As we wait for the guard to escort the six inmates back to their dorms, one of the woman says, "They wake us up at five." She has tattoos up her arms and brown stringy hair.
"Five?" I ask, "Why so early?" During my orientation to teach yoga in the jails, I was told not to divulge any personal information about myself, in case an inmate was freed and looked me up. I'm relieved for the opening to talk about something as innocuous as wake-up times.
Another inmate chimes in, "We have chores, they fill us with jail cake, and then we head back to bed and get fat." She lifts up her maroon-colored shirt and pinches her pale belly.
"I need to get fat," interjects another inmate. She has dirty blond hair, clear white skin, and only upon this comment do I notice that she's more slender than the other girls. "How much do you think I weigh?" she asks. I have no idea, I tell her.
"When I came in, I was 97 pounds," she says. "It was the meth." She shares this without any shame, as if telling me her favorite cupcake flavor. As a married, college writing professor, whose only exposure to meth is watching five seasons of Breaking Bad, I'm surprised by my first thought: But this girl is so beautiful. How could she be addicted to meth?
She shares that she was shocked by how intense meth was. She took her first hit and never stopped being high for seven months. She lost weight, she lost her teeth, she prayed to get arrested, and then she did. She found herself on the floor in a maximum-security prison, in and out of consciousness, sobering up for the first time that year.
"Why were you on the floor instead of a bed?" I ask. She shrugs her shoulders. "I guess they were worried I might die." Two male guards interrupt our conversation. One tells the girls to line up single file, which they do immediately and obediently. These women don't like rules, but they know that in this place, they must follow them.
"Bye," the pretty girl says with a youthful wave. "That was really cool."
When the girls leave, I take a seat. I'm relieved. The truth is, being in here scares me. When I think of women's jails, I imagine Piper in Orange Is the New Black being burned a swastika sign by a Hispanic gang. This is partly why I'm here. It bothers me that there's a huge population of Americans that I only know through dramatized entertainment.
When I first learned about our broken criminal justice system, I was plagued by the statistics: 716 people out of 100,000 are incarcerated; 5 percent of the world's population lives in the United States, and yet it is home to 25 percent of the world's prison population. I am fully aware that volunteering in a jail once a month will not improve this systemic problem, but I have this strong desire to make a connection with the people behind these statistics, to turn the numbers into real faces.
Before this, I shadowed another yoga teacher in a sequence that didn't resemble any class I'd ever taken in my 12-year practice.
She repeated, "breathe in, breathe out," moving her arms up and down. Afterward, we walked to our cars, and she explained to me that it was a specific style of yoga for women who had undergone trauma.
The simple repetition was a way to repair the lost connection between the left and right brain. She said that instructing these women with too many directions was often alienating to them.
In my studio classes, I have the tendency to focus on anatomy and proper alignment and share scientific studies on mindfulness. When my mom took my class, she said, "Nobody talks as much as you." I'm a sharer. I'm a talker. That's why I teach. But in this jail, where I'm not even allowed to divulge my last name, I find myself awkwardly tongue-tied.