”.
I began the session with the science of breathing, and we proceeded with the stretches and the asanas. They were eager to learn everything, they were dedicated in their practice and they pushed themselves really hard. We had an amazing vinyasa sequence. Everybody liked it, especially the core part of it. They found it challenging and rewarding at the sometime, it had the right balance they were looking for. At the end, we had a deep relaxation moment, we held Savasana for five minutes, and we sealed the practice with three lower back stretches. When we finished, they thanked me, they stood in line and shook my hand as they left. They were the most disciplined and receptive students I’ve ever had.
I feel very fulfilled and accomplished by this experience. I truly think that the correctional facilities will serve their purpose in society if teenagers, students and members of the community, especially the underprivileged ones, participate in activities inside prison. The participants will become aware of life inside prison and more appreciative of life outside prison. The inmates on the other hand will get in touch with the innate loving essence of human being as they interact with other citizens who come to assist them in their learning process.
I can proudly say that I used yoga to beam some light in one of darkest places in the world. It is only the beginning of an amazing journey.