Left to right: Maine State Prison Warden Randall Liberty, Daniel Fortune, Mike Bailey, Abdi Awad and Dustin Carpenter Photos by Andy O’Brien
Left to right: Maine State Prison Warden Randall Liberty, Daniel Fortune, Mike Bailey, Abdi Awad and Dustin Carpenter Photos by Andy O’Brien
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As Kevin Martin sits in the doorway of the St. George River Cafe in Warren on a warm Sunday evening in August, it’s hard to believe he was once locked up in the maximum-security prison where he now teaches inmates. The 31-year-old Westbrook resident dutifully collects door fees from concertgoers to benefit the nonprofit he helped co-found, as his wife Elizabeth walks by kissing the couple’s three-month-old son Alyosha strapped to her chest. In addition to working a full-time job, paying a mortgage and raising a newborn, he is working on a bachelor’s degree at the University of Maine Augusta, where he has a 3.8 GPA.

Martin still doesn’t know exactly why he was able to turn his life around, but he says he owes much of his success to his strong support system, the knowledge he gained through reading hundreds of books in prison and a regular regimen of yoga and meditation.

“Evil can touch two people and it takes one of them and the other one it doesn’t. And I can’t explain why that is,” he says. “But I know a lot of it had to do with reading and a lot of it had to do with this quiet whisper of hope that things might get better.”

Now Martin is transferring what he’s learned to the rest of the inmates through the Liberation Institute, a small nonprofit that teaches yoga and meditation at Maine State Prison. According to the prison warden and the inmates who have gone through the program, it’s giving these men the tools they need to heal and it’s transforming lives.

From Addiction and Incarceration to Recovery

By the time Martin got out of prison in early 2013, he had spent more than half of his 20s locked behind bars. Diagnosed with ADHD and put on medication at a young age, the Windham native began drinking heavily when he was 13 years old, and it wasn’t long before he became mixed up with the wrong crew in Portland. After getting black-out drunk and committing a robbery on St. Patrick’s Day in 2005, he woke up in Androscoggin County Jail.

“I was 18 years old. I had never really been in that kind of trouble before,” recalled Martin. “Needless to say it was a shock to my system and I woke up to this particularly mean guard sliding an affidavit under my door, charging me with two class As, a B and D. You look at the affidavit and it says minimum/maximum and I was looking at a grand total of 76 years if I were to be convicted.”

In the midst of an emotional breakdown, Martin was put on suicide watch, wearing only his boxers and wrapped in a suicide blanket like a Velcro burrito. Unable to get a lawyer before his co-defendants pled out, he ended up getting a suspended eight-year sentence with probation. It was his heroin addiction that eventually got him sent to prison, first for two years and then for three and a half years, after drug tests found opiates in his urine. As the day of his release got closer, he agonized over how he was going to reintegrate into society and find a job as a convicted felon. Cognitive therapy didn’t seem to be helping, but after another inmate introduced him to yoga, Martin said he found that the physical, mental and spiritual discipline could “metabolize suffering” and “slough off the stuff” he didn’t need. Then during a meditation class at the Central Maine Pre-Release Center in Hallowell he met his teacher, Piers Kaniuka, a recovery counselor specializing in various yoga techniques, contemplative practice and “heart meditation.”  Like Martin, Kaniuka had also recovered from heroin addiction and he soon became a mentor to the young soon-to-be-released convict.

“The thing that really made it so that I could get better was that Piers treated me like a human being in that place and no one had ever done that,” said Martin. “There’s a saying in prison that there’s two kinds of people. There’s those who make it and those who don’t. Prison has a way of separating your soul from your body and then shattering it and you can’t really get it back. For some reason I was able to stay intact in some kind of a way, at least enough to hear what Piers had to say to me, and I was able to get out.”

Kaniuka says the goal of his recovery program is to get people with addictions out of the stress response mode.

“When you come into recovery you’re still in the stress response because now you can’t run from your problems, and the one thing that gives you relief, you can’t do that anymore,” he said. “So yoga and contemplative practice gets them out of the stress response.”

Several academic studies have found that yoga can help relieve stress and anxiety, reduce anger and aggression, relieve the effects of trauma and even lead to better cognitive control and improved memory and attention. One study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry found that Swedish prisoners who practiced yoga had less stress, better sleep quality and improved psychological and emotional well-being and were less prone to antisocial behavior.

