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Yoga: A Breath of Fresh Air At Milwaukee County House of Correction

Behind the locked doors of the Milwaukee County House of Correction for two hour-long classes every week, an unlikely message emanates.

It's yoga instructor Ali Szarzynski, speaking gently, "Again, allow the morning light to touch your face. Its warmth and radiance expanding to envelope all of you. Allow your mind to clear and open, to see this light in its great expanse. Before and all around you. Light of healing, of love, of the sacred moment of which you’re a part. And to allow yourself to receive it, and to remember your way home. To your worth. To yourself. The unique and beautiful brilliance that you are."

It's a Thursday morning, and she's teaching one of two yoga group classes for women inmates in the women's only dorm. If it weren’t for the bunk bed frames in the background and the blue jumpsuits the program participants are wearing, for a brief time you’d forget that you’re in a jail.

But a jail is exactly where we are.

Credit Maayan Silver

Katie Lynch is associate director of the Benedict Center's Women’s Re-Entry Program, which runs the yoga program. As she walks through long hallways and a series of heavy locked doors that need to be buzzed open, Lynch explains that while the women at the HOC may be locked up for reasons ranging from unpaid tickets to felonies, the Benedict Center's programming is meant to help them re-adjust to society upon release.

A lot of that has to do with addressing one thing: “We know that 77-98% of women who are currently incarcerated have experienced some form of trauma in their lives," she explains. "And from my work with justice-involved women, it tends to be complex trauma. So that means it’s not just a single traumatic event that they’ve experienced. It’s repeated traumatic experiences that they’ve been through in their lives.”

Because of this, instructor Szarzynski has made some modifications to the traditional format of a yoga class she'd teach in the community. She explains that while community classes tend to have participants in rows; here, the women's mats are in a circle. "That’s because we don’t want anyone to be behind somebody else. [There’s] also a capacity to see everybody else in the room."

Credit Maayan Silver

"If I'm bringing a student into a posture, a lot of times [in the trauma-informed class], I’ll name how long we’re going to be there and count breaths together, what is sensation you’re feeling in your body,"  Szarzynski continues. "[The students] get to choose modification or skip posture, and there's room for students to decide whether or not they want to take the pose."

It turns out that yoga was a hot ticket for the approximately 120 women in the HOC dorms. In a survey of multiple options the Benedict Center ran before offering the program, the inmates chose it as the number one activity they wanted the Benedict Center to provide, even though many of them had never done it before.

"We're seeing the rise in popularity of yoga in the mainstream, so I think that might be part of the interest," infers Szarzynski. "And I think maybe just a sense of curiosity too. My guess is they heard that it was good for them at some point and went 'cool, I want to try that.'"

As the women enter  the class, they approach the circle of colorful mats draped in a natural light that contrasts with the artificial light everywhere else in the jail.

Szarzynski starts out by asking everyone to check in and give a word for how their body, mind and heart are feeling, respectively. The women respectfully share their descriptors. Everyone seems to flow naturally through the hour of poses.

After the class, a newfound yoga enthusiast who wanted to be known as Janice shares her thoughts. She says she was in custody because she could not afford to pay restitution on one of her prior criminal convictions. These in-custody classes are her first time doing yoga, and she’s a fan. 

Credit Maayan Silver

“Spiritually, I think it helps out cause it clears your mind, clear all thoughts," she says. "Like a little square box, you put all the good things inside the box, and all the bad things stay outside the box."

Janice says she had some immediate things to be kept outside of the box that day. Specifically, someone had previously swapped her for her canteen treats a few days ago and didn't keep their end of the bargain by giving her the canteen as promised today. She says yoga helped her get over that.

"Like a little square box, you put all the good things inside the box, and all the bad things stay outside the box."

"When I came in, I felt uptight and cold-hearted, [but because of yoga] I took [the conflict] like it was, and left it like that, and that’s where it’s going to stay, right there," she shares.

Janice thinks that yoga is a tool that more people around her should use. "A lot of ladies need it. It's not just exercise, it's mind healing, a stress reliever. I wish more girls would come. They’re stressed out about their cases."

Cindar Doughty has a nursing background, and says because of the depression that fuels her alcohol use, she’s in custody for her fourth operating while intoxicated charge. Like Janice, this is the first time she’s had access to yoga, and this is her fourth class with Szarzynski.

She hopes yoga will help her stay sober, but say says, there’s more in it for her: "When you’re in a jail setting, you have no control over anything, sleep, eat, anything. So, being able to control the depth of how you can bend over or how much you can stretch, just kind of giving yourself back that power that you’re a person, not just an inmate or number.”

"So, being able to control the depth of how you can bend over or how much you can stretch, [is] just kind of giving yourself back that power that you're a person, not just an inmate or number."

That's what Szarzynski's been going for all along. “That’s the biggest inspiration that I have here is to just remind the women of the ownership of their bodies and at least a little taste of freedom."

For Janice, the yoga does just that. But her other big takeaway is that someone cares enough to volunteer, and she says that people can take the lead on this beyond the confines of the jail. “In a lot of communities, people don’t care no more. There has to be somebody in neighborhood that cares enough to say, ‘we’re going to uplift the neighborhood, stand up and step up and do something about it.’ A lot of people ain’t do nothing about it they just stand up until the worst come. People need to get together and do things about it before the worst come.”

As for the male inmates, currently there are no volunteers to teach yoga with the men at the HOC. The closest program there is the SMART program, a stress management program, which has some yoga components, according to HOC representatives.  

Credit Maayan Silver
Yoga instructor Ali Szarzynski with her class at the Milwaukee House of Correction

Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.