The Light Inside: Empowering Incarcerated People Through Meditation

“All of us, corrections officers and incarcerated people – all of us – need to know that finding that softness inside you does not mean that you’re weak. That’s going to be the greatest lesson in our society if we could all learn that.”

Joh jarvis

In October 2023, Thom Knoles participated in a panel discussion at a fundraiser event for The Light Inside, an organization providing Vedic Meditation courses for inmates in prisons in the United States, with plans to operate internationally.

Other panelists included: Joh Jarvis, a Vedic Meditation Initiator and the founder of The Light Inside; Rev. Dr. Michelle Anne Simmons, founder of Why Not Prosper, an organization that provides support for women after they exit the prison system, and a board member of The Light Inside; and Robert Hammond, also a Vedic Meditation Initiator and a board member of The Light Inside, facilitated the discussion.

This episode is a slightly truncated recording of that event, with a short introduction from Joh Jarvis. As well as reflections on Thom’s own experiences working in prisons, we hear about the impact The Light Inside is having on prisoners and everyone else whose lives they touch.

The Light Inside website:

Why Not Prosper website: Compassion Prison Project website:

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Episode Highlights


Setting the Context



Step Inside the Circle






Collective Responsibility for Change



Unlocking Baseline Happiness for World Peace



From Incarceration to Inner Peace



Starting The Light Inside



Teaching in Rikers Island



Purpose and Vision of The Light Inside



Meditation in Rikers Island



Spiritual Alignment of Reverend Michelle to The Light Inside



Transformative Experience in Jail



From Resentment to Revelation



Meditation as a Tool for Recovery and Personal Growth



Beyond Therapies: The Impact of Self-Forgiveness and Meditation



Teaching Tools for a New Path



Teaching Meditation in the Toughest Jails



Passing the Test



Freedom Behind Bars



Transforming Lives in San Quentin



Meditation’s Impact on Rival Gangs



Changes in Inmates Doing Meditation



Challenges and Transformations in Rikers Island



“I Sound Less Angry.”



Power of Leadership in Culture Change



Culture Change in the Prison



Strategic Teaching: Engaging Prison Guards to Impact Inmates



Mental Health in Prisons



Meditation as a Coping Mechanism



Supporting The Light Inside



Spreading the Light



A Different Workplace



Tenderness Amongst Violence and Chaos


Jai Guru Deva


The Light Inside: Empowering Incarcerated People Through Meditation

[00:45] Setting the Context

Joh Jarvis: Hi there.

My name is Joh Jarvis. I’m the founder and executive director of The Light Inside, which takes meditation training into correctional facilities. I’m also a Vedic Meditation initiator.

I’m here to introduce this special episode of the Vedic Worldview, which is an edited recording of a public event held in New York City on October the 11th, 2023. The event was a panel discussion with myself, Thom Knoles, and Reverend Michelle Simmons, who is a Light Inside board member and the founder of Why Not Prosper, a Philadelphia organization which provides housing and other services for formerly incarcerated women. The host of the event is Robert Hammond, who is also a Light Inside board member and Vedic Meditation initiator.

So, to set the context, before the panel discussion began, we played a short video which demonstrates the extent of challenges faced by incarcerated people well before they enter a correctional facility.

The video was created by the Compassion Prison Project, which runs events called Compassion Trauma Circles, where incarcerated people are invited to respond to questions about their childhood by taking steps inside a circle.

I’ll describe the video so when you’re listening to the questions, you’ll understand what’s happening.

So, in February 2020, 235 men gathered in a maximum security prison yard in California to learn something about themselves. Wearing all blue, they stood in a huge circle spanning right across the yard surrounding the host, who has a microphone.

As the host begins to speak, the men respond by taking a step inwards. As the circle becomes smaller with each question, the camera focuses on individual faces. You see the vulnerability, the sadness, the grief. You understand, as each man understands, how trauma has deeply affected his life. By the end, the circle has shrunk to almost half its original size.

The Light Inside works with incarcerated people, like in this video, teaching Vedic Meditation, a powerful way to systematically remove stress from the nervous system, helping heal deeply embedded trauma.

If you’d like to find out more about The Light Inside or even to make a contribution to the work we’re doing, please visit our website,, or follow the link in the show notes.

[03:25] Step Inside the Circle

Facilitator: It’s time now, everyone. We’re going to do the Compassion Trauma Circle. Is everyone ready to face their past with compassion? Is that a yes? Yes.

While you were growing up, during your first 18 years of life, if a parent or other adult in the household often or very often would swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you, step inside the circle.

If a parent or other adult in the household, often or very often, pushed, grabbed, slapped, or threw something at you, step inside the circle. If a parent or other adult in the household, often or very often, ever hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured, step inside the circle.

If you often felt that no one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special, step inside the circle. If your family lived in extreme poverty, step inside the circle.

Step inside the circle. Step inside the circle. Step inside the circle.

