In The Media

Style Weekly Cover Story

Sweat and Surrender

A yoga teacher helps inmates at the Richmond City Jail find peace on the inside.

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By Melissa Scott Sinclair

The New York Times

A Series of Poses for Fitness, Inside and Out

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Images and audio from Style Weekly’s cover story on ashtanga yoga at the Richmond City Jail taught by Robbie Norris.

 

 

“Ashtanga Yoga in the chapel of the Old Richmond City Jail under the auspices of Sheriff CT Woody and Rev. Dr. Alonzo Pruitt. This short film was created by Peter Culley

Prison Yoga from Spatial Affairs on Vimeo.

Robbie Norris teaches yoga at the Richmond Jail.

A film by Peter Culley

Style Weekly Story

Richmond City Jail Abruptly Ends Its Much-Praised Yoga Program

BY MELISSA SCOTT SINCLAIR

RCY

After seven years, a lauded yoga program for Richmond City Jail inmates has been canceled abruptly.

The reason, according to the jail, is that instructor Robbie Norris breached the rules for volunteer conduct. But he says the jail was merely seeking an excuse to terminate the program, which had been on the verge of a planned expansion.

Sarah Scarbrough, internal program director at the jail, says an internal investigation found that Norris breached “several of those code of conduct protocols.”

She declines to name which policies were violated, but says that because of the nature of his work, Norris was given a pass on a particular rule that requires a foot of distance between volunteers and inmates.

Norris says jail officials told him he had “unauthorized communications with inmates or former inmates.” He surmises that they’re referring to flyers he passed out to inmates inviting them to his studio after their release, as well as a yoga book he asked a jail employee to pass along to one of his students.

In May, Scarbrough reminded Norris in an email that “nothing is allowed to be given to the residents without the Sheriff or my approval and that no contact outside of the class should be made without that approval.” She added that “however, especially with the communication ‘outside,’ an exception has been made for you because of the great work you do providing services once folks are released.”

Norris says Scarbrough reprimanded him for going to his classes without an escort, but he says he only followed deputies’ orders — if they told him to get off the elevator alone and walk to the desk, he did. Norris says he did nothing inappropriate, and that the jail is choosing to enforce the regulations now. His requests for an explanation have gone unanswered, he says.

Norris, who runs the Richmond City Yoga studio, began teaching ashtanga yoga at the jail in April 2008. He taught free until 2012, when his work was underwritten by a private donation. He began offering four classes a week, two for men and two for women. He says 20 to 30 men and as many as a dozen women attended each class, on average.

Norris has amassed a pile of thank-you notes and testimonials from inmates who credit the practice with giving them peace of mind and improved self-control. Once an inmate has learned the basics of the simple, breath-driven practice, he or she can do it alone, Norris says, making it ideal for those facing long incarceration.

Former student Heather Holmes says yoga classes were the only thing she had to look forward to while she was in jail. Norris never broke any rules that she was aware of, she says: “He was very professional and seemed to genuinely care about our stories and how we were feeling.”

In an email that Scarbrough sent to Norris in August, Sheriff C.T. Woody praises the classes for giving inmates an outlet to release stress. “We have noticed changes in the demeanor of those participating in the classes and we look forward to working with Robbie on studying the effects of yoga through a comprehensive evaluation of those who participate consistently in the classes,” Woody writes.

But Norris says that he received little support from the jail’s program staff.

Former inmate and yoga student Norman Baker concurs, saying staff “dragged their feet” when collecting inmates for the class and were reluctant to publicize the program. “It’s always Kingdom Life. It’s always Kingdom Life,” he says, referring to Kingdom Life Ministry, a Bible-based addiction recovery program in the jail. “Robbie didn’t fit into that.”

Kingdom Life Ministry’s work has been credited with an 18-percent decrease in the rate of recidivism for participants, according to Scarbrough’s doctoral dissertation.

Baker says interest in yoga among inmates was driven by “word of mouth from people who were cognizant, you know? Mind, body and spirit, it rebuilt you.”

In the fall, Norris proposed adding two more classes for general-population inmates, as well as launching a formal study of the program’s results, a proposal that Scarbrough greeted with enthusiasm: “I think this is all wonderful!” she wrote in a Sept. 3 email to Norris.

But on Nov. 2, when Norris arrived at the jail after a month-long hiatus for a trip to India, he was greeted by Col. Joel Lawson, from the jail’s investigative division. Lawson handed him a letter terminating his right to volunteer at the jail.

Asked about the possibility of reinstatement, Scarbrough sounds doubtful: “That’s something that we would have to discuss internally,” she says, adding that “working with inmates is a very sensitive thing.” The yoga program had great value for participants, she says, “so we’re upset about the outcome as well.”

Norris is searching for new ways to bring yoga to those who need it most. He contacted Richmond police officer Rey Perez, recently featured in Style for his work helping former inmates find jobs, about teaching yoga to recently released inmates in Mosby Court.

“If they don’t do something, so many of them start doing drugs immediately,” Norris says. “It’s easy to be a daily practicing yogi in jail. It’s much harder when they get out.”

