I don’t know anyone in prison. I never have, to my knowledge. Thankfully, I’ve avoided the legal and penal systems (besides speeding on occasion, I haven’t done anything to jeopardize my “good standing” as a citizen). This isn’t the case for many people, however, and instead of remaining ignorant on the subjects of prison, prisoners, and the system of incarceration that affects so many millions of Americans, I decided to get to know them more personally.
Two years ago, the idea to teach Pilates to female prisoners came to me. It seemed plausible, in the depths of the recession, that funding for recreational activities in the prisons would be especially paltry. I strongly believe that, like education, exercise is 100% positive for everybody - it contributes to both quality of life and lifespan. So I contacted the Volunteer Director at the North Carolina Correctional Institute for Women*, located in southeast Raleigh. She was just as excited for me to join the Volunteer corps as I was nervous to be in a room alone with a group of prisoners. After a (very!) long orientation meeting, during which all of us new volunteers learned the laws of the institution, I was ready to start.
I felt anxious for all the usual reasons one feels anxious in a new experience - augmented by the fact that I had no idea what I was getting myself into, volunteering in the prison system and all. After being scanned through security, someone from the prison, a social worker or security guard, escorted me to the auditorium, or what we would call the “mat room” in Pilates. As the prisoners filed in to take class, and I tried not to worry about my safety, I was struck by the realization that these women, above all, were human - and like the rest of us, they want to learn about their bodies; they want a good workout; and they want a break from the rest of life. Identifying with their human-ness dissolved my fears. I began to enjoy the opportunity to meet, teach, and learn about a very diverse and interesting group of people.
In my two years of volunteer work at NCCIW, I’ve formed relationships with some of the women who’ve taken my class. I’ve witnessed several women leave the prison, and several new ones enter. I never know why these women have been incarcerated, and I realize now that it doesn’t matter to me. For the one hour I volunteer there a week, I try to give the women who take my class a break from their lives, and encourage them to experience their human-ness. And, of course, to keep them in touch with their deepest core muscles.
*the most-populated female prison in the state, the prisoners are all races, cultures, and ages; some are serving very short sentences, others are serving for life