[04:52] Introductions

Robbie Hammond: Okay, I know a lot of y’all, but I’m Robbie Hammond. Good to see so many of y’all here. I want um, maybe Before we talk about The Light Inside, I’d also, like so many of my students, have said it’s been so hard to meditate this week when they feel like they’ve needed it the most because of all the um, violence, that’s happening out in the world and I think it is related to what we’re going to talk about today.

So, but first, Thom Knoles, who’s the one that taught me to teach meditation, I met him back in 2009. He’s taught over thousands and thousands of people. He’s also taught in prison here in the U. S. and in Australia. And the Rev. Michelle Simmons, who started an amazing organization that helps formerly incarcerated women get back into society. She was herself formerly incarcerated.

Rev. Dr. Michelle Anne Simmons: That’s right.

Robbie Hammond: I’d heard about her work in Philadelphia, written three inspiring books. And you were one of the reasons when she asked me to join the board, I was like, Oh, okay. She’s done it. I’ll get on board. So maybe just to touch on, because I think it’s so affecting a lot of people, directly, personally, or in their families, you know, what’s happening in the world right now and how do, um, when people come to you with… how do you address that or how do you go about and try to live your regular lives?

[06:12] Collective Responsibility for Change

Thom Knoles: I think that it’s a mistake for any of us to wait for somebody else to fix it. And what are the governments doing about it? What are the social groups doing about it? What are the ambassadors doing about it? What’s the military doing about it?

The fact is that the Collective Consciousness is something that we all plug into, and we create it, each one of us. If we have an angry thought, a violent thought, this is our contribution to the violence that’s in the atmosphere, and there’s a saturation point. After a certain saturation point, what happens is the violence that’s in the atmosphere turns into collective violence or social violence or creation of outbursts.

And so sometimes we feel helpless because we’ve indoctrinated ourselves to think that somebody else has to fix it, and it’s a terrible thing that somebody else has to fix and how terrible it all is. Whose side should I take? And all of that.

And the fact is we need to do something ourselves and radiate into the collective atmosphere something different. When we see terrible news, it is an instruction to us to create in ourselves and in our own lives the opposite of that, and to bring that into the atmosphere.

And I’m not saying don’t be activist. I’m not saying that. You can be activist, but being activist alone is not going to change a giant collective.

[08:09] Unlocking Baseline Happiness for World Peace

Thom Knoles: The problem with world peace is the problem of world’s magnitude, eight billion people. And how do you get eight billion people to agree on a thing? If millions of people were to discover how to get to baseline happiness.

Baseline happiness means I’m happy inside because I can experience my deep inner connection on that level of Being with the whole evolutionary force of The Universe. I can feel it.

And so I have baseline happiness. My happiness is not waiting for government change. My happiness is not waiting for me to acquire something. My happiness is not waiting for somebody else to behave differently.

I think of the world as a forest. If you want a forest to be green, all the individual trees have to be green. You can’t have mostly brown trees all hiding behind one green one. You have to have green trees if you want a green forest.

Individuals need to begin accessing that source of peace inside and then radiate that to the world.

[09:26] From Incarceration to Inner Peace

Robbie Hammond: Reverend?

Rev. Dr. Michelle Anne Simmons: Oh, thank you. Thank you for sharing all you share. I feel his energy so strong. And I just, um, I just, um.

What’s coming up for me about what you just shared was that I absolutely got into that spiritual awakening myself. You know, I was incarcerated, I was abused as a child, and all of that was just happening. And it’s just some about right now where I’m at is that I know I create my reality. So what, every thought I think is going somewhere. So I’m bearing witness to what you said about it’s too many of us thinking violence and thinking anger and thinking this so that’s why it’s exploding in other places.

And the next thing that’s coming up for me is where I’m at now is that I don’t believe that I’m broke. And when I support the women in prison now, I tell them, you’re not broke. There’s not a fixing that needs to happen. That’s what my belief is. What needs to happen is what do you want to experience? And then support them in achieving that experience. And releasing the past, and allowing just more peace to come forth.

And the last thing I mention about what you said was that inner peace thing. Oh, it’s so important. It’s so important, and that’s what meditation does. It just quiets you down.

What I want to experience now is just inner peace. That’s the most important thing. Even more important than money. Somebody help me, you know what I mean? Because if I got inner peace and joy, the dollars will flow, okay? So, I don’t know, that’s what with my sharing. I just had to, like, I felt you strong.

Amen. Thank you. Yeah.

[11:06] Starting The Light Inside

Robbie Hammond: So, now almost all of you know, Joh, that’s the reason that we’re here tonight. She’s the one that has started this great initiative. And Joh, I think it’d be helpful just give people a little bit of an overview, why you started this and what is it? What are we here supporting?

Joh Jarvis: Sure. So, I started The Light Inside probably four years ago, but before that, I’d begun teaching in Riker’s Island Jail. I began teaching there. I’m a meditation teacher. And I had, I just really wanted to teach incarcerated people.

The main reason for that was that I was previously a journalist, and as a journalist, I’d become very interested in incarceration. I’d written a number of stories about incarcerated people, and, in fact, the high number of um, Aboriginal people who are incarcerated in Australia. And that just grew an interest in incarceration, and the craziness of it actually grew in me.