COMMENTS (51)

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I am sure it’s just a coincidence that 2 of the board members of Kingdom Life are city jail employees.

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Posted by scott.goode11bf on 12/01/2015 at 4:25 PM

This is a real shame… and sounds very questionable as the City should offer as many supportive alternatives to inmates as possible.

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Posted by mickpea on 12/01/2015 at 5:45 PM

As a professional interpreter who has worked with attorneys serving inmates at jails, prisons, and detention centers for many years, as well as a regular student of Mr. Norris’ Ashtanga yoga class at his Richmond City Yoga studio, I am distraught by the poor decision making of jail authorities in Richmond, to close the Yoga program for inmates. Mr. Robbie Norris is one of the best yoga teachers I have found throughout my 30+ years of practice, a compassionate human being who authentically cares about the well-being of all his students. His yoga program is one of the most sound support system any person experiencing incarceration could hope for.

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Posted by CV on 12/01/2015 at 6:44 PM

I’ve practiced side by side with and assisted in a teaching capacity some of the former inmates of the Richmond Jail program and have only heard praise from these individuals of the ashtanga yoga program run by Robbie Norris and what a meaningful impact it’s made to their lives. This is what the program is meant to do.

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Posted by Brad E on 12/01/2015 at 7:59 PM

I am so disappointed that Robbie has been relieved of his duties at the city jail. How sad for those that rely on Robbie’s support and guidance.

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Posted by Katie Goldman Baron on 12/01/2015 at 8:11 PM

As a former student and inmate at RCJ, I find this rather distraught because I benefited greatly from this program. It helped me cope with my aniexty disorder and depression. I guess its easier for them to just drug the inmates and through a bible at them.

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Posted by mindy on 12/01/2015 at 8:36 PM

As a Nurse who cares, an avid daily yoga practioner all thanks to Robbie, and former employee of the jail who has seen how they do things up close, it hurts me to watch this happen.

I feel for the inmates, trapped in cages of their own design, who are now to do without a man who sought only to help them free themselves, with this yoga, from the vicious cycle of a system designed to line the pockets and feed the egos of those at the top -who remain disconnected from the population they serve, and from the real truth, so long as the public stands for it.

This act seems such a great injustice, and the jail would have it go unnoticed, free of criticism. How can we make those who run the system ask the right questions, like how to make peoples lives better, to reconnect those who have lost their way? I think we must demand better for the sake of people like Robbie Norris who founded Richmond City Yoga for the sole purpose of doing something to help inmates when no one else seemed to care.

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Posted by Christina Michelle Sauer on 12/01/2015 at 9:01 PM

This a real shame. I’ve heard nothing but good things about this program and felt the jail was very progressive in its willingness to adopt this program. Sounds like an unfortunate step backward.

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Posted by Ezyoga on 12/01/2015 at 9:05 PM

Yep, leave it to the bible-thumpers to screw up a good thing.

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Posted by Jcf4849 on 12/01/2015 at 9:58 PM

Whatever I have done is what I have always done openly for seven and a half years, and I have no fear of discussing any allegation. They know very well I’m no security threat. I gave the yoga book not just to any employee, but to one of the most highly placed employees in the Justice Center: he didn’t think it was a problem, was glad to help, and when I sincerely apologized to him after being scolded by Sarah Scarbrough, he said, “Don’t worry about it. It was nothing.” As to escorts, every inch — so far as I know — of the $130 million dollar building is audio and video recorded; with hundreds of locked doors, and I have no key. How could I mill about? Since the program was taken a year ago from the genuinely supportive and intelligent oversight of the chaplain, and put under Scarbrough, there has been persistent pressure for no reason I could discern without resorting to speculation of low motives. I have taught over 1000 classes without a single incident requiring staff assistance. I taught 200 under Scarbrough, but she never stepped foot into one of them. I left for a month in India (with about six months’ notice) with confirmed written plans in place to add two more classes outside the Program, for general population. Haven’t heard a word from Scarbrough since just before I left, but I’m glad to hear she’s sorry. I have a year’s worth of emails that anyone is welcome to see. I would be happy to address any specific allegation, but have been denied the opportunity. As to the flyers, everyone knew I handed them out to all students, on every visit, ever since I opened my studio two years ago– offering them a free month of yoga upon release. I also handed them out to tons of staff– whoever was interested — on every visit. I got three recently released inmates jobs during the last year– is that unauthorized? Maybe someone somewhere in the Commonwealth’s bureaucracy who truly does care about rehabilitation should say: Wait a minute. This guy has hordes of unsolicited heartfelt inmate testimonials. People write to him him from state and federal prison thanking him for conveying a specific gold-standard yoga practice that they are now teaching to fellow inmates. Maybe we might tap into this guy’s passion and energy rather than try to snuff it.

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Posted by Robbie Norris on 12/01/2015 at 10:24 PM

Bad move, RVA. Everyone is watching this poor decision, and we want to know – are you a holding tank, or are you interested in supporting positive and life changing experiences for your inmates? Your answer stands to make a huge difference to the community at large once these folks are set free. The powers that be need to re-examine this decision.

