Yoga and aromatherapy behind bars? Pa. prisons try wellness initiatives

Ladonn, a 43-year-old man from Philadelphia, was apprehensive about taking a yoga class. But after 15 years in prison, with an anxiety level that was “though the roof,” he was willing to give it a try.

At the twice weekly classes held at the aptly named State Correctional Institution (SCI) – Retreat in Luzerne County, Ladonn found out yoga was hard work — and he liked it.

“It helped with anxiety first and foremost,” said Ladonn, whom the Department of Corrections would identify only by his first name, in a phone interview. “That was my main thing.”

Yoga, aromatherapy, and  linens in an earthy shade of green are not expected prison fare.

But for the last year, inmates and staff across the state have been testing policies and programs that focus on reducing violence and time inmates spend in solitary confinement, as well as increasing overall wellness. And, they are doing it at minimal cost.

Studies are being carried out at 25 state correctional institutions with the help of BetaGov, a team of consultants that encourage innovation through a bottom-up approach. The research ideas came from 15,000 state prison employees including correction officers, chaplains, nurses and food service staff, said Bret Bucklen, director of planning research and statistics at the state Department of Corrections.

The ideas get a quick review by a legal team to see if there are any problems, ethical concerns or cost issues before being sent  to BetaGov. Once approved, the randomized control trials, which tend to be small, can begin in a week or two and be finished in months. Prisoners volunteer to participate.

A traditional research model would take years, involve finding an academic partner to evaluate and design the program, and then get approvals and funding, Bucklen said. “BetaGov flips all that on its head,” he said.

virtual reality prisons
Camera icon Pennsylvania Department of Corrections
Prisoner at SCI-Graterford uses virtual reality.

Ideas that might seem off-the-wall proved promising.

Using lavender and cherry scents were associated with less misconduct in a behavioral management unit at SCI-Frackville. Piping soothing sounds into housing pods at SCI-Benner Township to improve sleeping conditions was found to have potential for improving behavior. Prisoners at SCI-Mahanoy who were given images to color while in solitary confinement enjoyed the activity, posted the work in their cells and often sent them home to their children or families, the BetaGov results indicated.

A study involving virtual reality that guides prisoners through a halfway house before they are released to such facilities is set to start up soon. The hope: that it will quell anxiety over the transition.

“The one that seemed to really work that surprised me was the green bed linen trial,” Bucklen said. The only cost was to buy the dye to color linens already on hand.

Prisons wellness linens
Camera icon PA Department of Corrections/BetaGov.
Green bed linens were given to inmates at SCI-Fayette as part of a study to see if they made any impact on behavior.

Scientists have long studies the effects color can have on emotions, physical well-being and behavior. Green has been known to have a calming effect and reduce stress, an article in the Procedia — Social and Behavioral Sciences, reported.

The trial was done at SCI-Fayette in 2016 with two blocks in the general population: participants and a control group. The study found those who were issued the light-green bed sheets had fewer misconduct issues than the control group.

But even picking the color of the sheets shows the diligence that must be applied when dealing with inmates. Blue, the original choice for the study, was scrapped when it was pointed out the color signifies the Crips gang, Bucklen said.

Other ideas were more wide-reaching. There was a study to enhance monitoring of gangs, suicide prevention training for staff, outreach to educate visitors on what they can and cannot bring into prisons, an examination at pat down searches, and crisis intervention training for staff dealing with inmates who have mental health disorders.

The study also addressed the wellness of staff and included a “relaxation room,” where staff could decompress after a negative encounter with inmates, and giving them over-the-counter vitamins and supplements to see if it helps with anxiety, depression and job satisfaction, Bucklen said.

Prison Wellness Virtual Reality
Camera icon PA Department of Corrections/BetaGov.
Virtual reality programs were developed to help inmates as they transitioned back into society simulating events like how to handle a disagreement with a supervisor.

The most successful study was the “Swift, Certain, Fair” discipline program which started at SCI-Albion. Over eight months, the program monitored inconsistencies and delays in responding to misbehavior. It has already expanded to 10 other facilities, Bucklen said.

“It’s almost like a Parenting 101 model,” he said.

Instead of letting problems build up and then sending an inmate into solitary confinement, the staff handled infractions immediately and took away small privileges, like television time. The result empowered the officers to maintain order and provided a more stable environment for inmates, he said.

“A lot of this has to do with the quality of life,” said Angela Hawken, founder and director of BetaGov, which is housed in the Marron Institute of Urban Management at New York University and receives funding from various philanthropies. The services provided are free, she said.

Hawken credits the program’s success to the Department of Corrections top management for allowing staff to have a voice.

“It’s really been one of our favorite agencies to work with,” she said.

Hawken noted that the studies are not one-size fits all. A program that is embraced in the facility that generated the idea, might not work in another setting.

“We are very interested in the themes of well-being and yoga is part of that,” said Hawken.

Since September, instructor Bjarni Nermo has been teaching yoga classes at SCI-Retreat to a group of men who ranged in age from 20 to 60.

When a friend suggested Nermo, a Navy veteran from Saylorsburg, apply to teach yoga at the prison, he was hesitant. But after 12 classes, he is ready to sign up again.

Over the months, Nermo said he saw a transformation in those who stuck with the sessions. The snickers and laughs that accompanied trying to get into poses in the first few classes disappeared. The group’s skill level improved and they were able to do more involved moves.

One inmate quit smoking and credited yoga with helping him do it. They began to practice outside of class time, Nermo said.

“People in prison needed it more than anyone else I’ve taught,” said Nermo. “This group needs as many ways to heal and change as anyone else.”

Inmate Ladonn said the classes have helped him physically, as well as emotionally.  He said yoga really works his core muscles.

“I used to think I was physically fit but that wasn’t the case,” he said.

Ladonn has continued to practice yoga in his cell and hopes Nermo’s classes will resume. Yoga should be implemented in every prison facility around America, he added.

“Once I get back into society,” he said, “this is what I will be doing every morning.”

Prison wellness BetaGov.
Camera icon PA Department of Corrections/BetaGov.
One of the coloring pages given to inmates at SCI-Mahanoy.