Yoga: Taking the Penitentiary to the Mat

This is an interview with Jackie Sumell, an artist who has been practicing yoga for almost 10 years. Jackie says, "It started when my life went to shit." Her partner of 4.5 years left her for a much younger woman; her mom called two weeks later and told her to "call your brothers and come home, Jacquelyn, I have cancer, it's everywhere." Jackie quit the two jobs she had, cancelled exhibitions, closed her studio, left the West Coast art world, and moved back east.

"My mom died four months later, my partner and his new relationship endured the next two years, and I started to practice yoga every day. When I finally figured out that yoga was the only constant in my life that didn't betray me, I turned the volume up. I started teaching, I began to study the ancient texts, took more and more workshops, studied more dharma, dharma, dharma, and I fell more in love with my life than I have ever been."

Rob: What is the "House That Herman Built Project"?

My project began 10 years ago. Initially, I met Robert King, who had just been released from the grips of Angola Prison in Louisiana. King spent 29 years in solitary confinement. Knowing nothing about solitary confinement (aka "the hole"), I heard him lecture at a small arts space in San Francisco. Robert King connected me to Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace (collectively known as the "Angola 3"), who were still in solitary confinement for (then) nearly 30 years -- longer than I had been alive!

I was in graduate school at Stanford University. I began to feel my relative privilege was impossible to sustain, impossible to rationalize. I was writing to Herman and Albert when Herman was put into the dungeon, a more punitive space than solitary. I saw him suffer, which I recognized through his handwriting. He couldn't maintain congruous thoughts. His writing became illegible and I began to suffer with him. I grew frustrated and angry at a system that would keep people in cages for three (now four) decades, and from this frustration and empathy I began a project.

I asked Herman, "What kind of house does a man who has lived in a 6' x 9' box for almost 30 years dream of?" What began as a simple letter exchange between Herman and me transformed itself into an art project. From there it became a successful international exhibition shown in 12 different countries; there is a book, multiple websites, and now a documentary film, which will be released on PBS in July 2013. I moved to Louisiana to work on the project as much possible, to build Herman's dream home. I bought a house in the 7th Ward of New Orleans, and that's where I got my most intimate look into mass incarceration.

What originally motivated you to go to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

I moved to Louisiana to work on the project as much possible, to build Herman's dream home. I bought a house in the 7th Ward of New Orleans, and that's where I got my most intimate look into mass incarceration. I started visiting Herman in 2003, while he was in the dungeon at Camp J in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. A journalist recently asked me the same question, namely what continues to motivate me. The answer is the same in 2013 as it was in 2003: injustice.

The good news is I have found ways to process it that are much more sustainable than 10 years ago. This is important, because the more aware you become the more potential anger you will generate. Anger is toxic; it causes your purpose to stagnate, even though it is a normal response to injustice. Enter yoga, which has helped me transform the toxicity into action and advocacy. I can now use my artistic impulses in my advocacy work, and I practice yoga to continue to balance my inner and outer life so I can sustain this work.

Is there a standout moment from your visits with Herman Wallace?

I try to visit Herman once a month. In 10 years that's a lot of visits. The first visit really affected me. It was when he was in the dungeon -- oh the smell! The smell still haunts me: It was the smell of death, of dead skin cells, and of torture. It was terrible.

The other visit that stands out was six years later, the first time Herman was granted a contact visit. After six years we were finally given permission to sit across from each other at a table; before that we were separated by glass or metal screens. To have the dignity of eating together -- I wept... and Herman said, "Jackie, you need to get tough, you can't let prison officials see you crying, they might think you are weak." Herman has not had the luxury of expressing vulnerability for 41 years.

What were some of the assumptions you had about prisoners, and how have those assumptions changed?

From the moment I met King, I had my world turned upside down. I thought only "bad people," convicts -- those convicted by a justice system I believed in -- were in prison. But the system I believed in didn't explain why we have the highest incarceration rate in the world. It didn't explain why there are a disproportionate number of people of color in our correctional system. It didn't explain why we have more black men under correctional control now then during chattel slavery, and almost six times more than under the apartheid regime in South Africa.

What are two distinct ways that your teaching style differs in a yoga studio as a result of your service work inside Angola?