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Posted by Shannon Harrington on 12/01/2015 at 10:52 PM

I’m a construction contractor and never found any form of Yoga to speak to me until I found Ashtanga. I know from work experience that many convicts will have similar issues as I did … Ashtanga speaks to the kind of energy levels and contortions needed for a kind of “Ballet” or “Circue De Solei” with tools and construction materials needed to squeeze into some of the crazy spaces left to us for repair of buildings.

I can tell you dozens of moments in construction where I benefited dirctly from the increased flexibility, greater range of the same strength that’s more USEFUL because of the same strength over a greater range of movement as well as discerning better the boundary between pain and discomfort and greater detail on the signals my body is sending me when wedged into some aweful sweaty corner of an attic … nobody there to help or rescue me … and now I have better feedback to accomplish the job faster with less damage to my body and less stress upon my soul.

How much nicer would construction sites be if more of us became our better selves through Ashtanga?

This particular yoga program is filled with the kind of diversity of sexes, ages, races and life experiences that is only hoped for in “higher rent” yoga studios. This is truly the kind of place you go do be ther better you and not necessarily to “be seen” by the “right people” or the “beautiful people” … don’t get me wrong, … many of the right people and beautiful people are here … but deep below their skin and not based on the cocktail circuit or magazine modeling circles. And some of us are also “easy on the eyes”, but that’s not why anyone comes here!

Its ironic that I have been diagnosed with cancer two years after starting Ashtanga … but I had the cancer for years before then … and I can FEEL that I am in better shape to take on the cancer than I would have been had I not started Ashtanga. Its possible Ashtanga just may be a major contributing factor to life vs death.

While its nice that KLM has a program that works for some … people rarely all respond to the same program the same and we SHOULD have a VARIETY of paths to redemption and progress towards our better selves.

American jails are so so rarely places to become the better you and find a way to become the best you possible when you get out … this is one of the FEW efforts that COSTS THE JAIL NOTHING and BENEFITS SO MANY who have written letters voluntarily of how it changed their lives.

There’s room at the jail for KLM *and* Ashtanga … but perhaps Scarborough’s thesis and friends and … ahem … any potential CONTRACTS would fare better if the Richmond Jail were run more like some 3rd world family dynasty ??

Seems to me like there’s a potential for CONFLICT OF INTEREST or at least the appearance thereof.

I plan to ask my Council person when the Woody dynasty will be replaced or fix this.

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Posted by Christopher Maxwell on 12/01/2015 at 11:27 PM

I wonder if this could be a reason:

“But Scarbrough says her calling is offender rehabilitation. She’s active in the field outside of her day job at the jail, serving on the board of Kingdom Life Ministry, which operates a recovery house for recently released inmates.”

http://www.styleweekly.com/richmond/sarah-scarbrough-31/Content?oid=2130986

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Posted by Hmmmmmmmmmm on 12/01/2015 at 11:36 PM

It’s truly a travesty that internal poitical issues and power trips at the jail(among those already in too much power) have brought about the end of such a life changing class for those incarcerated who are seeking a higher path. It changed my life and was a blessed experience, and has helped me seek a different life months and months later. Thank God for Robbie. Shame on Them….

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Posted by Heather Holmes on 12/01/2015 at 11:49 PM

This program has a true and positive impact on the inmates housed at RCJ. If politics are involved in this dismissal, it just shows that the RVA would rather “lock’em up”, rather than “step up” and instill positive programs in our judicial system. SHAME ON YOU, RVA!!

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Posted by Spideog Bastin on 12/02/2015 at 12:20 AM

Clearly Ms.Scarbrough supports the KLM, “Kingdom Life Ministry’s work has been credited with an 18-percent decrease in the rate of recidivism for participants, according to Scarbrough’s doctoral dissertation.”
It sad that Ms. Scarbrough is so insecure about the actual success rate of her program that she would blatantly sabbotage a beneficial, free program for her population. She has no place in this job and ought to be removed.

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Posted by Gretchen Graves on 12/02/2015 at 12:39 AM

Is there some way to protest this decision? A petition to the powers that be?

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Posted by Johanna Bowen on 12/02/2015 at 3:12 AM

In reference to the possibilities of “Scarbrough reinstating: “Thats something that we would have to discuss internally.” I personally am extremely optimistic and to read that “Ms. Scarbrough says “The yoga program had great value for participants, she says, and is “upset about the outcome as well.”

Ms. Scarbrough,

When should I expect to hear more about you discussing the reinstatement of The yoga program? I am assuming that Sheriff Woody, an elected official would be in on this discussion as well? I truly look forward to hearing more about this as after reading your dissertation, I have no doubt you would want what is best for the City of Richmond. I thank you in advance for taking the time to set up this internal discussion to reinstate The yoga program. I look forward to hearing more soon.