And then, when I began to meditate, I realized that if I was incarcerated, I would want this. And then, when I became a teacher, it just seemed an obvious thing to do. I needed to learn. I needed to know how to go into jails and to give people, at least give them the opportunity to learn this technique.

So yeah, that’s what I started to do. I first started working in Rikers Island in 2000… and it should be just straight on the top of my tongue. 2020, just before the pandemic, I worked with men in maximum security.

[12:35] Teaching in Rikers Island

Robbie Hammond: You don’t just walk into Rikers Island. I mean, it’s not like, yes, I like the idea of teaching in prison, but I haven’t done anything. Like, what? Just because I’m actually curious, I didn’t know how you got in Rikers Island.

Joh Jarvis: Okay, you’re right. It’s not, it’s not, it’s not a straightforward thing. Look, originally, I applied to the Department of Correction and asked if I could teach there. They said they weren’t going to pay me to do that. So then it was like, okay, so how do I do it? And they said you have to volunteer. So I applied, yeah. That was essentially how you get into so many of the prisons, it would appear.

So, I did that, but then they never contacted me, so I started hassling them, and I’ll tell you a funny story, actually. So, I hadn’t heard from them. I rang them a number of times, they finally, I finally said, “Hang on a minute, tell me what your process is.” And they explained to me, “Well, all the applications go to a guy called George.”

So I said, “Put me through to George.” So I got through to George, and I said, “George, where’s my application?”

And he said, “I’ve got it here. You’re ready for, you’re going to be with men and maximum security.”

And I said, “Oh, I applied to teach women.”

And he said, “Oh, I’ll send it to the women’s.”

And I said, “Stop. No, don’t. Leave it right there. So that was how I ended up in Rikers Island in maximum security with men. I’d actually asked to teach women because I thought I would have more affinity with the women, but I ended up with men in maximum security. Interesting.

[13:57] Purpose and Vision of The Light Inside

Robbie Hammond: And then what is The Light Inside? What are you trying to do? Besides you, you’ve been doing this for several years. What, what do you, where do you want it to go?

Joh Jarvis: Yeah. Thank you. So it’s one thing to think that meditation is good for people. It’s a whole other thing for people to think meditation is good for them. And you have to test it.

So I went into Rikers Island, and these men did want to learn to meditate. So I would go into a housing unit, I would speak to, often about 20 to 30 men, and I would explain what I would do. About 20 would sign up.

Then, I would end up with about 10 in the class because there’s a whole process by which the DOC, the department, decides whether or not somebody is allowed to take a program. So I’d end up with about 10 in the class, and I began to, I mean, not only did they want to learn, they took to it really well.

So, as a meditation teacher, what you will notice if somebody is meditating correctly is one: are they asking the right questions? Are they indicating to you that they know what they’re doing? And, or, yeah, basically, so that was happening.

[14:59] Meditation in Rikers Island

Joh Jarvis: And the other thing was often just people start to, they look like, they kind of start to go like this when they’re meditating. And this is what all the men were doing. And then they would come back to the class.

And so, once that started to happen, it was so inspiring to me that I could go into a place give something to someone that they actually wanted. I thought, “Well, I have to make this an organization, and we need to make it grow. We need to get other teachers in to support this work.” So that’s how The Light Inside began. Yeah.

And I’ve also been to Philadelphia and worked with Reverend Michelle’s Why Not Prosper, fantastic organization which we’ve discussed. So, I worked with some formerly incarcerated women there, and we plan to expand that work.

 So now what we’re doing is we want to expand the program in Rikers Island. So I’m able to teach on my own, probably 15 at a time. We want to teach many more people in Rikers Island. We want to make it available to the women in Rikers Island, to the men in the lower security parts of the prison or the jail, I should say.

And then we want to expand to other prisons outside of New York. So this is the plan, to go outside of New York.

There is some interest from some other prisons who’ve heard the work that The Light Inside is doing in Rikers Island. So, yeah, these are the next steps. That’s really why we’re raising money because we need to pay teachers.

It’s fine for me to be a volunteer in the beginning, but it’s not sustainable. And certainly my colleagues, we need to pay them to support this work.

[16:29] Spiritual Alignment of Reverend Michelle to The Light Inside

Robbie Hammond: Reverend, why were you interested? What appealed to you about what she was doing?

Rev. Dr. Michelle Anne Simmons: Well, first, Joh, thank you so much. You know, it’s individuals like you who come into the jail and really come with a heart to see us grow and win, and when I say us, you know, I’m formerly incarcerated.

 So thank you for doing that.

And then the second thing is that this is what this population need. Okay. And so, me being on a journey of recovery and healing when Joh called, I was like, yes, yes, because I already had an inkling or a little spiritual awakening, I had.

In jail for me, what happened was I hated God when I went to jail. I had been raped, molested, drove off a cliff, lost my children, all of that. And so the bottom line was when I got to jail, I really didn’t like God. And I had a celly who was Susan Atkins. She was a murderer. She was one of the Folger women with the Folgers. I was too young to know the story, but when I got in that cell, she was in her rockin’ chair rockin’, talking about Jesus.