Martin says his life then changed as he began completing the 12 steps of AA, started a contemplative practice and studied the root causes of addiction. And as he progressed with his studies, he also began to develop a deep desire to help others trapped in the cycle of addiction and incarceration. It was then that he, Kaniuka, and Piers’ wife Jessica came up with an idea to develop a program for prison inmates that incorporated recovery, wellness and education. What would become the Liberation Institute would offer a nationally certified 200-hour yoga teaching training, allowing the inmates to become yoga instructors themselves. The philosophy behind the certification course, says Jessica Kaniuka, is to empower the prison community and pass on to the other inmates what they learned.

The “Dislocation Theory of Addiction”

The group also wanted to convey to the inmates the context of how they ended up behind bars by teaching the work of philosophers, psychologists and advocates for social justice.

“The one thing that was the most beneficial and what turned my life around was Piers provided me with a historical context about what it actually means to be a junkie and a prisoner,” said Martin. “He essentially broke it down to say I was just a piece of meat in a cog wheel that people were making money off of and I had a choice: I could either continue to do that or I could try to do something new.”

Kaniuka and Martin’s program would emphasize Canadian psychology professor Bruce Alexander’s “dislocation theory of addiction” to help explain to prisoners this context. In the late 1970s, Alexander began to challenge the widely held belief that drugs themselves were the primary cause of addiction. He believed that it was actually the enviroment people lived in that caused addictive behavior. To test his hypothesis, Alexander and his colleagues constructed a big plywood box and filled it with nice clean wood chips, with platforms for climbing, cans to hide in, exercise wheels and lots of rats of both sexes. Not surprisingly, the rats quickly procreated and soon there were babies crawling everywhere. The rats loved it, so researchers called it the “Rat Park.”

They also kept another rat isolated in a standard Skinner box. Both the solitary rat and the Rat Park rats were provided with a mechanism to inject small doses of morphine into themselves by pressing a lever. And what they found in every experiment was that the solitary rats consumed way more drugs than the Rat Park rats. In fact, the “social” rats in the Rat Park consumed hardly any of the morphine solution.

But while the experiment helped explain why prisoners in solitary confinement tend to seek mind-numbing drugs if they can get them, it didn’t explain why plenty of people who don’t live in cages develop addictions. That’s when Alexander began forming his “dislocation theory of addiction,” a body of thought building on the work of Hungarian political economist Karl Polanyi, which traces the roots of the global addiction epidemic to a free-market economic system that fragments cultures and “breaks the social links that give people a sense of belonging, meaning and identity.” As human needs are undermined by the forces of global capitalism, Alexander argues, these dislocated people seek to compensate by finding substitutes to fill the void, whether it’s chemical substances like alcohol and opioids or pornography, gambling, video games, consumerism and religious fanaticism. The Liberation Institute’s plan was to not only explain this complex theory, but also help inmates find more productive ways to cope in this world.

“If I were to go into the prison and say, ‘Look, you’re all fucked up and here are these 12 steps and we’re going to get you well and you’re going to go out into the world and have 2.1 kids and a mortgage,’ they’re not going to hear that because that’s pretty patronizing. That’s just more of the same,” says Kaniuka. “If I go to them and say, ‘Look, you’re all fucked up and these are the forces that fucked you up — big pharma, the prison industrial complex, globalization — and now we’re going to get you well and soldier you up with ideas and help you negotiate that reality out there,’ they can hear that.”



 




Martin also found resonance with Spanish scholar Ignacio Martín-Baró’s liberation psychology, which seeks to understand the psychology of oppressed people by analyzing the oppressive sociopolitical structure they live in.

“The interesting thing about liberation psychology and why it works is because it takes the fundamental belief that the people who are oppressed or the people who are in jail or poor know everything they need to know about it and they have the tools to pull themselves out,” said Martin.

But first Martin and the Kaniukas needed to find a prison that would be willing to take a risk with such an ambitious program. They proposed the idea to a prison in Vermont, but the administration wasn’t interested. But they soon found their biggest booster in the new warden of Maine State Prison.

Taking It to the Prison

On a hot summer afternoon, Maine State Prison Warden Randall Liberty gives an enthusiastic tour of his prison.

“How ya doin’, bub!” he calls out to a prisoner as he strolls through the halls. “Hardest working man in Maine State Prison right here!”

“You have a good afternoon! Keep on truckin’!” the inmate calls back.

As Liberty greets and cracks jokes with prisoners, guards and visiting families, he could be mistaken for a popular high school principal rather than a hard-nosed prison warden. But he also comes to the job with a unique perspective.