Respectfully,
Stacey Scott

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Posted by Stacey Scott on 12/02/2015 at 7:55 AM

How unbelievably sad Richmond!! The people involved in this yoga program provided a much needed service to the inmates. The benefits of yoga are so many I can’t even begin to explain. The reduction of stress, anxiety, and the teaching of mindfulness. The physical exertion, that’s not for the weak, but can be catered to any persons level of fitness…I simply do not understand why a successful program would be abruptly halted other than “someone” was feeling a little ego damage. That is something yoga helps remind those who practice, to keep that ego forever in check. I hope this decision is reconsidered. I remind the people in the decision areas as well, Yoga is not a religion. KLM can continue ministry and the yoga program without being threatened. Shame on the people behind this decision thinking their way is the only way. Did anyone bother to check with the inmates who’d developed a practice about this decision?

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Posted by Veronica van Harn on 12/02/2015 at 8:07 AM

This sounds like favoritism and cronyism and a host of other questionable practices by the city jail to line the pockets of their board members. Let’s remember rehabilitation means less prisoners and these board members and the sherif need their jobs. The program was free and I guess was an alternative to the religious option provided “at a cost” I am sure, by the Kingdom group who, with their place on the board can stop any competition to their lucrative program even if it is helpful, popular and free. Stop trying to destroy what is good in our city simply to line the pockets of those people who suck money from good Christians so they don’t have to work for a living. This yoga program hurt nobody but the money sucking Kingdom group who will never be satisfied until they get every dime available, has no care whatsoever that this program is helpful and positive for its participants. How unchristian of them. It is Disgraceful!!

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Posted by Lori Whitten on 12/02/2015 at 9:07 AM

Even in the unlikely event that Norris broke one too many regulations, the proper response would be to find s new instructor, not ditch such a positive program.

There needs to be be a public response to this.

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Posted by Willis Turner on 12/02/2015 at 9:46 AM

Given the physical pressures of being incarcerated, one would think that any program that helped inmates fighting addiction (alcohol, nicotine, drugs) would be welcome – especially if it were offered free and carried over after their release. One of the worst things about being in jail is the boredom. The refusal to provide a detailed explanation for barring Mr. Norris speaks volumes about the system.

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Posted by Juanita Taylor Arcaro on 12/02/2015 at 9:57 AM

Peace with Everyone.
Please,
enough of all the negative and mean and slanderous and gee-i-am-a-jail-expert comments!
indeed,
Robbie’s sharing of ashtanga yoga with the souls within the walls of the once Richmond City
Jail and the now Richmond City Justice Center was vital, was good, was Beaty – full, was Life –
Encouraging.i
indeed,
we pray that we may somehow talk with Sheriff C.T. Woody, Jr., a
very caring and insightful and purposeful man, The Man when it comes to ALL things within
the Richmond City Sheriff’s Office and within the walls of the RCJC.
alas,
this is why i ask for everyone, everyone, to focus on the positive and the hopeful for be
assured that Sheriff Woody reads all of our words and will assuredly reach out to us if we
encourage the positive.
hi there,
this is a Friend of Robbie, a student of ashtanga yoga with Robbie for just seven months now,
the soul who was the Education Department teacher and counselor within the Richmond
City Jail and the new Richmond City Justice Center for 36 and a half years (April 1978 – September 30, 2015).
Beaucoup of our Students, Students of the RCJ and RCJC ,sanctuary (as the school within
the walls was once known), shared ashtanga yoga with Robbie, and, believe me, each and all
of their sacred Lives changed.
shortly after i retired, i was Blessed with a heart attack.
accordingly,
i had to keep my word to Robbie that i would come on down to the yoga studio at 3rd and
Clay Streets downtown, and share ashtanga yoga with Robbie, and with many of our now –
Free Students.
daily, well, almost daily, i share yoga with Robbie and other good souls, along with daily
gym workouts.
daily, both Robbie and i reach deeply in to the hearts and minds of those once in our
sacred care within the RCJ and the RCJC.
Robbie charges those once imprisoned not one penny … yoga “costs” are all taken care
of by good souls who firmly believe in the joy of ashtanga yoga and who see those once imprisoned return to Being a Human Being, a Loved Human Being,
with a daily practice (or a practice as one is able to share).
attend:
gossiping about things You know nothing about, i.e., the RCJ and or the RCJC, the
Sheriff’s Office, Dr. Scarbrough, et al., etc., will not, will not, will not ever allow Robbie,
a Good Man, back in to the RCJC so as to share his practice of ashtanga yoga with the
men and the Women within those profound walls.

want to do something ?
call and / or write to Sheriff Woody and Dr. Scarbrough.
ask them to talk with You and / or Robbie.
Speak of your Love for those imprisoned within the walls of the RCJC and how Robbie’s
sharing of ashtanga yoga will share such Light.

The fissures within the walls of the RCJC await your Light.
i know these things.
i have seen such Light pouring through such fissures.

Thank You for allowing me to ramble.

i humbly pray that You will reach to Sheriff Woody and Dr. Scarbrough and ask each of
them to reconsider Robbie’s not – being allowed back in to the RCJC status.