And I was like, okay. She telling me about God and all of this, and I was like this, I don’t know what, I hear nothing about no God. Okay, back at CIW, California Institution of Women, she had a little fish tank and a rocking chair.

[17:41] Transformative Experience in Jail

Rev. Dr. Michelle Anne Simmons: So anyway, she started telling me about God. And I didn’t like him. So anyway, she said, “Just try it, go to the chapel with me.”

It was a circle in jail where they got high and all this stuff. I hung out at the circle. Okay. I was like, I’m not going to the chapel.

For whatever reason, I ended up at the chapel. And, this lady came and share how she was molested, and how her family had did it, and how she didn’t never tell nobody because, at that time, I had never disclosed it. My abuse was started at 12. I went to jail at 27. So I had never shared it with nobody. I was keeping it secret all this time, doing abuse and everything.

And so, anyway, I started getting that spiritual awakening. I went to the jail that lady shared, and she was like, “Somebody want to know God, know Jesus?”

I was like, “I do.” And, and then I started, she said, “Go back to your cell and just call his name and ask him for something.”

And so I was like, “Okay, God. First, I want to know, you real?” And then I just stayed there and prayed and prayed on my knees, and I got up and looked out the wick. It’s a little thin wick in the door of a cell. And I looked out, and the place just seemed so bright. And I was like, there is a God.

[18:50] From Resentment to Revelation

Rev. Dr. Michelle Anne Simmons: And so, I just felt as different, and when I got up off my knees or whatever. And so, I think that was my point. Somebody came up and asked me, “When did you cross over?” I know that was when I first felt God.

 But the bottom line was the spiritual awakening. I didn’t know what I needed, but I knew that I had begun to feel something. Now, this was probably when I had 21 years clean when I met Joh. I have 24 years clean now.

But when Joh came, I was already wide open. And see, I already knew that there was something more higher than me, and I started learning about tools and skills to keep my recovery and stay centered. So meditation had came up a lot.

And so, I never thought I could do it right. It wasn’t until Joh came in, she said it’s not really right. So I always thought because the little puppy was running across my mind, I wasn’t doing it right. I thought because my mind went to everything I had to do, I wasn’t doing it right.

But when she was like, “Well, just let the mind do what it’s supposed to do.” And then the mantra, and I would get there, and I’d be sweet.

[19:53] Meditation as a Tool for Recovery and Personal Growth

Rev. Dr. Michelle Anne Simmons: So once I experienced it, and that’s what I do in my program, is for women coming from prison. So I’m in the jail working with them, and then when they release, if they don’t have nowhere to go home to, they could come to the house.

And we have three locations there, so the women, they don’t know they don’t know. That’s what’s going on. So they don’t even know like I didn’t even know that I didn’t know. And what that mean is that they, you gotta, you have to introduce them to things.

And so after it put me to sleep, okay, I said this could really be helpful because they got a life full of trauma and abuse and stuff. And really they, they stuck in that place right there. You know what I mean, Thom?

And so this is support them to move forward and get that grounding. So that’s how I got started. And that’s what I liked about it because never, out of all the meditations I’ve been doing, I really felt like I was successful in it.

And then I went on to Australia with Joh when she had a retreat there, and then I learned how to round. And so everything I learned, I bring it back to the women.

People think of the women the formerly incarcerated population as just abstract people. No, they’re just like you, you, and you. We probably all got some family that been locked up or did some stuff. Okay, maybe not everybody, but we…

[21:09] Beyond Therapies: The Impact of Self-Forgiveness and Meditation

Rev. Dr. Michelle Anne Simmons: The bottom line is they’re human beings. I don’t look like I used to go to Macy’s and steal all the bikes off the rack, and take them to my apartment, and have a yard sale. But I did. And I went to jail for receiving stolen property. I wanted to get one more that night.

And so, so they’re not these abstract people. They’re human beings. And they just need the skills and the tools. And so, what’s Joh doing is really going to help people to their next level. I’m a master-level therapist. And it ain’t even about no modalities, y’all. It ain’t no Gazalt and CBT and DBT. You could do all those modalities in the world, but until the person start embracing themselves and forgiving themselves and dipping into that and learning how to center themselves with this meditation does, then they well on their way. And that’s what I learned.

And I, and when, so when Joh came to say, “Hey, can I do this here?” I said, “Absolutely. Absolutely you can, because they don’t know, they don’t know.”

And I’ll give you an example about that one more time. When they come in, most of them have been homeless, abused, same type of story like mine .

[22:14] Teaching Tools for a New Path

Rev. Dr. Michelle Anne Simmons: And they trying to set a new path. And I’ll say, “Come on, ladies, I need to collect everybody’s social. We about to do credit checks because we’re about to have a homebuyers class. And we’re gonna do credit and we’re gonna do debt.”

