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Health & Nutrition - Free Inside

Betsy Duncombe
The ancient arts of yoga, meditation and chi gung taught by Betsy Duncombe hold the key

Inside a high chain-link fence topped with razor wire, behind heavy locked doors and under the gaze of security cameras and guards, 10 men train in the tradition of ancient warriors. Their exercises in meditation, strength and relaxation are designed to unify the body and mind, to evoke positive thinking and empowerment, and to encourage a caring connection between people.

The training is designed to arm inmates with self-knowledge, inner peace and compassion rather than fear, anger and violence, better preparing them to meet life’s challenges, no matter what the battlefield–addiction, crime, poverty, loneliness, self-doubt.

Inner freedom is the goal for the handful of inmates at Downeast Correctional Facility outside of Machias in Bucks Harbor, Maine. The nondenominational and ancient arts of yoga, meditation and chi gung taught by Betsy Duncombe hold the key.

Duncombe, a University of Maine graduate student in social work, has been teaching yoga, meditation from different cultures and chi gung (exercises focusing on the energies in the body) for more than two decades. In the past six years, she has combined the three to start a prison program called Free Inside. Once a week since May, in what she hopes is an ongoing program, Duncombe makes the more than two-hour drive from her home in Brooksville to lead Free Inside sessions at Maine’s medium/minimum security correctional facility–one for inmates who volunteer, another as part of a mandated substance abuse treatment program.

She has also taught inmates in the Hancock County Jail for a year as a member of Volunteers for Hancock Jail Residents.

Prison inmate David Mellen was encouraged by his wife to sign up. “People I know who are active in yoga have a real peace and contentment that I don’t have. They’re able to deal with things differently,” he says. “I’ve had a number of incarcerations; this sentence is nine years for heroin and cocaine. It’s a hell of a cycle, but I feel this program can help me in my recovery.”

The bottom line, says Mellen, is that Free Inside has already helped him learn to get along with the other prisoners, some of whom he says he wouldn’t associate with otherwise because of their crimes.

Gerald Clark Jr., knows those antisocial sentiments all too well. “You wouldn’t have liked me before,” says the middle-aged man who is serving eight years for gross sexual assault. “Before, I thought the world revolved around me. Her class showed me it doesn’t. It has given me a better understanding of how things work in the world.”

Isiah Neault, who is serving six and a half years for strong-armed robbery, says “it makes all the difference.”

“I like the fact that it helps keep me flexible and feeling physically healthy,” he says. “No matter what happens in the day, no matter how stressful, I can go back to my room and feel a lot (better). Yoga has helped me focus on the good things and not the uncontrollable habit I left behind.”

During each hour-long session, Duncombe moves her students seamlessly from one exercise to the next with step-by-step instructions laced with information on the purpose, reason and history behind each move. This day she starts with yoga, then moves into chi gung and ends with meditation–and some of the hardest lessons.

“Many in our society are unhappy because they try to avoid pain and they cling to pleasure,” she tells the men, introducing an ancient Tibetan practice. “This just doesn’t work. The ancients reversed the tendency, suggesting we fully acknowledge our pain, and then give pleasure, or good energy, away to others.”

With breathing exercises and visualization, the students focus on positive memories and feelings of peace that can transform their pain–physical or emotional. They then turn their attention to someone they love who is in pain, someone ill or suffering emotionally. “Notice how you can now take on someone else’s pain and not be overwhelmed by it; rather, you can transform it to help them,” she says.

“The next step is the hardest, but maybe the most important. Focus on someone you don’t like. Breathe in their pain and to them, and to yourself, breathe out peace. Carrying rage is a heavy weight. Ease your burden.”

Six years ago at the Maine State Prison in Thomaston, Duncombe first taught a daylong yoga workshop under the auspices of an AIDS awareness group. It was an inspirational experience.

“I walked into a room of skeptical, angry-looking men,” she remembers from the first hour of the workshop. “By the end of the class, I was facing a room of smiling people with shining eyes. To me, that affirms the life and beauty inside everyone.”

When Duncombe and her family moved to Hawaii five years ago, she offered her program to social services agencies in Maui. A homeless shelter requested it as part of its chemical dependency sessions. For four years, Duncombe gave workshops at the shelter, where many of her students were just out of jail.

It was during this time that she also introduced her program at the Maui Community Correctional Center. She spent a year working twice a week in 12-week sessions with inmates–first men, then women–who were mandated to her program as part of their rehabilitation.

“I chose to work with inmates because they are often the most ignored. Social workers tend to feel more comfortable working with children, the elderly and physically disabled, while prisoners hold a stigma because they have often harmed others. Yet they are frequently the victims of societal and economic oppression.

“From the frustrations of people living in poverty can come a cycle of violence and drugs,” Duncombe says.

“Many inmates are coming out of violent families; use of drugs and alcohol may be attempts at self-medication. Much criminal action can be traced to some injustice done, combined with a lack of coping skills to deal with that injustice. Free Inside enables both self-help and an increased empathy for others.”

The Maine Department of Corrections allows only evidence-based programs in its prisons, requiring Free Inside and other initiatives to have proof of value and worth. For Duncombe, that quantitative proof is in her master’s research. She was enrolled in the MSW Program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa when she began collecting quantitative and qualitative data on the effectiveness of Free Inside.

