Sheriff suggests Prison SMART for stress management at local jail


By Mark Webber – 2/28/18 11:37 PM

With one out of every 10 Americans practicing yoga today, some local jail inmates may soon join their ranks.

Several Bartholomew County officers, as well as judicial and drug treatment officials, have been asked to take part in a three-day training session this month for a program called Prison SMART (Stress Management and Rehabilitation Training).

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Silence behind bars: Retreat helps Homestead inmates defuse anger

About 20 women sit in a circle on blue legless chairs placed over yoga mats in a white-walled classroom. In one corner, artsy cutouts of the words “joy,” “compassion” and “courage” are taped on the wall, while an overflowing arrangement of yellow and purple flowers decorates the opposite end of the room.

The shoeless women know each other well and laugh at each other’s jokes. If it weren’t for the corrections officer looking out the door, this room could be a yoga studio in any hip neighborhood.

The women are inmates at the Homestead Correctional Institution, an all-women’s prison, and for three days they were immersed in a silent, meditative retreat. After the silence was declared over, the women couldn’t stop talking.

“There’s a lot I can’t control in prison, but this class gave me control,” said Catherine Lafleur, who is serving a life sentence for killing her husband in 1999. “Taking just one moment for breathing, it makes such a difference. It has made my life better.”

The retreat is part two of a breathing and meditation course called Prison S.M.A.R.T., or “Stress Management and Rehabilitation Training.” The International Association for Human Values, which organized the program, seeks to teach people in penal institutions a breathing technique called Sudarshan Kriya. The technique, created by Indian spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, is aimed at delivering relief from accumulated stress. (Shankar is not to be confused with the musician, Ravi Shankar, who gained fame through George Harrison.)

“I worked so hard on myself to find the courage to heal,” said Deidre Hunt, who was on death row for eight years and is serving a life sentence for murder.

Hunt said she was in solitary confinement for most of those eight years and wished she had known about the breathing technique at the time. It would have made it easier and quicker to heal, she said.

“If I do this every single day, it changes you,’’ she said. “After, you don’t recognize yourself. You think, ‘Why didn’t that upset me?”’

Meera Khan, who is in prison for welfare fraud, said she wants to open a yoga studio when she gets out. She said the practice could benefit not only people in prison, but those on the outside.

“This could discourage people from committing crimes,” she said. “Society needs S.M.A.R.T.”

During the retreat, the women silently did yoga and underwent guided meditation, stopping only for meals. There were no distractions. No TV, no radio, no reading. At night, the women slept in their cells. Some wore small signs on their shirts alerting others not to speak to them until Monday.

After the retreat was over, the women took turns recounting their experience and the impact meditation had on their lives: “Transformed.” “Peaceful.” “Calm.”

One inmate called her prison term a “blessing” because she discovered meditation there.

Whatever their background or their crimes, the participants agreed the meditation and silent retreat led them to discard and defuse their anger.

Gabriella Savelli is program director and an avid practitioner of meditation. “People have their hearts and minds shift,” she said, her voice breaking. “To see people feel love again in a way that they want to contribute to the world — it’s real, they’re not faking it.”

The program has been running at the Homestead prison since 2013, with more than 130 women going through Level One.

Savelli, who lives in Washington, often leads the classes. When she’s not there, local volunteers guide meditations and visit to motivate the inmates.

Prison warden Marie Boan said in a written statement she instituted the program because she believed it would help the inmates reduce their stress.

“The program has been wonderfully beneficial to those who participate, allowing them to learn the value of patience and alternate means, instead of lashing out toward each other when stress rises,” she wrote.

Since 1992, Prison S.M.A.R.T has taught meditative practices to more than 10,000 inmates, correctional officers, law enforcement staff and crime victims. Twenty three prisons around the country have instituted the program’s Level One, which introduces the practice in two- to three-hour courses several times a week. Homestead Correctional is only the second prison in the country to have completed the silent retreat.

Savelli said the silent retreat offers greater benefits than Level One, and she hopes more prisons will adopt the program.

“The amount of release and clarity you get with the intensity of a weekend like this is a lot faster than waiting for things to dawn on you,” she said.

“When you’re in state of non-agitation, you have a certain clarity and a state of calmness that allows you to see what’s not working for you,” she said. “It’s not to say you get done with this and you levitate to the clouds, but you just have an ability to shift that comes over time when you cultivate wisdom.”

SMART Featured in Penn Medicine Article: Reducing A Repeated Cycle of Violence​

Meditation and yoga have been shown to help reduce anxiety and enhance a person’s mood and overall sense of well-being. So what better place to use these relaxation tools than in an environment which carries an inordinate amount of stress: prison. That’s why Anup Sharma, MD, PhD, a fourth-year psychiatry resident, decided to volunteer his time for Prison SMART (Stress Management And Rehabilitation Training), a program that brings yoga and meditation techniques to prisons around the globe to help end the repeated cycle of violence, abuse and a return to prison. The program is part of the International Association for Human Values.