They be like, “Nah, Rev, you don’t need to get my social. I, I just want me a room.” You know what I mean? They don’t know, they don’t know. So I had to say, “Girl, if you don’t write that social security number down, so we could get everybody credit checking and see what your credit score is and start to get you in this program,” that’s what they don’t know.

And then afterwards, we got eight of them signed up for Habitat for their own home. But it was that part about getting they social. They don’t know, they don’t know. And so that’s why having teachers like Joh come and teach them. And I’ll take it to the prisons because the prison really is a setup for saving people.

It seemed like the worst place, but prison was my worst story and my best because it was horrible. I was far from home. I was ended in jail. I didn’t mean. I got two pair of panties and two bras, and that’s all I got for the whole time.

Because I had burnt my mother and burnt my father and burnt everybody, nobody would pick up my call or send me nothing, so I was indigent. And I was really open and pliable at that time, and that’s how they are.

And this is a great time to go in there, in that state, and give them these tools and skills. Because like Thom said, you gotta be your first best teacher, you gotta be your number one best cheerleader. I gotta be my number one best cheerleader.

And I’m so glad I learned that and embraced that. And this is the things that meditation will teach them. So no matter what happens, no matter what comes, they can take a breath and breathe.

[23:58] Teaching Meditation in the Toughest Jails

Robbie Hammond: What were your experiences teaching? And why did you do it?

Thom Knoles: Well, going back before a lot of people in this room were born, but the late 70s, one of the state governments in Australia, in New South Wales, had appointed a very kind of enlightened guy, Tony Vinson, professor of social work, as the director, chairman of the corrective services. Corrective services. What do we call it in Australia?

Department of Corrections or a commission… Yeah, it was corrective services commission.

I lived in Australia for a long time. Australia was a penal colony to start with. Well, excuse me, indigenous people lived there, and then, exactly, and then the British came and turned it into a giant prison.

And at that time, prior to Dr. Vinson, jails in Australia, in my opinion, still held the attitude that you were in prison to be punished for whatever it was you did. It wasn’t about rehabilitation or preparing you for going back into society if you ever got paroled.

It was about you’re in there to be punished. And they were doing it proper. They were really socking it to the inmates. And it was a place of great fear-based administration.

Dr. Vinson came in and said he wanted to revolutionize all this. And he had heard about me on the grapevine that I was a meditation teacher who’d taught thousands of people. I taught thousands of people way back then.

[25:47] Passing the Test

Thom Knoles: And he asked me if he could come in and take my course to see what it was all about, and I taught him to meditate. And he said, “Are you willing to go into the toughest prison in the country?” Which was Goulburn Gaol.

And I said, “Yes.”

He said, “Alright, I’ll go with you. I’m the commissioner now. They have to do what I say.”

And we went to Goulburn Gaol, a place that was a notorious maximum security, supermax security jail. And in that jail, there was one particular prisoner named Peter Schneidas. You can look this up.

Peter was placed inside of a cell that was carved out of the ground in the basement of the prison with a bulletproof glass ceiling over it that guards walked around on. And he’d killed some people, and was a notoriously violent man.

The governor of the jail, Mr. Rootley, said to me, “I’ll let you teach anywhere in this jail if you can go down in that pit and convince him to learn to meditate.”

So I went, and he, the guards had rifles pointed at him with rubber bullets. They opened up the trap door and lowered the ladder. Peter had been down there defecating and throwing the feces at the guards, on the glass, that were walking above him. So it was pretty smelly down there.

And I had to descend the ladder. This was my initial experience teaching in a prison. And he said, “What are you doing here?”

And I said, “I, you know, If I can teach you to meditate, and if you’ll agree, they’re going to let me teach everybody in the jail.”

And he said, “All right. I’ll learn. If it’s going to help everybody in the jail learn to meditate, I’ll learn. I’m ready. Start teaching.”

So, I taught him to meditate, and it had a fantastic effect on him. And you know, I think the governor of the jail, I’d passed his test, went into the scariest place in the prison.

In Australia, they use the word jail and prison interchangeably, and they spell jail differently. G-A-O-L, gaol. It’s an interesting Commonwealth spelling. Still to this day? Yes. Yeah.

And so, I began teaching at Goulburn Gaol, and then that was such a success. Dr. Vinson, the commissioner, asked me to go to other jails. Long Bay, the largest jail in the Sydney area, central industrial prison.

And then to the next state down, Victoria, to a prison that was called Pentridge. It’s closed now. But then to its successor prison, Jika Jika. And even the name Jika Jika strikes fear into the heart of anybody who’s going to be going there. “Going to Jika Jika, mate.”

[28:52] Freedom Behind Bars

Thom Knoles: And after building some credibility as a prison’s meditation instructor, I had an organization called Freedom Behind Bars. And I like The Light Inside better. I like the name Light Inside better. But we called it Freedom Behind Bars.

I then got in contact with prison governors in the United States. The most notorious prison at that time was Folsom and Maximum Security Prison in California, state prison. Then I went to Lompoc and taught there, and I went to my favorite jail of all San Quentin.