“I was put here for a reason and it’s passion, it’s not a job for me,” he says. “The first time I came here was for a Christmas party when my dad was here as an inmate in 1971. I was seven years old. Now 45 years later I’m the warden.”

It’s hard for Liberty to walk a block in the activities building without prisoners approaching him with requests, like allowing in Native American prayer beads or offerings as part of the Santeria religion. But he listens respectfully, asks questions and promises to follow up with the prison chaplain.

“Everybody has a particular issue and so I’ve got to manage my time the best I can while respecting their issues because they are legitimate issues,” he says. “But still I’m being swamped, as it can get overwhelming pretty quickly.”

A retired army sergeant major, combat veteran and former Kennebec County Sheriff, Liberty took the warden job three years ago and has been working ever since to transform the prison “from a place of punishment” to one of “redemption, healing and growth.” Over the past few years, the prisoners have begun planting a vegetable garden, which has provided 5,000 pounds of food so far this year. Recently, Liberty even took his passion for beekeeping into the prison and now it has trained 35 beekeepers. There’s the kennel where inmates who are military veterans train service dogs for disabled veterans on the outside, while others tame dogs for the humane society to make them more adoptable. Trained inmates also operate a hospice to provide comfort to ailing fellow prisoners in their final days. Some inmates take advantage of the degree program through the university. Liberty says his goal is to expand the vocational programs and work with local colleges to put a thousand books in every “pod,” where the inmates live. He says that if the education, enrichment and work training activities are successful, the inmates won’t come back.

“The most important thing we do is public safety — the containment, the structure and the security. But you also provide safety to the community by programming these guys,” he said. “First you identify what brought them here. It’s either mental health, substance abuse, trauma, learning disabilities, poverty, neglect — 99 percent of these guys are all part of that mix, like we all are to varying degrees. So we need to address those things. We’re spending $40 grand a year to house them here. If you’re warehousing people at $40 grand a year, it’s dumb on crime.”

Liberty said the first time he met Martin was while he was teaching a class at the University of Maine at Augusta about restorative justice and his new reforms. As a former guest of the state, Martin didn’t seem convinced.

“He’s looking at me like, ‘Bullshit.’ More warden bullshit,” said Liberty, laughing. “At the end of it he said that he had done a bunch of time there and that’s not the place that he had experienced. He asked if he could take a tour with some of his friends and that’s how we started this thing.”

So with a tiny budget largely funded out of their own pockets, Martin and the Kaniukas had the green light to try out their experiment.

Finding That Connection

When Michael Bailey learned of a program that could certify him as a yoga instructor, he was already sold. For years, the 34-year Lewiston native said his addiction fueled a life of crime, which included convictions for disorderly conduct, fighting, assault and drug possession before he was finally arrested in 2011 for armed robbery. But his anti-social tendencies didn’t end when he arrived in prison, and he spent most of his time locked in solitary confinement. Then one day he discovered a DVD by yin yoga master Travis Eliot and he was hooked.

“We live in an environment that’s hypersensitive,” said Bailey as he sat with his colleagues in the room where they had their first yoga class. “We all eat together, we go to school together, we live in this closed environment together and stress builds up quickly and our bodies absorb that like a sponge — our muscle tissues, our connective tissue, our minds. And yoga is a physical release through the body.... I was violent. I used to act out and do drugs. Now I do yoga. Instead of letting my stress build up to here till I snap and get myself in trouble, I now have the tools that I need to chill myself out.”

When he heard about the Liberation Institute’s offering, he urged his friend Daniel Fortune to sign up. Fortune, who is serving life sentences for his role in a 2008 home invasion and a brutal machete attack that left a father and his 10-year-old daughter critically injured, was skeptical at first. But then he saw that Martin, a man who served time in the same prison, was teaching the class.

“He had just left a few years ago and I didn’t recognize him as someone who had left here,” said Fortune. “His whole aura and the way he carried himself and the way he moved. It was just different.”

The Liberation Institute volunteers began teaching yoga to the group of inmates on the weekends, and then Martin and Piers Kaniuka would come in on Wednesdays to teach meditation and discuss philosophy, psychology and other subjects to the inmates. With the warden’s permission, the group began hosting guest lectures by prominent yoga instructors like Travis Eliot and holding traditional meals of Indian food and other cuisines. Then just days before their graduation last fall, members of the first cohort say they had a transformative experience as they were instructed to describe what they loved about each other.

