PRISON YOGA: Early Thoughts on the Future of my project

Naomi Newall-Watson
Monday 29 May 2017

The Importance of a Humanist Perspective

Chengdu, Sichuan province, China (2010)

Whilst this project aims to build connections between personal narratives of those involved in the criminal justice system and the wider socio-political context within which they are shared, I am aware of my own position as a researcher to be one that is far removed from those serving sentences in prison.

However, what I do experience, is the ways in which criminality, and the representations of prisoners’ lives meet the public eye. At this early stage I feel it is important to identify the theoretical and moral foundations which will inform how I explore the experience of incarceration which I feel to be especially relevant for developing research questions that intend to probe the moral debates around the punishment – rehabilitation dichotomy.

The content in this post is a selection of works that I have found to represent prisoners in a way that appreciates their agency, self-worth and right to a quality of life irrespective of their criminal background which has allowed me to consider the approach I wish to take when carrying out my research when reflecting on the aims behind this project.

For example, Martha-Cecilia Dietrich’s short film Take Me to a Place Outside conveys a phenomenological sense of imprisonment and deliberately ignores the characters specific crimes to avoid moral judgement from the viewer (2009).

Martha-Cecilia Dietrich – Take Me to a Place Outside


This has encouraged me to think carefully about the level of sensitivity my research will demand, and the extent to which individuals who have previously been incarcerated may still be subject to labelling and social stigma. For example, as Moran’s ethnography suggests, the experience of prison can be ‘inscribed’ onto the physical body and affect the mind-state of individuals long after release (Moran, 2012).

The drive toward prison reform that focusses on recovery and therapy is becoming increasingly more visible in the media. A leading example being Grendon Prison (established in the 1960’s) it became the first prison in Europe to operate solely as a ‘therapeutic community’ and was recognised as the most successful system for reducing recidivism rates upon opening (Genders and Player, 1995).

Architectural projects that work on ‘healing spaces’ seems to bring moral debates further into the public eye, reflected in Michael Madsen’s short film exploring the therapeutic space of Halden prison in Southern Norway as part of the Cathedrals of Culture series (2014).

Michael Madsen

Rehabilitation programmes which offer yoga and meditation to prisoners inherently have therapeutic and humanistic values attached whereby the physical and psychological well-being of inmates remains a central focus of their efforts (Waldrum,1998). Bakonyi Panni addresses the value of yoga and makes connections between the value of its practice both inside and outside prison walls.

Bakonyi Panni – Jail Yoga

I feel increasingly confident that this approach to prison studies has moral, political and social priority. Firstly, it is a way to appreciate humanistic values, whilst also, has been recognised to reduce criminal behaviour and return a level of agency to the individual  (Rucker, 2005 and Prison Reform Trust , 2016)

As the time gets closer toward the official start to my research project, my main concern has been how to map out the stages of development that will support my research questions and provide some stability when things inevitably go off course which has led me to consider the influence that methodological choices may have on my project.

Given my research is anthropologically grounded, I wish to keep the theoretical boundaries of my project loosely defined, as it is my hope to follow the particular issues that are raised and addressed by my informants during my fieldwork; rather than those that I personally  recognise to be of relevance at his early stage. My understanding of prison reform and the debates around criminality are informed largely by academic discourse which may lack the narratives I hope to gather from lived human experiences.

As Ferrell and Hamm suggest, the ‘humanity of crime and deviance’ (1998) which remains hidden form the public eye, and the voices of those who experience incarceration are too often misrepresented or silenced before they reach public discourse.



Ferrell, J. and Hamm, M. (1998), ‘Confessions of Danger and Humanity’ in Ferrell, J. and Hamm, M. (eds.),

Harner, H., Hanlon, A.L. and Garfinkel, M., 2010. Effect of Iyengar yoga on mental health of incarcerated women: A feasibility study. Nursing research, 59(6), pp.389-399.

Hofstede, G, 2001. Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviours, institutions and organizations across nations. Sage

Moran, D., (2012). Prisoner reintegration and the stigma of prison time inscribed on the body. Punishment & Society, 14(5), pp.564-583.

Prison Reform Trust , 2016. Bromley Briefings. London: Ministry of Justice

Rucker, L., 2005. Yoga and restorative justice in prison: An experience of “response‐ability to harms”. Contemporary Justice Review, 8(1), pp.107-120.

Telles, S. and Naveen, K.V., 1997. Yoga for rehabilitation: an overview. Indian journal of medical sciences, 51(4), p.123.









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