Style Weekly Cover Story
A yoga teacher helps inmates at the Richmond City Jail find peace on the inside.
By Melissa Scott Sinclair
The New York Times
Images and audio from Style Weekly’s cover story on ashtanga yoga at the Richmond City Jail taught by Robbie Norris.
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
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.”