Shortly after moving to South Africa almost a year ago, I started volunteering with an organization called SevaUnite. Seva means service and SevaUnite’s mission is to catalyze “selfless service” to alleviate suffering and improve the world. Seva’s flagship work is the Prison Freedom Project, through which we teach yoga and meditation in prisons throughout the country and develop courses for implementation in prisons around the world. South Africa’s prisons are disorganized and crowded, operating at around 150% capacity. It is a difficult environment as one might expect, full of drugs, violence, shame and more recently – yoga.
The Prison Model is Broken
Globally, the recidivism rate is around 75%. This means ¾ of those discharged go back into prison. In South Africa, that number is closer to 90%. The system is not working. For we Americans, the USA incarcerates more people than any country in the world. Seeing the broken system here in South Africa and knowing it is in many ways worse in my home country has made me wonder: Do prisons make us safer? They don’t seem to rehabilitate people and they are certainly not cost effective.
My firsthand experience in the prisons has changed my perspective on routine crime in South Africa, particularly around sentencing. I’ve encountered crime on four occasions here but now realize that sending these offenders to prison provides little hope for solving the deeper underlying problems. As a result, experiencing crime has at first caused upset and distress but ultimately left me with one question: How do we break this destructive cycle?
Yoga Might Work
Yoga means unity or oneness. The most fundamental aim of yoga, as I have come to understand it, is to become unified with ourselves, in turn making more conscious choices and ultimately seeking unity with others. Through conversations with inmates(though without any formal research), I increasingly believe that many addictions and acts of violence stem from a deep lack of connection. There is an apparent link between a lack of connection with others (i.e. family structure or good peers) and a lack of connection with self. Through yoga, and really through practicing awareness, we can become more unified with ourselves and in turn make choices that ultimately help, instead of harm, others. As one of our students put it:
“Can I help another when I cannot even help myself? And can I truly love another, as myself if I cannot and truly do not love myself, or even know what love is? Of course not. In the past I idolized my deceased father who was a renowned gangster. I resided to be just like him. That is, I adjusted my way of thinking, my belief system and became gangster orientated. I’ve come to realize that my prison experience is my own creation. (I asked myself) do you like what you have turned yourself into? Do you like to live like this? My answers were no. From then on, my path on the journey of enlightenment began. I can either choose to be happy or unhappy. Successful or unsuccessful. Free or bound. Life asks us only one question, and that is ‘what do you choose to be NOW?’ ”
I do not view yoga as a be-all, end–all solution. Rather, I see it as a retrofit with the potential to break vicious cycles for those individuals willing to engage in deep and honest self-reflection. I’ve seen it work here and I believe it is worth trying elsewhere.
I believe in freewill, in meritocracy and the remarkable human capacity to shape our own destiny. However, living as an expat in South Africa, and in particular, volunteering in the prisons has made me unable to overlook the fact that one reality – where and to whom we are born – has a tremendous impact on our lives.
One inmate, Bradley, is a very intelligent guy. While getting to know him, I’ve repeatedly felt that he and I have the same basic capacity for good and evil; each of us is inherently capable of being productive or destructive in the world. But Bradley is serving a life sentence in prison and I am not. I have also been surrounded by love, mentorship, educational and professional opportunities my whole life. Bradley has not. [I am not suggesting that Bradley is free from responsibility because of his difficult background – nor has he ever suggested the same]. However, I do not know how I would have fared in the gangland that Bradley was raised. I also don’t doubt that Bradley could be further ahead than I if afforded the same opportunities. Bradley has been my teacher as much as I have been his. This unexpected relationship is one of the dividends I have received from stepping out of my comfort zone and engaging in a totally new environment.
Volunteering with SevaUnite has been a humbling experience and a reminder of the perspective that comes through service. Admittedly, it is daunting to consider the depth and scope of crime and recidivism along with the many challenges our world faces, but if even one inmate refuses a single harmful act upon his release, the implications could be life changing and our work will have been worthwhile.
Kevin Weiss is from Southern California and currently lives in Cape Town, South Africa. SevaUnite is currently running a campaign on Indiegogo. Please check it out.