Robbie’s ashtanga yoga sharings are Light and Peace and Love and Aware Commitment and
Service to the Caring for All Souls, especially for those within the walls of the RCJC.

Peace, Love, and Respect,
john.

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Posted by johnthetall on 12/02/2015 at 12:03 PM

I worked for 16 years in the Va. Juvenile Justice System and am deeply sorry that Robbie’s yoga was not available to this population which could have benefited so many of the kids. I have just retired as a LPC who has counselor and worked with both mental health and substance abuse adults and adolescents for 25 years. I think and believe that any program that offers skills that enable a person to better manage stress, anger, frustration, sadness, pain, anxiety, depression or any variety of these emotions is an important rehabilitation tool. It is also a compassinate intervetion. I would hope that the jail administration would review its decision about not allowing Robbie to continue his yoga work with the inmates. It appears to me to be in the best interest of the inmates, the RCJC and the community for all parties to meet and seek to reconcile this issue.
Sincerely,

H.Ann Jenkins, City Resident

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Posted by HAJenkins on 12/02/2015 at 3:17 PM

I am very distressed to see this. Robbie is a very caring person. Yoga is a proven method for helping people improve physically and cope mentally with stresses in life. I agree with other posters, multiple methods should be offered to give people the tools to help themselves.

Gail Minotti

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Posted by Gail Minotti on 12/02/2015 at 5:20 PM

I am very distressed to read that the yoga class has been cancelled. I’ve read about it’s value and the huge impact it had upon the lives of those who were able to practice yoga. If this program is so beneficial why would the jail cancel it? Wouldn’t the appropriate programmatic decision be made to continue the program with a different instructor?

It looks like more is going on here. Why would 7 years of expert instruction (with repeated commendations from staff) be cancelled?

As a student of Mr.Norris I have personal experience of his professional conduct and expert instruction. As a yoga practitioner I have reaped the benefits of this practice through serious illnesses and continue to practice.

The inmates in the City Jail deserve better.

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Posted by josie on 12/02/2015 at 5:34 PM

What are the ethics of working for, and getting paid by, the program you study for your thesis? After Scarborough studied Kingdom Life and showed they had near unachievable results, she got hired by them. Seems like a huge ethical lapse.

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Posted by George Henry on 12/02/2015 at 6:18 PM

I am just amazed as to how many people can become the authority on whats best and the tone of “What other people should allow or dont allow” . I would like to know how many of these nay sayers , and character attacking humans have ever even donated a dime, better yet a hour of their time to helping anyone caught up in the system, the lost souls who have found their everyday existence in the bottom of a bottle, at the end of a needle, a cloud of smoke entering their lungs…street life. And you have the nerve to hide behind a blog not accounting for anything.. Talk it, Walk it. Do something about it.. There are thousands of oportuntities for you to volunteer at the jail, civil center. Rehab centers etc. Put up or shut up. And for all of you that have did no investingating on your own. Kingdom Life is a Non-Profit with no paid postiions. They can barely keep the doors open.

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Posted by soup129 on 12/02/2015 at 8:52 PM

While it is possible that this stems from a kind of political anti-yoga, religious sentiment, it seems a very simple way of finding that out is to ask if they would be willing to re-instate the program if it were taught by a different teacher. If so, then the issue is not yoga itself but Robbie Norris.

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Posted by anonymous on 12/02/2015 at 9:46 PM

This is a terrible decision for the jail.
Lots of underhanded things going on on our city jail- from the sketchy building contractors, to the drug overdoses, to replacing all the medical staff (with a new contractor), to eliminating a program that makes people physically, mentally, and spiritually whole. If this is how the jail is run, what else is going on in our city government?

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Posted by bewell on 12/02/2015 at 10:05 PM

It looks like many of the above commentators do not understand that KLM (and many of the other ministries at the jail) is a VOLUNTEER-based organization? Nobody is getting paid. Also, do you know any board members of any Richmond area NON-PROFIT organizations that pay their board members? Please use correct facts… and also note, that the yoga instructor is being paid for his services by a private donor. He gets paid for each class he holds (nothing wrong with that, as he is providing a service) — so please be careful when speaking about who might be “lining their pockets.” There are many various services providing the inmates with help, supported by volunteers doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. Also, it is common for people within an industry to be on the Board of non-profits related to their industry (I’m talking about unpaid positions.) To argue otherwise, means that you are uninformed of this common practice and/or that you don’t have experience in volunteer organizations.

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Posted by RVA Volunteer on 12/03/2015 at 9:43 AM

Such a sad turn of events when a wonderful program is shut down. Robbie Norris is a fantastic teacher, inspiring leader and cares deeply about all his students. Contacting Mayor Jones, Sheriff Woody and your City Council person may help reverse this decision. It’s good to see support for Robbie Norris and recognizing what he has done for so many.

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Posted by Brian King on 12/03/2015 at 12:48 PM

Dude volunteers his time for 7 years doing something positive in an otherwise negative / agressive environment. Now he is canned for some obtuse reasons, just shows when an organization wants to get rid of someone they can find a reason.
Having worked in a 2 (1 Adult / 1 Juvenile) I can say from experience it is not an easy place to work, both the staff and the residents are in their own ways difficult.

