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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.