Yoga Program Helps Donovan Inmates Gain Awareness, Cut Prison Time

The yoga program at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility allows inmates to cut up to 40 days off their sentence per year

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After all, even in prison, a man can be quite free. His soul can be free. His personality can be untroubled. He can be at peace.

Oscar Wilde

Speeding up time is something we've all wished we could do, and that wish couldn't be any direr for inmates at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in eastern San Diego County.

Inmates will probably see the ends of their sentences before they're ever able to warp time, but what they can do is make the most out of it. Some at the state prison found a way to do just that through the yoga program.

"It's made me calmer. It humbled me a lot," inmate Don Carlos Morgan explained. "It's given me the ability to deal with situations without being angry or dealing with them in a violent way."

Morgan, who is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole, jumped at the chance to get involved in the program when he transferred to Donovan from a level four facility where similar programs aren't offered.

Don Carlos Morgan is currently serving life without parole at Donovan State Prison.

He had never tried yoga before, but figured it'd be something new to try and probably couldn't make his lower back problems any worse.

Now he's three years into the program and never misses a Saturday class. He hopes his participation in the program, as well as his involvement in a victims awareness class, will speak to his rehabilitation as he appeals his sentence in the courts.

Morgan's three kids, six siblings, and grandkids, whom he speaks with regularly, can probably vouch for yoga's positive impact.

"They tell me that all the time when I talk to them on the phone or when they come down here and see me. They say my whole personality changed. My manners, they say I’m more humble," Morgan said.

For inmates serving temporary sentences, the yoga program does the next-best thing behind speeding up time -- it reduces it.


The program is one of a few ways inmates can acquire Rehabilitative Achievement Credits from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

For every 52 hours of program participation, an inmate will receive a 10-day reduction in his sentence, according to Bill Brown, the Prison Yoga Project's executive director. Inmates can have up to 40 days taken off their sentences via RAC programs per year.

"We feel our emotions in our bodies, so if people are disconnected from feeling into their body it's difficult for them to have good emotional awareness and so yoga is a way of developing a capability for embodied mindfulness so that we are really aware of what’s happening in our bodies, emotions and when we're triggered, getting angry, and things like that," Brown said.

For this reason, mat spots are highly coveted. Brown said there's more than a year-long wait to get into the yoga program.

In the last year alone, Brown said the yoga program at Donovan has saved the state $83,000.

“A lot of people are surprised at just how popular yoga is in men’s prisons," Brown said. "We’re returning people in a better condition, hopefully, than they’re coming in."

Some of Brown's students at Donovan have been practicing so long they're ready to lead classes of their own.

James Fox founded the Prison Yoga Project in 2002 and taught his first classes at San Quentin State Prison in Marin County. It now operates at more than 100 facilities in 18 states, as well as facilities in Mexico, Canada, the UK, France, Sweden, Netherlands, Israel and Australia, according to Brown.

Brown has seen immediate changes in inmates, sometimes after their first class.

"Here at Donovan where I get a chance to work with people for a longer period of time, I notice a huge difference in some people. We’re really reshaping the nervous system. It’s a way of helping people with impulse control and anger management, and over time -- yoga is a dose-dependent thing. The longer and more frequently you practice the bigger the effect, and I’ve seen guys in here who have gone from being loose cannons to the sweetest, most compassionate people that I know," he said.

Brown calls the yoga program a "humanizing experience," and said it's an example of how the CDCR is shifting its view regarding rehabilitative programs.

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