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Posted by Steel Mill on 12/03/2015 at 1:50 PM

I am living proof that yoga can change lives. And it happens so quickly. When my son died suddenly, I began practicing daily and I noticed immediate results in my state of mind. Imagine what yoga can do for the oppressed and disenfranchised. We’ve seen proof of the results at the Richmond City Jail. I can’t wrap my head around why something that works and costs the jail nothing is not allowed. I don’t care how many excuses for why there are.

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Posted by saradaves on 12/03/2015 at 3:27 PM

I think the short-sighted decision of Richmond City Jail officials to end the yoga classes led by Robbie Norris is plain arrogant. It’s obvious how much the classes helped those who participated. It’s well-documented that yoga is good for maintaining fitness, calming agitation, controlling anger and reducing stress. I read about an inmate who said it helps to banish the “angry thoughts” in his mind. “It was these thoughts that made me commit crimes,” he said. I see the decision as another example of employees at the public trough letting their buddies get what they want with little regard for the welfare of the population they are supposed to be serving.
Mandana Marsh
Richmond

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Posted by Mandana Marsh on 12/03/2015 at 4:12 PM

For the record, I emphasize that I don’t know anything substantive about Kingdom Life Ministries or their connection to the jail/justice center, other than that the KLM Program was the subject of Scarbrough’s dissertation — nor do I wish to impugn them. I would applaud anyone who is trying to help the inmates. I know very little about Scarbrough’s Internal Program Department other than what is on her Justice Center webpage, and the fact that the yoga program was under her auspices since the opening of the Justice Center last year, even while it was emphasized to me that it was not one of the “pillars.” I believe all religions are honored at the Justice Center — I know this is chaplain Father Pruitt’s policy, and when the yoga was under him, he would occasionally speak to the students about yoga more eloquently than I could.

As well, many of the students over the years gave me poignant and powerful statements. I will be posting more of them on my blog at http://RichmondPrivateYoga.blogspot.com. Please check it out, especially once this comment thread closes. In 2013 an inmate gave me a statement that lucidly portrays a wide range of benefits experienced:

“I would like to express my gratitude and support for the Richmond City jail yoga program. I have been an enthusiastic participant during my incarceration and would like to share with your readers how powerful a tool Ashtanga Yoga has been for me during this time.

I first attended Robbie’s class in April 2013 while serving 10 days. In just a few sessions, I learned enough to carry on a short practice on my own, which I did for a brief time after my release. I believe I may not have returned to jail if I had persevered with the practice.

I was incarcerated again in late July for another short sentence. Again, I attended Robbie’s classes and experienced the same peace I’d felt before. During that sentence, I was notified that my probation was up for revocation and I would be in jail indefinitely, pending the court outcome. I don’t know how I would have coped with the fear and confusion without the anchor of Robbie’s classes and my own developing practice. I ended up receiving a five-month sentence.

I slowly began assimilating more of the Primary Series and worked up to practicing 15-20 minutes every morning and 45 minutes on the weekends. Almost immediately, I noticed an increase in my strength and flexibility that over time has been quite dramatic. I had been very active before my incarceration and yoga gave me a great way to improve my fitness level in a way that could easily be performed on a crowded, noisy jail tier. I have also been free of the respiratory infections that frequently plague inmates as a result of breathing in recirculated air full of mildew and mold.

More important than the physical benefits are the many ways in which practicing Ashtanga Yoga has benefitted me mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Practicing at the same time every day built self-discipline that I will carry with me into the free world. Pushing myself physically has increased my self esteem. Focusing on the rhythm of my breathing has helped me focus in other areas. My attention span is much longer. I am not as easily pulled into the drama and chaos of jail life. My emotions are more balanced, and when I feel angry, I can manage it more easily and without adverse consequences. I can see the confusion, pain, hurt, fear and rage in myself and others and how those feelings manifest and explode. I can center myself in stressful situations instead of losing my cool or getting anxious.

I eagerly await my release on December 13 so I can continue practicing with Robbie and his students at the Richmond City Yoga studio. Thank you, Robbie, for providing Richmond City Jail inmates with the opportunity to learn and grow during their jail time. I cannot speak highly enough about the positive changes that practicing the Primary Series of Ashtanga Yoga has brought to my life. I am forever grateful for the time, energy, attention and love you show us in an environment where we receive precious little positivity.”

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Posted by Robbie Norris on 12/03/2015 at 4:26 PM

For me, this serves as a reminder that ‘corrections’ in this land tend to be mostly punishments. Very evident that Mr. Norris had done nothing to threaten anyone, unless of course healing and compassion along the lines of a disciplined and self-empowering meditation practice is a threat. In that case a threat to whom??? How many absurdities must we endure before accepting that ‘corrections’ do not come from above but only through the heart n soul of the perpetrators??? Beyond a civil rights issue, the incarcerated of today will be returning to town day by day, and it is our responsibility to do everything in our means to help them stand strong. Dr. Scarbrough must be held accountable for this injustice.