I don't teach yoga in Angola -- no one teaches yoga in Angola. However, I have seen the horrendous conditions, the torture of Angola, transform men into yogis. What I do is bring Angola to my yoga teaching. The experience of being inside, the reality that Louisiana is the largest incarcerator per capita in the world, the fact that this state keeps men in solitary confinement for decades, has all been part of my dharma -- part of connecting the outside in. I have two yoga practices: one for myself, and the other "yoga" I practice is to try to give artistic expression to the realities of solitary in my project, The House That Herman Built. My practice incorporates the invaluable teachings I have received from my advocacy work. It's an exchange that enlivens my art every day.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach in studios but inspired by service work like you've been doing?

Know that your practice, your commitment to trusting that we are all One, one being, one love, one vibration, that we are all of the Highest Divine Light, will be challenged. The first time a prisoner cat calls you, or says something profane, or spits on you, you will be challenged to see them differently, to judge them. And your defensive anger will encourage you to make it about them, not the system.

In reality most of us could not endure the conditions of prison in the U.S. or its territories (let's not forget Guantanamo). Basic dignities are stripped of these men and women in ways that are unimaginable to most of us on the outside. I remember reading that Mahatma Gandhi said, "A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members." How you treat the weakest, and judge them, is exactly how your greatness will be recognized. Remember that when you set foot in a correctional facility, this will be the test of your yoga, the test of your ability to love unconditionally, whether your frustration is with a person who has no access to mental health services other than a penitentiary, or you encounter a prison guard who tortures. You must continue to love them all. That is the path of the yogi. Believe in it.

What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of "service yoga" in America in the next decade?

"Service yoga" seems redundant! My hope for the future of yoga in the U.S. would be to continue to see it expand, for it to become a catalyst to the ending of mass incarceration, by providing the teachings necessary to prevent conflict before it happens. I want it to expand and infect everyone so we feel confident loving each other wholly. I hope the idea of a growing prison industrial complex becomes more and more absurd, and we can become moved enough to change the laws that unjustly and disproportionately incarcerate our youth of color.

How has this work changed your definition of service? Your definition of yoga?

When you serve others you get a break from being so focused on yourself, which can be toxic. I learned that valuable lesson through Herman, Albert, and Robert. They have dedicated their lives to the service of others; I know they have sacrificed their lives and freedom to ensure that no other person suffer as much as they have at the hands of an unjust system. I maximize this knowledge by my yoga practice, by the dharma teachings, and by how I view myself as a teacher. It is an honor to serve, whether it is through advocacy, yoga, or to the kids of the 7th Ward. Service is the greatest expression of love for the Divine.

What other organizations do you admire?

Oh, so many! It takes a village to change the climate of mass incarceration!

JJPL: Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana
RAE: Resurrection After Exoneration
VOTE: Voices of the Ex Offender
CAP: Capital Appeals Project in Louisiana
International Coalition to Free The Angola 3
PJI : Promise of Justice Initiative
Prison Yoga Project
Soros Foundation

DON'T MISS:, and
The film takes us inside the duo's unlikely 12-year friendship, revealing the transformative power of art. Premiering on PBS's POV July 8, 2013.

Prison Yoga Project: A Path for Healing And Recovery
1 in 100 American adults are in prison today, and 60 percent of all released prisoners will return to prison within three years. Yoga can help break the cycle. GIVE THE GIFT OF YOGA TO A PRISONER.

Yoga, A Path for Healing & Recovery provides practices that have been proven effective in helping prisoners to gain insight into unconscious patterns of thinking and compulsive behavior. These practices have also greatly helped in improving prisoners' overall quality of life - mentally, emotionally, and physically. Although this program has been developed through years of experience teaching yoga to incarcerated youth and adults, it focuses on the self-reflection and personal discipline necessary for one to lead a more conscious life, whether incarcerated or free. It is a powerful resource for anyone trying to break free of negative behavioral patterns. The book contains guides for physical practice (asana), breathing (pranayama), and meditation (dyhana).

Editor: Alice Trembour

Are you a yoga instructor giving back to underserved or un-served populations? Email if you're interested in being interviewed for this series. Thank you for all you do in the name of service!