“These sessions help people control anger and better manage their emotions,” he said, “increasing self-esteem, providing an alternative to violent behavior, and teaching practical conflict resolution.”

Sharma heard about Prison SMART through his interest in stress management tools, especially for people with mental health conditions. He has served on the Prison SMART advisory committee and helped to implement the program in Philadelphia. He continues to meet regularly with the organizers and teachers.

Each session of the 4- to 5-day course runs three hours. He said there are separate but similar programs for prisoners and prison staff. Prison SMART is currently offered in three prisons in Philadelphia.

Sharma’s Penn Medicine CAREs grant will help purchase equipment for the sessions, such as yoga mats, as well as offset costs to train volunteer facilitators and print materials explaining the workshops to prison wardens and administrators. “It’s essentially a voluntary-based program. The prison systems don’t have the money to pay for it,” he said. “We’d love to be able to offer it in additional prisons and have regular weekly follow-up sessions.”

Attending the sessions is not a requirement, but the feedback from those who have come has been “remarkable.” Said one prisoner, “It helped me figure out what was deeper inside of myself. It also helped me to release negative energy and find peace.” Another said, “Now I have something I can do when I feel stressed or angry.… it shows you your own little way to relax yourself.”

Originally Posted at

​Huffington Post​: Compassion Behind Bars

A few weeks ago, an unprecedented letter arrived at our office at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University. Here is an excerpt:

The purpose of the inmate’s letter was to request reading materials pertaining to research on meditation and the brain. His goal upon his release is to get a Ph.D. in psychology or neuroscience. Through that, he hopes to help others who, like himself, find themselves behind bars because of criminal impulses. In his four years of jail time he has obviously been dedicating himself to his passion: His letter demonstrates an extensive knowledge of the top academic organizations for research on neuroscience and meditation.

Our staff at CCARE was moved by this letter and gathered reading material to mail to him immediately. In particular, we were touched that, rather than playing the victim card or being angry at his fate, he instead aspired to education and wisdom out of a desire to help others. Whereas anger or victimhood would have weakened him, his compassionate stance has empowered him. In fact, he displayed more enthusiasm behind bars than many a free man. Why? An altruistic vision and goal is not only empowering but also leads to well-being. As we have explored in our last posts, research is showing that not only are compassion and altruism beneficial to others, these qualities also improve our physical and psychological health.

Compassion is the ability to move past judgments and to see others as human beings similar to us, and to then act to alleviate their suffering. Research by Northeastern University Professor David DeSteno suggests that, if we see a commonality between ourselves and someone else, we are more likely to act with compassion toward them. The stereotypes we often hear about prisoners is that they are “hardened.” Some people believe that criminals are “born bad” and that they cannot change. If they commit a crime because they were not able to see the humanity in someone else, then who is to say they will ever see it again? Science.

Developments in neuroscience have shown us that the brain is plastic and malleable, a phenomenon called neuroplasticity. What neuroplasticity teaches us is that change, growth, and understanding is always possible. A criminal is often a person who has experienced hardships and violence that led to a life of crime. Similarly, just as experience may have turned them into criminals, in the same way experience can help them turn around. This touching tale of Arno Michaels, a former skinhead turned passionate humanitarian, is just one of many examples. “It was getting more and more difficult to deny the humanity of the people I was supposed to hate,” said Michaels.

So what does it take to turn criminals around? A number of non-profits offer programs they hope will facilitate compassion through recognition of common humanity. How does such a program work? Gabriella Savelli, director of Prison Smart, a non-profit that provides secular yoga-based breathing and meditation practices to prisoners, explains that even some of the toughest inmates can turn around. Many hardened criminals grew up in inner city environments ripe with violence and bloodshed. Raised in warzones, many suffer from the trauma of accumulated stress and anxiety. Unable to move past the trauma, they remain stuck in a cycle of violence, crime, and substance abuse. Teaching methods that help reduce trauma and increase peace of mind can lead to life-changing shifts for men and women behind bars. Savelli shared the following story with us in which peace of mind led to a recognition of common humanity:

“One instance that comes to mind is in New York City. The course was an absolute zoo at the beginning. On the first day the 25 participants were very rowdy and noisy. Many couldn’t close their eyes during the processes or stop bothering people around them. By the end of the week, the same group sat perfectly still in their chairs while they did the breathing and meditation exercises for a very long, quiet, peaceful time. When they finally opened their eyes, one man stated, ‘Now, when I look around the room in these other guys’ eyes, all I see is me!’”