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Posted by Johnny Ward on 12/03/2015 at 6:29 PM

@Johanna: Sheriffs are elected officials by the Virginia constitution. You can certainly petition them, but they do not have to read or grant your petitions. The only effective way to influence them is to vote them out of office. The current sheriff enjoys the advantage of incumbency. And then there’s the sad reality of Richmond racial politics. Many of our citizens view government as a jobs program and vote for patronage instead of professionalism, affinity instead of excellence. Some of this is understandable in light of our long-ago history, but so much of Richmond politics is driven by the past. Only when Richmond embraces the cold reality of the now can we free ourselves from the past.

Posted by TANSTAAFL on 12/03/2015 at 7:15 PM

The impact of this cancelation will no doubt be negative and immediate within the walls of the jail, but that by no means is the extent of it. Our city has taken a hit here. The health of our city has been forced into an immediate decline with this decision. For the past 7+ years, Robbie Norris has done this invaluable work which has benefitted our city and so benefitted, in one way or another, all of us. It’s our turn now to support him. Let’s make sure our voices are heard beyond this comment section. The inmates, Robbie and our city all deserve better.

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Posted by Jen F. on 12/04/2015 at 1:41 PM

The elimination of a program so highly beneficial and so strikingly cost-free is deeply troubling.  If Internal Program Director Dr. Scarbrough were truly interested in reducing recidivist rates, how could this decision be justified without a statement (at least to Norris) from the Justice Center specifying his infractions?

Although I am no statistician, I find the data Scarbrough employs in her dissertation to be suspect, and the “cost-savings” in her conclusion wishful: (http://sarahscarbrough.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/scarbrough-dissertation.pdf)

On a personal note, I have known Robbie Norris well for 20 years.  His character is transparently impeccable; his service as a yoga teacher exemplary.

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Posted by Walter Coppedge on 12/04/2015 at 3:20 PM

I’m a former inmate of the Richmond City Jail and I was really disturbed when I saw this article. Robbie and his program did more than just help me be patient and calm in a very hostile environment, it gave me confidence as well as physical and spiritual wellness. I use to continue my self practice daily and even took it with me when I was transferred to D.O.C. and throughout my release. It help with my health while incarcerated, I went from three blood pressure medicine and a antidepressant, to two lower doses and no Zoloft by the time I was released. Robbie still checks on me to make sure I’m doing well and encourages me to continue my practice. If that’s wrong then, we have bigger problems then him passing out a flyer. I was in a faith base recovery program as well, the BELIEF program and it was a combination of both that helped me;however, yoga gave me the discipline to breathe through those stressful times when remembering 12 steps wasn’t enough. I am now a sociology major at Virginia State University and I did my final paper on the privatized “for profit” prison system, and while I’m not going to make speculations, I will say, it’s not beneficial to the system to provide programs that equipped prisoners with the tools to escape institutionalize mindsets and yoga does just that. It provides a sense of conferences, self worth, oneness, peace, unity with self and the environment, connection with a universe that’s greater than yourself and a connection with a Power great enough to keep you from the behaviors that causes recidivism. I credit my change to my connection with God; however, yoga gave me the focus I needed to read my Bible and study, in the middle of a hostile environment call jail! Bless you for you passion and dedication to us Robbie and my God will reward you for your sacrifice and open the door that man has tried to close.

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Posted by Marcobama Thomas on 12/05/2015 at 8:42 AM

I am very saddened that this happened to robbieband to the jail system in general. Robbie was always compassionate and caring to all the inmates who were involved in the yoga program. He helped me serve my time like no other program could. His breathing techniques helped me to find a way to escape the bars and concrete in which I was trapped. I hope this program get reinstated for the better of the inmates involved band for the better of robbie as I am certain he was helped dearly in knowing that he was helping others see the light in their times of darkness. Please Richmond allow robbie a chance to help mybfellow inmate through these times of blackness.

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Posted by Dylan Ross on 12/05/2015 at 1:32 PM

Ashtanga Yoga can completely change the “tone” of a person’s incarceration. It can transform anger into peace and restore physical and mental health. I sincerely hope the inmates who are familiar with the practice will share it with others and keep the program alive in Robbie’s absence. I hope the RCJC staff will reconsider this decision. Thank you, Robbie, for all you have done to help incarcerated people find a path through the pain and anger of jail and prison.

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Posted by Brett on 12/05/2015 at 5:08 PM

I am a very proud card carrying member of the wonderful benefits Ashtanga Yoga does to your mind body and soul. How is this practice not available to the men and women in jail that need it more than I do. I am lucky and blessed. Please gain a sense of perspective!

