- Associated Press - Saturday, June 20, 2015

EBENSBURG, Pa. (AP) - Robin Hamilton says that encountering yoga while she was behind bars will make her better equipped to deal with life once she’s no longer in prison.

Hamilton, 40, of St. Michael, and Heather Schellhammer, 30, of Johnstown, are both at the Cambria County prison for fraud-related crimes. They were part of a group inmates who recently completed a yoga class inside the prison.

“I really enjoyed it. It left us with something to look forward to,” Schellhammer said. “I was excited about it.”

Yoga instruction is one of the little steps being made in the prison that leaders there hope will have a profound impact on inmates when they are released, Cambria County District Attorney Kelly Callihan said.

The goal is that the cycle of poor choices and the inability to cope with stress and abuse, current or past, will be broken for the inmates and their children.

The Commission on Hope program, still in its infancy, is a grass-roots effort that started on Facebook to counteract homicides and seemingly never-ending drug busts.

The first of the posts were negative, with comments reflecting a view that Johnstown, the county and many local people have little value. That prompted Callihan and a whole crew of volunteers and agencies to respond.

“People are sick of it. They’re sick of this happening in their community,” Callihan said.

Callihan wasn’t the only one to see the negative posts.

Another was Rachel Allen, a registered yoga instructor and well-known local musician who runs Yoga Sound, which merges music, yoga and community outreach.

“It (postings) started right after one of the shootings,” Allen said.

A lifelong believer in the power of getting in touch with one’s inner self through yoga, Allen stepped up to provide “trauma sensitive yoga” - no touching - for the inmates.

The approach was used because many of those behind bars, especially women, have been physically or sexually abused as children or adults.

At Callihan’s urging, a small group met in the spring of 2014 and the results are positive, not only according to Callihan and Allen, but according to the handful of female inmates who already know the benefits.

The women clamored to be part of the program and participants were selected based on their behavior records.

“A lot of girls want to get into it, but counselors have to recommend them,” Hamilton said.

Life lessons

Paula Eppley-Newman, executive director of Beginnings Inc., a nonprofit agency specializing in early childhood development, said she knew she had to get involved when she learned that policy dictates that inmates whose children visit can only see them from behind glass.

Prison parenting classes have become a significant part of the commission’s goals.

Callihan brought in Warden John Prebish, who couldn’t wait to get the female program started. Also on board is President Judge Timothy Creany.

Alan Cashaw, head of the Johnstown Branch of the NAACP, immediately saw the need for a mentoring or coaching program providing trained volunteers to stay with the inmates following release from prison.

The faith community is lining up with organizations like the Flood City Church on Scalp Avenue to provide volunteers to be trained as coaches.

It’s going to take a lot of work by a lot of people, but Callihan and others are confident that it will help - at least some of those behind bars.

Plans are to conduct another yoga-parenting class at the prison for females and a separate one for men beginning in July.

Bring it on, said Prebish, who over the past 11 years as warden of the 500-bed facility, has watched repeat offenders make it seem as if the prison had a revolving door

“We’ll do anything we can do to help,” he said. “Statistics are that 60 to 70 percent do not return to jail for those people who have contact with their children while they are in jail.”

Everyone involved will have to work at this, including the inmates. Upon release, they will be helped with some of the simplest, yet more important aspects of life, such as getting a driver’s license, finding a place to live and starting a job search.

“We want people to see that this isn’t a day at the spa,” Eppley-Newman said.

‘On the right track’

The problems the inmates have are multigenerational, Eppley-Newman said, meaning the focus has to be on that person as well as the people who surround them.

Everyone involved in the commission speaks of the three-legged-stool approach:

n Coaching: the fundamentals of what to do when the inmates are released.

n Trauma-sensitive yoga: helping them to think about what is going on - rewiring their brain - in a sense.

n Family strategy: helping to make reuniting with children and families easier.

“This is a huge collaborative effort and I personally feel we have everything we need in our community to be successful,” Eppley-Newman said.

While not everyone will have their lives turned around or at least helped by yoga, parenting, coaching and other efforts of the commission, some are seeing significant change.

Case in point - one of the participants in the first class wrapped up earlier this month - ended up in solitary confinement for acting out.

“I kind of believe yoga helped (her) in solitary,” Hamilton said.

“She told us that she was trying to use some of the coping skills she learned in class to get through it.”

This is encouraging to Callihan, Allen, Eppley-Newman and others.

“We know we’re not going to save them all,” Callihan said. “We know if we can get some of them on the right track, we’ve succeeded.”

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1dECrYu

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Information from: The Tribune-Democrat, http://www.tribune-democrat.com

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