I love San Quentin because I was one of the first jails where I was able to get the governor of the prison to lock me in for two weeks because, I found that the inmates didn’t trust the consultants who were coming in, the psychologists and other people who were doing great work, but they’d leave at five o’clock.

And at night, when those big old steel doors at San Quentin would swing close and bang, you could hear a collective “Ohhh” of hundreds of inmates. That was the end of it for the night.

When they realized that I had willingly taken a cell in the place, and you’re allowed to have one book, and I had my book, my book from my teacher Maharishi. And I was sitting in there and the door closed.

[30:26] Transforming Lives in San Quentin

Thom Knoles: And I thought this reminds me of a cave that I used to sit in in the Himalayas in India. It’s in a different environment, just outside of San Quentin. It’s nice and quiet in here. And I’m just gonna, this is going to be my meditation cave.

And the next morning, when the doors opened and shower time and meal time and I started assembling groups in the library to learn to meditate, and it was fantastic. It was a fantastic experience.

One of the experiences I had was there were two rival motorcycle gangs who some judge had thought that it was a clever idea to incarcerate them both, they’d murdered each other’s mates and friends and so on, to incarcerate both of them, both gangs, in the same maximum security jail for life.

Some of them had several life sentences and consecutive life sentences they had to serve. This was in Australia, not in San Quentin. And you might remember the gangs called the Banditos and the Comancheros. Yes. And they were a notorious, violent bike gang that had a big shootout.

Anyway, I had the leaders of the Banditos and Comancheros in the library. I taught everyone to meditate individually, taught them their mantras. And then I had to say to the whole group, “Alright, let’s meditate.”

And they all sat, and they were kind of looking at each other like this, “I’m going to close my eyes in the room with that guy.”

[32:06] Meditation’s Impact on Rival Gangs

Thom Knoles: And I remember one of them telling me that you could arrange a killing in that jail for a packet of cigarettes. If you wanted somebody killed, it cost you a pack of cigarettes, and they could arrange it. That’s how violent it was.

And I finished the group meditation, and afterwards, everyone kind of opened their eyes and stretched a little, and I said, “Any comments or questions?”

And the leader of the Comancheros stood up and said, “This really must work because there’s no way under any other circumstances I’d be in a room with that guy, pointing at his rival, with my eyes closed.”

And that guy jumped up, and he said, “Same brother.”

And they looked at each other, and they embraced and hugged. They had killed each other’s friends. And they embraced and hugged in there. That was straight after a meditation. These two guys who had sworn blood oaths to kill each other if they could possibly do it.

That’s the power of meditation. It was an amazing experience. I have a thousand stories I could tell you, but it would eat up the whole night.

Robbie Hammond: I think what we wanted to do is also just open it up to you , so you can ask any of them questions of where you want to take it. Yep?

[33:25] Changes in Inmates Doing Meditation

Guest: I’d just be curious for the prisoners, inmates that you taught if you had a sense as to what distinguished them in terms of their initial interest to sign up. I think you said there were thirty at first among, I presume, a large number. And I guess maybe more importantly, what sort of feedback have you gotten from them in terms of what, how they’ve experienced this meditation, what they feel it’s done for them, why they continue to do it , and and then lastly, maybe, I don’t know how well you know them, but if you yourself notice changes.

Joh Jarvis: Thank you. There’s a few questions there. The first one, I’ll address the first one first. It’s difficult for me to tell what distinguishes, what would encourage one person to do it and another person not to. But one thing, and I have learned, is that, and this probably answers the third question as well, I think, and maybe even the second one.

So, I’m just going to go with this example. There’s a guy that I’m, so it’s very difficult to keep track of people in Rikers Island. Rikers Island is a jail, which means that people are there for a period of time until they’re sent until they’re sentenced, and so I might teach someone meditation and then find that they’ve moved to a different housing unit, a different part of Riker’s Island or that, in fact, they’re off the island.

[34:41] Challenges and Transformations in Rikers Island

Joh Jarvis: However, there are a few I keep in, have been able to keep in touch with. One of them is a guy called Gerson. And he said to me, so I go, as I described before, I go into the housing units to give this talk, we call it an intro talk, in prison they call it recruitment, I don’t know what, they just say, Joh, is going in for recruitment. So, so I go in there, and I’m saying, “Oh, come and hear about meditation.”

This guy told me that he heard them saying, “Meditation teacher is here. The meditation teacher is here.” And he said, “The first time you came in, I just ignored it.” He said, “I didn’t want that.”

So then, apparently, the second time I went in, which was quite a few months later, he said, “I thought, I might try that.” So, who knows why, but he was ready in that moment. Now, this response, I think, this part relates to the second and third part of your question.

I think, so what I’ve noticed in him is that, I noticed initially he was quite different from some of the others. Some of them have, some, as in all of us actually, have a very immediate response to meditation. We can feel quite relaxed quite quickly. We can feel less anger and a whole lot of things.

[35:45] “I Sound Less Angry.”

Joh Jarvis: He didn’t feel any of that, actually. He was resistant. Actually, he wasn’t resistant to doing it, but he found his body wasn’t giving him the response that he wanted, but yet he just kept coming to do it. There was something in him that said, there’s something in this that’s right.

