One year after the passage of the landmark criminal justice reform bill, the First Step Act, the nonprofit International Association for Human Values (IAHV) hopes to build off the legislative success by bringing their program of yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises into U.S. prisons in order to reduce recidivism rates and help inmates reenter society after incarceration.
The United States has the world’s largest prison population, with over 2 million in prison, accounting for roughly a quarter of the world’s total prison population. Additionally, recidivism, or the rate at which former inmates re-offend and go back to prison, is exceptionally high in the U.S. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 83 percent of state prisoners released in 2005 were arrested at least once in the nine-year period after their release.
Last December, President Trump signed into law the First Step Act, the first major criminal justice reform bill in over a decade and one of the top legislative accomplishments of his presidency so far. Among other provisions, the bill reduced the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences, allocated $375 million in new federal funding to prison jobs and education programs.
The legislation also gave judges more discretion in sentencing and reduced the severity of some mandatory minimum and automatic sentencing laws among other reforms. The bill’s passage marked a rare show of broad bipartisan support in an age of heightened partisan polarization.
First Step Act Beneficiary, Robert Shipp is no stranger to FAMM. We're so excited to have him celebrate the first anniversary of the First Step Act. 🎉 To learn more about Robert: https://t.co/3MnfFsfnlN #FirstStepThx #FirstStepAct pic.twitter.com/AHoOStCdQK
— FAMM Foundation (@FAMMFoundation) December 9, 2019
Another important consequence of the First Step Act is the reauthorization of the Second Chance Act. Passed into law in 2008, the Second Chance Act authorizes federal grants for programs aimed at reducing recidivism and improving outcomes for individuals returning from incarceration. IAHV’s prison program is one example of a program the could be eligible for those federal grants.
The IAHV prison program is a breathing, meditation, and yoga regimen that the organization claims will help to reduce recidivism rates for inmates by giving them tools to process “past trauma and present stresses.” Outside of small fees from two federal institutions IAHV is currently serving, they do not receive federal funding for the program and instead rely on state and county programs, fundraising, and grants for support.
According to IAHV, over 700,000 inmates around the world, including 20,000 in the U.S., have undergone the program since its inception in 1992. Outside of the U.S., the IAHV has taught the program in over 60 countries including France, Germany, Dubai, and Taiwan.
“Our program is based on a breathing system,” Gabriella Savelli, the national director of IAHV told The Globe Post. “We definitely cover knowledge of how to manage your mind and be in the present moment. We do physical exercises that are focused on exercise that is going to increase your flexibility and increase a state of calmness.”
Representatives Tim Ryan (D-OH) and Danny K. Davis (D-IL), along with the IAHV and the non-governmental organization Art of Living Foundation (ALF), held a briefing on Capitol Hill Thursday, December 5 to express their support for the IAHV Prison Program.
“I want to support the program because I believe this gets at the root cause of what many people in prison are dealing with,” Ryan said. “What I want to do as a congressman and member of the House Appropriations Committee is bring attention to these kinds of programs that actually work and don’t cost us a lot of money.”
Organizers stated the briefing was intended to “raise awareness” about the need for new programs to change the culture of corrections and prepare prisoners to be successful after the end of their sentences.
“We are hosting this series to catalyze action towards reforming the institutions themselves so that they’re rehabilitative and redemptive,” Savelli said. “This inaugural event is to highlight the Second Chance Act and the First Step Act visions to provide tools that transform individuals and prepare them for release.”
Steven J. Steurer, a criminologist and advocate of education and reentry for inmates, told The Globe Post he has seen many programs similar to what IAHV offers and that such programs are “great” for the atmosphere of an institution and make for a more pleasant life in an otherwise negative environment. Steurer, however, cautioned that traditional education like adult literacy, high school equivalency, and college are still necessary to provide inmates with the credentials they need to stay out of prison.
“I would not confuse yoga with GED or auto mechanics classes,” Steurer said. “As good as yoga is for inmates, the inmates still need academic and vocational skills after release to get into a job that pays enough to give up crime. Yoga doesn’t provide that kind of credential.”
While the U.S. Federal Board of Prisons classified IAHV’s program as evidence-based in 2014 and the IAHV website contains testimonials and data on their program’s positive effects on inmates, there is no reliable data indicating the program reduces recidivism. Steurer noted the correctional research community has done little research on “non-traditional” education programs like the one IAHV is offering.
“I would be suspicious about SMART’s own research unless a reputable outside non-partisan research group validated their programs,” Steurer said. “Corrections, in general, suffers from a lack of funding for research into the effectiveness of programs because the research that needs to be done to prove efficacy is too rigorous and complicated.”
Editors Note: This article was updated to clarify the Federal Bureau of Prisons classified IAHV prison program as evidence-based in 2014