Another form of rehabilitative treatment for prisoners is the victim empathy intervention. This process focuses on helping prisoners develop empathy for the victims of the offenses committed for future situations. Although prisoners who have completed this program say that it has helped them, further research is needed to ensure that these interventions truly work.

If someone who has committed a crime so severe as to warrant jail time can develop compassion, wisdom, and a spirit of service, there is little doubt that we who walk free can do so too.

For more information on prison programs or to volunteer:

– Prison Smart:

– Pen Pal a Prisoner:

– Human Kindness Foundation:

– Freeing the Human Spirit:

– The Prison Phoenix Trust, UK:

Emma Seppala, Ph.D is a Psychologist and Associate Director at Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. She received her B.A from Yale, and completed her graduate studies at Columbia and Stanford Universities. In addition to her work at Stanford, she is an Honorary Fellow with the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds where she conductS research with Dr. Richard Davidson. Her research focuses on health, well-being, and mind-body interventions. She has examined the impact of meditation on happiness, social connection, and compassion. She has also investigated the effects of yoga-based interventions for combat veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition to her articles in The Huffington Post, she is a regular contributor to a number of magazines including Scientific American Mind, Psychology Today, and Spirituality & Health. You can follow on Psychology Today, Blogger, and Twitter.

Maaheem Akhtar is a Research and Outreach Associate at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University. She graduated with Honors from San Jose State University where she studied Psychology and Neuroscience. Before joining CCARE, she served as an Honorary Research Fellow at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and as a Research Fellow for the Mind and Life Summer Research Institute.

For more by Project Compassion Stanford, click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.

Originally published at

Prison SMART Yoga Comes to Cook County Jail

Without tools to manage extra stress, there’s a high rate of recidivism [for inmates],” said Gabriella Savelli, National Coordinator of Prison SMART.

Prison SMART’s mission is “to make a life-transforming difference in the lives of all people within the criminal justice system, by teaching skills for reducing stress, healing trauma, and providing practical knowledge of how to handle one’s emotions, to help them live their highest potential and contribute to society.”

It began in the U.S. in 1992. The program aims to reduce offender recidivism and end the repeating cycle of violence and abuse that dominates many areas of society.

Prison SMART was recently adapted at Stateville Correctional Center. Sherwin K. Miles is a correctional counselor at the prison and the coordinator of the program there.

“The program began about two years ago. And it started out as breathing, meditation and relaxation techniques for our population, who are maximum security offenders,” said Miles.

Miles said the program has two steps. The first consists of two hours each day for five days straight. The next step of the program is two hours per week for six weeks.

While Prison SMART started off on a small scale, Miles said an increasing number of offenders are now interested in joining the program.

“Initially, it was a few offenders that were interested, but now the program has spread like wildfire. I am constantly getting letters from inmates who want to participate,” she said.

Recently, Stateville completed its first three-day “silent” retreat. Savelli said Stateville is the first maximum security prison in the U.S. to hold a silent treatment weekend.Prison SMART at Cook County Jail

“They were introduced to more advanced breathing techniques, they were provided vegan meals over the course of the weekend, and they had relaxation activities,” said Miles.

Miles says 25 inmates who had gone through the first two steps of the program participated in the silent retreat weekend.

“All the feedback has been nothing but positive,” said Miles. “Some of them have said that they have never closed their eyes and felt that relaxed in a maximum-security prison. Some of them have said they didn’t realize the importance of breathing for relaxation.”

Prison SMART has expanded to 32 countries and continues to grow internationally. In India, more than 100 prisons have implemented Prison SMART; and in South Africa, it has grown to one of the largest worldwide.

Learn more about the program in South Africa in the following video:

The International Association for Human Values (IAHV) is responsible for the program. IAHV was founded by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who is the originator of the main breathing technique used in the program.

“Inside every culprit, there is a victim crying for help. That person is also a victim of ignorance, small-mindedness and lack of awareness. It’s the stress, lack of broad vision about life, lack of understanding, and bad communication that leads to violence in society.”
— Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, IAHV Founder

Stateville Conducts The First Prison SMART Part 2 Silent Retreat in U.S. Maximum Security Facility

25 Adult Male inmates completed a three-day Prison SMART Silent Retreat at the Stateville, Illinois Maximum Security Correctional Center. All of them stated that it was the most challenging thing they had ever done to be in silence and meditation for that period, but that it was well worth it for the sense of peace and calm cultivated.

One inmate wrote:”I am not sure I can completely express what this program has meant to me, , nor will I be able to express my appreciation for allowing me to be part of this experience; but I will say this, the time I spent in meditation yesterday here in the building is the most time I’ve spent outside my cell in 12 years.”

Many thanks to the staff at Stateville and the Chicago Prison SMART Team!