Yoga in an Australian Prison

Reported in The Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday May 2, 1981

Prisoners in Parramatta Jail, one of Australia's largest prisons, have been practising yoga, meditation and kirtan for 6 months with some remarkable results. According to William Felten, who has 12 years' experience as a Senior Prison Officer at the jail, few social, therapeutic and rehabilitation programs can match yoga in deeply and consistently modifying prisoners' behaviour and attitudes. In his experience, most correctional training programs have failed to come to grips with the criminal personality, and results have been generally poor, despite the best of intentions. They have failed to influence the aura of incorrigibility, violence, gloom and widespread disillusionment which dominate prison life.

However, prisoners and officials alike report a major change in the whole atmosphere of prison life following introduction to voluntary yoga classes.

Case history

Felten cites the case of Gary Nilson, a 30 year old New Zealander serving 12 years for armed robbery, who has undergone a complete personal and social transformation since commencing yoga 6 months ago.

'When he first came here he was very aggressive and would just grunt when spoken to. You could feel his hostility.'

According to Nilson, during the 3½ years he spent in jail before commencing yoga, his life was 'at its lowest ebb'.

'I was doing a lot of lockups in solitary (confinement). I was full of frustration and was hitting at the system all the time. Now I am able to flow along - I feel so changed. This is something quite different. Yoga has introduced me to a whole inner world to which I was a foreigner before- even though I knew it must exist. Ten years ago I was the leader of a large racist gang in New Zealand - now I get up at four a.m. every day and meditate for a couple of hours while the jail is quiet and still.'