Counting Prisoners, Votes, Guts, and Grace

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Counting Prisoners, Votes, Guts, and Grace

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When I teach yoga in a women’s prison every Saturday, I encounter a world like no other—the women there call it Inside.  Today I yearn to bring these prisoners whiffs of Outside—the gleam of the Rocky Mountains, the golds, greens, and reds of autumn, the joggers along the greenbelt that winds amid the grasslands, the cries of children on wobbly three-wheelers, their moms and dads running alongside as they push a baby carriage, the gaggle of geese landing on a still pond.

Inside the prison are six housing units.  Number six is classified as the most secure, heavily guarded unit, and number one is the most privileged, though living in any of these units is akin to being in an X-rated Bates Motel.

In unit one, I go to a small room where eleven women greet me as they set up their mats.  “How are you?” I ask. Fine—good—okay come the replies.  One usually-cheery prisoner responds, “Actually, Carol, we’re not fine.  They just told us that during Count, we must stay in our cells.  We can’t go to the bathroom.  Count can last 30 minutes, one hour, three hours, we never know.”   During daily Counts, guards account for every prisoner (some 900 women), and the number must tally with the exact number incarcerated.

For the next hour, the 11 women in this small room in unit one practice yoga amid grunts, gasps, giggles, sweat, deep and shallow breaths: forward fold, down-dog, up-dog, plank, triangle, side angle, boat, seated head-to-knee, hip spiral, bridge, plow, corpse pose.

Here’s what we never talk about: why they’re in prison.

When we finish our practice, a few women linger, one asking about yoga postures to relieve her back pain, another reciting the opening lines of a poem that she’d found in a magazine: Rumi’s “The Guest House”:

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.


A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

As an unexpected visitor.


Welcome and entertain them all!

Before the return to their cells, each woman tells me how much the class helps her relieve tension and breathe freely or simply move in what one of them calls “this hellhole.”

To leave the prison I walk from unit one into the yard, along spacious white sidewalks angled on diagonals, widely-spaced.   Next I go through five electronic gates or doors.  Down a long hallway is a large room with tables.  Through the windows of a locked door I spot prisoners seated across from visitors, each hunched toward but not touching the other—hugs are allowed at the end of the visit. Before the last two gates, which are outside, I gaze up at the blue sky and spiky wire whose metallic barbs gleam atop a tall chain-length fence.  A rabbit squeezes underneath the fence, and scurries outside.

Reaching the front lobby, I return my visitors badge and wait for the guard to return my driver’s license.  My heart squeezes as I imagine the guard staring at my license and barking, “Hold on—this isn’t you!  Get back in there!”

If they mistakenly held me prisoner, would I mess up Count?  Would I be counted as missing Outside?  I couldn’t make my vote count, since prisoners cannot vote.  Outside do I count?  Inside do the prisoners count?

Once I looked up the crime of a prisoner who comes to yoga.  Her good humor and wit had suggested to me that she had committed a white-collar crime like embezzlement.  Instead I found that she’d been convicted of something heinous—imagine the worst, and your gut may feel as sick as mine did.  She will be up for mandatory parole in the year 8888.

In yoga that morning, I’d intoned at the end of class, “Lie on your mats like corpses, and let petty, false images of yourself die.  Move into your heart.  Feel your true self—full of grace, strength, beauty, peace, intelligence, love.”

Can this woman sentenced to life in prison imagine herself in the light of grace?  And in light of her crime—can I?

That night I watch the presidential debate, and it stirs up anger, fear, and wisps of hope.

Afterwards I pull out my yoga mat, practice yoga, and meditate.  A loving-kindness meditation infuses my practice—“May I be free of suffering, and the roots of suffering.”  This thought I repeat silently again and again, “May ____ be free of suffering and the roots of suffering.”  I plea for loving-kindness for my family and friends, a homeless woman I saw on a corner, the prisoner convicted of a horrifying crime, every prisoner, for Clinton and. . . I swallow and breathe in the maelstrom of anger, fear, and horror I feel as I pause before saying: “May Trump be free of suffering, and the roots of suffering.”

It is not enough.

I say it again and again and yet again.  And I breathe.  “May every being be free of suffering, and the roots of suffering.”

Arising from my meditation pillow, I go outside and stare at the night sky, aware that I am seeing the sky, while many sufferers cannot or do not see this night’s firmament.  Breathing in the autumn air, I smell burnt leaves, ash heaps, and moonlight.