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Posted by David Slocum on 12/06/2015 at 12:01 AM

I’m highly upset at this article I feel like that it was the biggest mistake that the Richmond City Jail made by cancelling the yoga program as a former inmate and also I participate in the yoga program I feel as though the instructor Robbie was the best thing that has ever happened being in a jail you sometimes need an escape and yoga was a way to do it and my question is what other outlets for solutions do they have in place for the men and women who attended this program I feel that the accusations that Robbie was accused of is excuse my language bulshitI plan I plan on attending yoga classes with Robbie in the future

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Posted by jazz jay on 12/06/2015 at 12:48 AM

I wonder who he pissed off?
Sound like a positive person from all that is written but it is also clear that someone wanted him gone.

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Posted by Laszlo on 12/07/2015 at 9:31 AM

About the abrupt severance of the relationship between Robbie Norris and the Richmond City Jail.
First, this seems to have been contrived while Robbie was away, in India, pursuing his yoga studies. He had no opportunity to present himself and make plain the specific values and strengths of his program. Judgment in absentia.
The inmates themselves have demonstrated the success of the program – and those in authority have observed improved behavior as the yoga program was being taught.
The program has met the needs of the prisoners- both physically and spiritually. They have written their own unsolicited, grateful testimonials.
A big plus to the jail yoga program is the character of Robbie himself. He is a man of unquestioned integrity, high principles, and a wide streak of altruism. What a fine role model for these imprisoned individuals!
Robbie has the gift of giving–giving of himself to help improve the situation of others.
It isn’t necessary to document the value of his program with a statistical study. It documents itself by changed behavior and attitude.
The greatest loss in this harsh, unnecessary decision is suffered by the prison population themselves–who remain in silence.

Doris Clevenger

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Posted by doris clevenger on 12/07/2015 at 9:26 PM

I’ve always admired the generosity with which Robbie shares the gift of Ashtanga yoga. The shadiness that surrounds the termination of the yoga classes certainly invites the interpretation that some other agenda existed. The timing, the hollow justification, the competing interests all scream of wrong doing. It certainly damages perceptions of the way the jail treats people, inmates and volunteers alike. The volume of supportive comments here speaks to the importance of Robbie’s work to the community. In a state that is the worst in the country in feeding jails directly from schools, the Virginia corrections system certainly should not be depriving inmates of a tool that hurts no one, costs nothing, and has the power to change lives for the better.

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Posted by Beth Ferrara on 12/07/2015 at 9:55 PM

Cheers to Melissa Scott Sinclair and Style Magazine for bringing this sad story to inform readers that again as always the corrections in this state do all they can to keep any type of help for inmates from them. Society wonders why people released from incarceration continue the path that puts them back in prisons. Inmates are in prison because most have had lives of abuse at the hands of people who are supposed to love them. Their empathy for others is damaged because no one has cared for them so why should they care for others? There will always be exceptions to this but regardless we have to try to save as many as we can. They are angry they cannot get jobs to support their families after they have paid their penalty and the state does nothing to correct this so they go back to survival skills that put them back in jail. Corrections in Va make it as difficult as they can to keep reading materials that help inmates to work out and understand their inner pain and anger from them by forcing them to have family members order books from distributors that overcharge rather than letting family members buy the books and either bring them to the prison for the inmate or mail it themselves. And so on and so on. Its endless that the idea by corrections is no help ever.

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Posted by Sadie Anderson on 12/08/2015 at 8:41 AM

This saddens my heart to read. This was a free yoga program in which Robbie provided his time, energy, knowledge and care to the incarcerated population of Richmond City Jail that helped his students cultivate self-control, productive self reflection, self accountability, to release and learn to manage stress and anger along with other self destructive patterns and tendencies and taught people the power of their own self will. It cost the jail nothing at all. Not one penny. This was also a non religious, non denominational alternative to the Christian program that is promoted in the jail. What should be recognized is that people in general are individuals with different belief/faith systems and different mentalities and world views and things that will potentially spark within a personthe desire to change their lives for the better– incarcerated people included. For the time spent incarcerated to truly be rehabilitative, it only makes sense that there should be a variety of programs that work side by side with one another to help these folk if the goal is really to help current inmates become productive, law abiding citizens by the time they are released, instead of only offering Christian or Islamic faith based programs.
I myself learned Ashtanga Yoga from Robbie in RCJ over 2 years ago and it has helped positively direct my life and even inspired me to volunteer my time sharing this yoga with children and adults in the Northside Gilpin Court neighborhood for about a year and a half in cooperation with the FRIENDS Association for Children. My hope is that the value of the yoga program that so many benefitted from in the Richmond City Jail will be recognized and re established so as to assist some of Richmond’s people who need it the most.

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Posted by Ruth Tracey on 12/13/2015 at 7:50 PM

I was actually a former student of Robbie in the Richmond City Jail. That class really kept me level headed and less stressed in a very stressful situation. Yoga impacted me enough in jail that I decided to continue practicing when I came home. Sometimes I wonder where how I would be if I didn’t have yoga to fall back on. It’s pretty messed up that they’re taking away something thay can potentially change the life of someone for the better. I’ve actually started meditating and practicing mindfulness since I started Yoga in a way I feel freed from my own mind.

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Posted by Napoleon Hargrove on 12/14/2015 at 9:55 PM

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