“This is my man, we’ve known each other for years, but we never sat down and said, ‘I love you,’” Fortune said, motioning to Bailey. “But then a bunch of people started crying. To see another man in prison and know that you might get a bad phone call or a family member and you might see someone crying. But if you start crying you’re going as far away to be by yourself as soon as possible just because that’s like the ultimate vulnerability that will get picked on if it’s exposed. But I know they’ve seen me cry and I’ve seen them cry and it didn’t change. It’s helped us grow. You can’t even put it into words.”

Bailey smiled at the recollection. “I was the first one to talk to you and cracked you right then.”

But it was “happy tears,” added Abdi Awad, who is serving time for a 2011 stabbing in Portland. “Every man in that room was crying and I was okay with it. There’s this thing about ‘Don’t cry in prison. We are tough guys.’ That went out of the window. It was all love. They create that comfortable space where we can let our guards down. We graduated three days later and so when we saw each other again in a group, it was still in the air.”

Awad said that the program has given him a lasting peace and allowed him to become a better Muslim.

“The other day I was talking to a friend of mine in the yard and he was reminiscing about his life on the streets and he said, ‘I remember when I was just relaxing. I had my own apartment and I was going to work.’ I was shocked about the next thing that came out of my mouth when I said, ‘Yo, right now is when I feel like I’m relaxed.’ That was the truth. But then it hit me, ‘Did I really say that the most relaxed I’ve been in my life is in prison?’ And I don’t think I would say that if it wasn’t for the program.”

The key thing, said Fortune, was that the program helped them “want to be loved” in a place where so many are “put out of sight, out of mind.”

“They just kept coming and kept coming and knocking on the door until you have no choice but to let them in and accept that they love you for who you are and that there are things about you that are worth loving,” he said.

And the warden, the inmates said, was allowing them the space to be more than just convicts. Liberty acknowledges that it was a “stretch” to allow such activities, particularly for men with such violent criminal records, but he is quick to add that the inmates earned the privilege by proving that they could handle it. Speaking from his experience as a combat veteran in Iraq, he believes that the men in the cohort have formed a bond, similar to the kind men find in battle. He likens it to the author Sebastian Junger’s theory that people can learn from tribal societies about “loyalty and belonging and the eternal human quest for meaning,” but that modern society makes people feel dispensable.

“And a lot of men, most men here, are tribeless. Everything they’ve ever known, everything they’ve ever loved or care about and has been familiar to them,” said Liberty. “They’re ripped from Lewiston, Gardiner or wherever they’re from and they’re here alone, they don’t know anybody and it’s dog-eat-dog. It’s a feeding frenzy and there’s manipulating. You’ve got to watch your back constantly and it’s just like being in combat. You’ve got to be hyper-vigilant all the time to make sure no one’s taking advantage of you, hurting you or stealing your TV. When you have a shell around like that, around your heart and your soul, it’s hard to grow and expand, and you become violent. So what I feel Liberation Institute did is it helped to erode some of that shell, to drop their guard and trust people, trust in themselves and their tribe and they can survive well. But these guys are not just surviving, they’re thriving in here.”

With one successful class behind it, the Liberation Institute has since started teaching a new certification class and it hopes to raise enough money to keep it going for the foreseeable future. Liberty said that the program has had a “rippling effect” as the graduates have now gone on to teach classes to other inmates throughout the prison.

“It’s about giving back,” said Awad. “As much as it’s changed us, yoga has spread through the prison like a wildfire. It’s everywhere.”

Meanwhile, all of the members of the group have received or are about to receive college degrees and most will eventually leave the prison walls. Twenty-eight-year-old Dustin “Bama” Carpenter will be the first of the group to re-enter society when he is released next year after serving time for a drug charge. The first step, he says, will be to move into sober housing in Portland. But after that, he’s already lined up three places where he’ll be able to teach yoga. He’s also in the process of getting his associate’s degree and has a dream of attending an intensive yoga training school in India.

“I would love to get a bachelor’s in philosophy,” he said. “This has just opened the door to me to say, I have potential and I can do things with my life.”

As Martin recalls, finding community when he was released from prison was critical to his success. So the group is wants to raise the money to open a yoga studio where the former inmates can teach and offer a welcoming place for others coming out of jail or prison.

“What they have with each other is special,” said Liberty. “And what has been really good about it is that they’re spreading that forward in their own separate groups and slowly bringing trust among the men that they’re practicing with now. It’s truly a special thing. They worked hard with a lot of sacrifice. It’s hard to find love in here and those three are bringing love in here.”