So eventually I became curious. I’m like, “Why are you doing this? It doesn’t sound like you.” And he said, he finally said, “I feel more relaxed.” He said, “I feel more relaxed. I’m not so angry anymore.” He said, “But the anger is coming out in the meditation.” And he said, “That’s hard.”

And I said, “But it’s got to come out. It’s embedded in your physiology.” These feelings, these emotions, these things, they embed themselves in the physiology.” And it was coming out and it was making him angry and he didn’t like that, but yet he kept going.

Now he, Gerson’s been meditating now for, I think, six months. And, he seems to be doing really well. And he will say to me things like, “Oh, it’s not doing anything.” But yet, he’s doing it twice a day, never misses a day. And when I come in, he’s I would say he’s glowing.

And you can’t tell someone often that they’re better, but if anyone in here, those people in here who meditate, you’ll know that others will tell you that you’re doing well. And so, sometimes I’ll say, “You seem kind of happier.” And he says, “My mom says I sound less angry.” So, that’s, that’s some of the feedback that I’m getting.

[37:11] Power of Leadership in Culture Change

Guest: This is for all three of you, but Joh you had alluded to before, one of the challenges to even getting started was, like, that DOC has to essentially approve your application and actually reach out to you.

Have any of you, in your years of doing this work, have you observed any culture change with facility staff, with the guards, as they witness and observe people that are in their custody, doing this personal development? Have you seen any culture change from staff? 

Rev. Dr. Michelle Anne Simmons: So I had a similar story to Joh when I first got the vision when I came home from prison to open Why Not Prosper. I had the vision to go in, so I started banging on the DOC door too.

And I went in, I always said that I just want to go in and I was so grateful to be clean and saved. I want to just help the women.

So, I said I’ll go in for free. For 10 years my organization, my organization has been open 23. The first 10 years, I went for free. I didn’t get a salary from anybody. It was my life’s calling. And then after a while, I did pull over the commissioner, we call him the secretary and say, “Listen, can you find me a salary now, okay?”

And so, this day, right here currently, the prison pays my salary and has been paying my salary for the last six years. But I do see a little change in the guards. They’re still arrogant. And they could be nasty; they’re individuals, too. But the women, the culture of the DOC changes whenever the leadership change.

So whenever the city changes mayors, the mayor get to pick a new commissioner of prisons and of police and so forth. So even if we got a good commissioner working with us, like the DOC had a good commissioner that just left, then the leadership allow us to do a little bit more. Okay.

So we don’t know who the new commissioner going to be now, and we might have a commissioner that say no more programs in the jail. Or you might have a commissioner like the one you have, which I would love to meet him and say, come on, bring all the programs you want. And then that commissioner it’s his job to teach his upper-tier staff about the culture and treating the inmates nice if you would. I don’t like to call them inmates, but the people behind the wall.

[39:27] Culture Change in the Prison

Rev. Dr. Michelle Anne Simmons: So your question was about culture. Do I see a change? It’s all in the leadership. And us as teachers or providers ’cause I’m not currently teaching it, but me as a provider, I have to tell the COs what I want, what I expect. I check ’em. We were doing the event the other day in the jail, not the other day, but we do a lotta care package. We give it to the women. So we make these love bags. And so it’s 300 women, everybody gets a bag, everybody gets a meal, and I go cell to cell, I mean block to block. And there was one CO, “Snatch and grab, snatch and grab, get your bag and go, keep moving.”

And I said, “Excuse me miss, could you stop being so hype like that? Could you please let these people get their bag, these women, okay, and get their meal and calm down?” So I, as a provider, I felt in that moment to check her, for lack of better words, like stop it.

And then I got a good relationship with the commissioner. So I was like, “Your staff was tripping down there.” And then she won’t be on none of my days no more, but you have to… cause I tell people in a minute, stop that, or you know, I’m really verbal. But that’s to answer your question, simply put. It’s our responsibility to shift that dynamic. I know when I’m doing a group or whatever, like I just said, some COs I don’t want there. Because that energy they bring in there is not conducive to what we’re trying to support the population with.

[40:50] Strategic Teaching: Engaging Prison Guards to Impact Inmates

Thom Knoles: I have a comment to your question. I learned pretty early in the piece, in my prison work, that when I was going to a new prison, the antagonists were going to be the prison guards because even though the boss said I could teach meditation to the incarcerated people in there, the prison guards were very often resistant or not all that cooperative or they made fun of it.

So then I thought, then I thought, “Well, maybe, instead of approaching the incarcerated people first, I should go to the prison officers’ union, and not even make it sound like it was a program for inmates.” That I was going to make a program for the prison officers’ union.

And I went and started talking to them about you guys, they were all men in those days, have such stressful jobs, and we have this fabulous program. We can even get the union to pay for it and install meditation with you. And in at least three prisons, I got into the prison and got to the inmate population easily because I had got the prison officers meditating.

 And then they would say to me at some point, “You know, there’s a couple of inmates who would really benefit from this.”