To measure the efficacy of Free Inside, Duncombe spent a year gathering pre- and post-intervention data at the Maui Community Correctional Center. She used five self-report scales, three of which are well-known measures of depression, hope and self-esteem. In addition to the CES-D Scale, the Hope Scale and the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale, Duncombe developed two of her own–the Physical-Mental Wellness Scale and the Life Outlook-Compassion Scale. She also conducted in-depth interviews with participants.

The quantitative measures showed an increase in self-esteem and hope, a decrease in depression, and improvements overall in physical well being, life outlook and treatment of others. The qualitative interviews overlaid these findings and revealed growth in desire to help other people. “It all pointed to improved behavior both on the inside, and potentially on the outside of prison, suggesting a likely reduction in recidivism,” Duncombe says.

Psychologist Winston Turner, an adjunct professor in UMaine’s School of Social Work, helped Duncombe analyze her research data, the results of which continue to be published.

“The fact that she found significant differences at all was rewarding–and surprising,” he says. “I didn’t expect her intervention would make such a difference in 12 weeks. I was skeptical about a prison population getting in touch with their inner selves through yoga and meditation. But Betsy has a soothing approach, and biofeedback is going on.

“The real measure of success will be if a prison that incorporates a program like this sees a change in its population, a drop in recidivism and better transition to life outside,” Turner says.

In a prison system where the recidivism rate is 68 percent, a program like this has the potential to “motivate them in the right direction,” especially in the area of anger management, says Ralph Pennell, the program manager at Downeast Correctional Facility. “You can’t change (behavior) overnight, but if you get them thinking in a different way, it is more advantageous to them and to us.”

Pursuing a graduate degree in social work was a way to “take ancient, global and nonverbal practices and validate them in the modern academic community,” says Duncombe, who learned the importance of such a tactic from her father. David Duncombe spent almost two decades as chaplain for the Yale School of Medicine and a lecturer at Yale Divinity School, his alma mater. In 1967, his chaplaincy at Yale was one of the first at a nondenominational American medical school.

He was active in the civil rights movement, and has long been involved in peace and justice protests. In recent years, his activism has taken the form of protest fasts in the name of peace and poverty. In his social justice ministry, he has been arrested almost 100 times and sometimes jailed.

“As a university professor arrested and jailed repeatedly for his political views, my dad was effective in joining academia with life on the streets. He would talk with inmates, guards, policemen, academics and politicians alike so that all might better understand one another. My dad taught me that no effective societal change would take place if he stayed within the safety of just one part of it,” Duncombe says.

“My mother consistently taught and exemplified the priorities of being kind and helping others. This day-to-day model, overlaid upon my dad’s example of the same priorities in a socio-political arena, fed me with the need and desire to embody this in my life and work.”

David and Sally Duncombe raised their three children in impoverished neighborhoods, with emphasis on being “one with, and respectful of, people living in difficult situations.” It was a bedrock philosophy that now informs Betsy Duncombe’s life. But it wasn’t always an easy path to follow.

“I was rebellious and interested in being independent,” says Duncombe of her adolescence. “I found myself in a downward spiral that was ultimately an invaluable learning experience for me.”

In her late teens, Duncombe was sexually assaulted, a devastating experience she “numbed out” with drugs. By the time she told her parents and sought help, she had developed an eating disorder and fallen into depression. Little changed until a friend “dragged” her to a class on yoga and whole foods. It’s then, says Duncombe, that “life started to sparkle again.”

“I’m grateful that I hit rock bottom and had to pull myself out. I learned from the inside out what works. If I had not been desperate and hungry for the information, I would not know the true impact of it.”

Students who know her story appreciate her ability to relate to their circumstances. But that doesn’t necessarily make teaching the ancient arts to prison inmates any easier. Duncombe’s first step: Get the attention off her and onto each student, to his or her potential to experience growth and healing.

She stresses the importance of increasing strength–inner strength that doesn’t hurt someone else. They are warriors preparing to fight challenges, gathering strength from the sun and the Earth.

In the face of any heckling, rude jokes and noises early on, which occurs more with mandated inmates than with those who volunteer for class, Duncombe tries to “model the acceptance that I teach.”

“In the prisons,” she says, “I feel that emanating peace is the most powerful protection I have.”

Duncombe has seen the results. In Hawaii, an inmate who started as a heckler ultimately helped his classmates learn their yoga positions. Her incarcerated students have shared their writing, art and personal stories with her.

“The rewards are such that inmates often ask for longer class sessions or more of them,” Duncombe says.

“One man finds he’s now controlling his anger on the basketball court, another is able to help his wife calm down over the telephone, another helps a cell mate with a headache or to control his asthma. I encourage everyone to work on their own outside of class, beyond the 12-week session and certainly after their release–five minutes or an hour each day, whatever they are comfortable with.”

Duncombe has written a step-by-step Free Inside manual, detailing the methods she uses. Her hope is that Free Inside can spread to other prisons and jails, as well as post-release centers. She currently teaches a community class in Blue Hill, open free of charge to anyone formerly involved with corrections or substance abuse recovery.

“I hope to always teach inside the prisons,” she says. “Oddly, prison is an ideal environment for this inner work because it is so stark, and the people in it have time on their hands and often a desire to pull themselves out of a destructive lifestyle.

“I’ve heard people talk about stereotypical social worker burnout. I can’t imagine that. In this corner of the field, I am fed twice as much as I give.”

by Margaret Nagle

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