Young offender yoga class

Improving the mental health of prisoners in the UK by funding yoga and meditation classes within prisons.

The Halcrow Foundation is funding a project run by the Prison Phoenix Trust which helps young offenders manage stress, improve their mental health, and deal better with life’s challenges after their release.

The National Audit Office published a report in 2017 stating the UK prison system is under huge pressure, making it difficult to manage prisoners’ mental well-being. Since 2009, government funding for prisons has been reduced and staff numbers have dropped by 30 per cent. When prisons are short-staffed, prisoners may spend more time in their cell which can exacerbate tensions already felt within a crowded, restricted environment. The stigma and effects of imprisonment also means rehabilitating offenders is a big challenge for the prison service.

Supporting young offenders

The Prison Phoenix Trust was established in Oxford in 1988 and works with all members of the prison community, including staff, to improve mental and physical health through the practice of yoga and meditation. Yoga can help people release physical and mental tension and become strong, balanced and confident, while meditation can bring calm awareness to the present moment and increases emotional resilience. The charity believes that by teaching and supporting the prisoners in the practice of yoga and meditation, they are giving them the tools to manage stress and focus on their inner strength. This helps them cultivate self-awareness, cope better with challenges and ultimately reduce their chances of reoffending.

The Halcrow Foundation is funding a project run by the Prison Phoenix Trust which supports young offenders aged between 18 and 21 living in prisons and young offender institutions. The charity also works with children in secure training centres aged between 12 and 14.

Funds for the project will go towards supporting offenders in their cells. Every month around 300 prisoners ask the Prison Phoenix Trust for help to start a regular yoga and meditation practice. Each person receives a personal reply and is given a book matched to their reading ability, and a CD which includes a guided yoga session tailored for a small space. This allows the prisoner to start a regular practice in their cell. Trained letter writers will also offer to carry on writing to the prisoner to encourage and help with their practice.

Reducing isolation

Halcrow Foundation funds will also support a quarterly newsletter which allows the Prison Phoenix Trust to keep in regular contact with prisoners, ex-prisoners and supporters, and features letters written by the inmates. This aims to create a common interest among readers and lessen the sense of isolation many feel when serving a prison sentence.

The project also provides regular yoga classes within prisons, often one of the few places young offenders can relax. The practice of yoga and meditation helps calms the nervous system, leading to better sleep, improvements in mental health and increased interest in their futures. The Prison Phoenix Trust also believe that young people who practice yoga and meditation are more likely to take up other interventions available to them, including education, drug rehab and vocational courses to develop specific skills for employment.

About the Phoenix Prison Trust

The Prison Phoenix Trust is a charity based in Oxford, UK. It was set up in 1988 by Ann Wetherall who believed if prisoners are introduced to yoga and meditation they can strengthen their mental and physical well-being. The charity currently supports almost 180 weekly yoga and meditation classes in over 80 prisons and secure establishments across the UK, working with all members of the prison community, including staff and officers, and aims to improve mental and physical health through simple breath-based meditation and yoga postures.