Wednesday, March 19, 2014

What makes a "criminal" a criminal anyway?

What is it that makes somebody a criminal? It's a difficult question. And an important one, at that.

On Monday in Wilmington, I met with yoga teacher Charlene Sams at a local cafe. Charlene runs yoga programs with a very specific, thoughtful, state-officiated curriculum several times a week with youth at various detention centers in the area. She is amazing.

I was lucky enough to be invited to join her in back-to-back classes that day at Ferris Detention Center and Snowden Cottage.

According to the state of Delaware's website, Ferris is a "secure care, ACA accredited treatment facility providing services for up to 72 court committed males, ages 13-18. Youth committed to Ferris are identified as serious and/or chronic repeat offenders, who pose a risk to themselves or others and require intensive rehabilitative treatment."

That's a lot of words, so let me translate: it's jail. I'm talking about 24-hour surveillance, metal detectors, uniforms, single file lines, these-kids-don't-see-the-light-of-day, jail. 

They're viewed as criminals (and they know it), and so they view themselves as criminals (because who wouldn't?). 

I think it's important to ask: what makes a "criminal" a criminal, anyway? Is it one offense? Repeated offenses? Perhaps they are born that way, destined from the start to be criminals performing life-long criminal acts eventually left to die alone with their criminal selves? (Come on, you don't actually believe that last one, do you?)

Are there really "criminals", or are there human beings who commit seriously fucked up, criminal acts? (Yes, that can be an understatement, I know)

But what brings a "criminal"/human to the point so low in their life where they commit their first criminal offense? And their second? Et cetera... Do we consider this as we expand our prison systems? Do we care? Are our facilities really rehabilitative, or are they holding places?

I don't know the answers, but here's what it's like to be in a room with these humans when a little mindfulness and breathing are introduced...

Charlene and I enter the room to begin setting up. The kids enter through the doors in a single-file line, heads mostly down.

At the start, Charlene asks each person how they're feeling at that moment, and she writes it down.

"Angry." "Angry." "Extremely sad." "Pissed off." "Angry." "Gucci."

The last comment stirs some chuckles in the group.

So, that's where we'll begin. But before we start with our centering exercises, breathing and 4-minute silent meditation, I quickly introduce  myself and what it is I'm doing.

The students from both classes gasp aloud when I mention that I biked there and where I'll eventually be biking to.

And immediately they're curious. "What will you do if you get hungry?" "What about the weather?" "Where will you sleep?" "Is that safe?" Et cetera...

Let me again reference the state of Delaware's definition of these humans: "...identified as serious and/or chronic repeat offenders who pose a risk to themselves or others..." And they're worried for me about how ill sleep and eat along the way.

Although honored and grateful for their enthusiasm and concern, I answer some questions and then redirect their attention back to the yoga so Charlene can begin.

We run through an hour of movement, breathing and silent  meditation, to a final closing of savasana. 

At the end, Charlene asks each person again how they're feeling at that moment, and the answers are a little different.

"Good." "Good." "Relaxed." "Okay." "Relaxed." "Gucci." (He was stuck on that Gucci comment)

As we were parting ways, one kid looked me in the eyes and said, "Thank you for coming."

So, what is it that makes a "criminal" a criminal? Do we believe people can rehabilitate? How can our systems better allow for this opportunity?

Perhaps a little mindfulness could go a long way...


  1. Sometimes it's money, or more importantly, the lack thereof, which defines a criminal.

  2. Speechless. This is beautiful (I, too, may have seriously understated my thoughts in this case - it's tough to find the words to describe some things, especially those that we find so, truly good).

  3. If there were more yoga philosophy in the world, I am sure things could change. Thank you for what you are doing. I worked in the "criminal ju$tice" $y$tem 20+ years and know how bad it can be. I didn't find yoga til I hit 63. I hope you turn on some old folk on your way, and I hope I can some day.


    speaking of "criminal justice"

  5. You have special eyes and I love the things they see. Thanks for sharing with us, keep fanning y/our flame. <3