Championing a message of second chances, the Peace Within Prison Project is designed to not only help prisoners reintegrate into society upon release but to also accept and forgive themselves in order to move on in life. One of their initiatives, Yoga Within Prisons, has been implemented in three prisons within Kenya in an attempt to encourage positive behavioural change within prisons and to provide prisoners with ways in which to grow emotionally, psychosocially, mentally, and physically.
How was the Peace within Prisons Project conceptualised and how did it come into being?
One of the co-founders, Irene, has been doing yoga training for the last five years. Part of the training that she did is prison yoga training so when she came back from that she wanted to do something that would actually impact people’s lives as opposed to just giving yoga classes and that’s how the prison project started out.
When did you start taking this into the prisons?
In January this year.
Did you have any difficulties originally approaching the prisons? Were they open towards you?
We started from the headquarters of Kenya Prisons and the prison structure is looking to implement rehabilitation and reform programs within prisons so as to encourage and help people who are leaving prison to reintegrate into society as smoothly as possible. When we presented the idea to the director of welfare and rehabilitation in prison she was happy about it. So from there we were able to move to several prisons. In January we started with one in a remote area – a ladies prison. Then in June we came to a maximum women’s prison in Nairobi. Through that we have also been able to go to one men’s prison which we are actually quite excited about.
How was your concept initially met by the prisoners themselves?
I think in the three prisons we’ve gone to the prisoners are very open to it. They find it good for them in terms of the exercise but also because we do meditation with them. They find it refreshing and relaxing. Most of them say on days when they go for yoga they are able to sleep better. They are able to have that short period of time to not think and stress about their cases; they have one moment to be free and to interact with people from the outside world.
Have you received any statistical evidence of this program working when prisoners are reincorporated into society?
So far we cannot say that there are prisoners that have been released and that they have achieved something because of the yoga classes because it’s been a short period of time. There’s a lady whose case was ongoing and she was found innocent. When she left the prison she contacted us and wanted to continue with the yoga sessions so we are looking for a way to ensure that she continues to get regular yoga sessions and that she gets proper training so that she can also become a yoga trainer.
What has been your greatest success story?
We are not able to host all of the prisoners at once; usually we have sessions with between forty and sixty inmates. Usually it’s more or less the same people that come for the sessions so we appreciate that it’s a regular crowd that attends the sessions. Some of the officers in the prisons have commented on the groups that come for the session. They have reported on the way in which the prisoners carry themselves and the manner in which they behave within the facility. There is quite a remarkable difference: they’re a bit more disciplined, they are calmer, and they are not getting into trouble as much.
What has been your greatest challenge?
One of the things that we wanted to do is to branch out into a number of prisons – we are looking at about five prisons – but we’re challenged because the project is not a funded project, we have to use our own resources to sustain it. The challenge of getting funding from people in the community is a bit difficult to sustain. We have prisons who would like for us to offer yoga sessions but we are not able to afford an instructor to go to these prisons.
Apart from contributing financially, how can the public become involved?
We need people to volunteer a bit of their time into what we are doing. We’ve been looking for women to help with communication and structuring so that we are able to do proposals for resources and to help with fundraising. We also need people to be a positive voice because a lot of people have different perceptions of what prisoners are and most of the perceptions that people have are negative.
How would you like to change people’s perceptions of prisoners?
The idea from the onset was that everybody has a thing that they are not proud of and everybody has also wronged someone. Based on that, we would like people to not necessarily think that everyone is a good person, but to have a space for them to give a second chance for someone who has been in prison to be able to be part of society in ways that they would be had they not gone to prison.
You are currently concentrated in Kenya. Do you have any plans for expanding into other countries?
That would actually be very great, although that would have to be a long-term goal because there are more than one hundred correctional facilities within Kenya alone. As the situation gets better and as we are able to sustain more yoga trainers we would like to have a session happening everywhere.
Would partners in other countries be something that you are interested in? Would that help you to maybe branch out?
Yes, that would be amazing. That would actually be very helpful.
What message do you have for anyone wanting to turn their life around but unsure as to whether or not that is possible?
I think what I would say is at times all you have is you, what people need to do is believe in themselves. When someone is trying to turn their life around there’s a lot of negativity around them so there is no bad thing you can prove. The only thing you need to prove is a good thing. So just take it a day at a time, try and find a support system – a space where you are able to be yourself and where you can let out your frustrations when they come and you can sit and be with yourself and think and get that encouragement to face the next day and the next thing.