And I said, “Really? You think it would work if I taught it to you?” He backdoored them..

“You think it would work if I taught it to the inmates?”

“Yeah, I think so.” And then they would all agree? Yes. You know, Yes.

I said, “Well, look, if you can get on a, just a hands up basis, a few people who you think would like to learn it, we, we can give it a try.” And that was, like you said, I was backdooring them.

And that ended up becoming my modus operandi to go to prison guards first and then get the prison guards to suggest to me that I should start teaching the incarcerated people in their jail or their prison.

And it worked really well. It worked really well ’cause then I had people on the inside who were looking out for me and looking out for my program, and they were kind of busking for me. It was just simple psychology, but it worked in my case. In those days, in those particular settings, it worked.

[43:15] Mental Health in Prisons

Joh Jarvis: I’ve actually just been to a corrections officer’s conference in, it happened to be in South Carolina, and it, I, I learned that they, that the, the corrections officers at this conference are very concerned about their own mental health, and they recognize that it has an impact on the people that they look after, well, that they’re overseeing.

So, in this conference, there was definitely a recognition of the fact that their mental health affects the people that they look after. And I mean, I think quite rightly they’re concerned about their mental health, and they indicated an interest in meditation and I feel like there’s certainly a change occurring.

I think we know in the Western world, this is becoming a thing that people are recognising that mental health is an important aspect of ourselves. That we need to pay attention to it. And this is even reaching some of the most resistant parts of humanity, resistant only because they’re there too, not only because but they’re men.

So, men are resistant to looking after their mental health, generally, and then if you, if you’re a man who has to be tough, and if you’re a man who has to oversee in sometimes, you’re surrounded by violence in order to, and you think that you’ve got to be tough and violent to oversee somebody else, you’re not going to be looking after your inner needs.

So all of us, and particularly people who are corrections officers, need to understand, and the incarcerated people as well, all of us need to know that finding that softness inside you does not mean that you’re weak. That’s going to be the greatest lesson in our society if we could all learn that.

And so, yeah, this really affects corrections officers, and I really, I feel for them. I really feel for them. I think they’ve got a really tough job. I mean, I hear everything, and I see it myself.

[45:02] Meditation as a Coping Mechanism

Rev. Dr. Michelle Anne Simmons: It is a tough job, but my thinking is it’s tough; like you just said, if she say it’s tough, it’s tough, you understand. And if I don’t say it, nothing’s tough, so it’s just going to take diligence, okay. And that’s my plea to everybody in the room as a board member: y’all see the work before us.

We’ve already discussed tonight how powerful this could be. There’s a whole plethora of people that could benefit right now. We’re talking about the formerly incarcerated, so I want everybody to go back and talk about what you’re going to put on your line item, your budget, okay? For The Light Inside, because it’s going to take work, and we have not because we ask not, right?

And so that’s really, really important. And I’m not scared to ask about any money. So when money start talking, I say, “Shut up money, okay? Let me help these people, okay?” Do you get that? That’s good right there, ain’t it?

Cause money will say, “Oh, we gotta pay this. Oh, we gotta pay that. Oh, we gotta go to the Chinese store. Oh, we gotta go to Target.” Money will start telling you all what it gotta do. But listen, you understand me?

[46:06] Supporting The Light Inside

Rev. Dr. Michelle Anne Simmons: But listen. When we leave here today, I really want y’all to go. This is what we’re here for, a fundraiser. And Joh didn’t tell me to say this, okay, but I’m saying we really got a whole plethora of people to support and meditation is our role in to help our community, to help this population, to rebuild families, to rebuild bridges, it starts with that one individual, and the women is really important because girls rule the world, right? Okay.

And so, helping the mothers, it’s support, and the children, and so it’s a big line that will go across, and it can be knit quite nicely, with the support of us all. It really gotta be the support. Joh is committed. And that’s what you need, a committed person with, with, with the money is not the main thing, but we need you know, money to answer everything, okay?

And so we got a whole big society out there to teach meditation. We got to get our thousands like Mr. Thom right here.

Robbie Hammond: So a lot of y’all already made a gift. Yeah. If you feel inspired, it really does make a difference.

If you would think about making another gift, I will go home and make another gift just because you know, hearing it, and hearing it from you all, it’s just very moving.

[47:24] Spreading the Light

Robbie Hammond: And again, to Thom’s point about what can we actually do? This is something, I mean, we can do our own meditation twice a day. This is something we can do that really makes a big difference.

So the other thing that we need is other donors. So, telling your friends about this and passing it along organizations that you think might want to support or foundations, another way to help. Joh, what else do you need from people?

Joh Jarvis: I want everyone to know about, as many people as possible, to know about the organization. So I just would…

Yeah, I want them to know about The Light Inside.

Rev. Dr. Michelle Anne Simmons: Say it over and over. The Light Inside. The Light Inside. You people got hear seven times. The Light Inside. You got to say it before they get it good in they soul.

Joh Jarvis: So yeah, it would be great if you, if you share the email that I, everybody will receive an email after this. You’ll also receive a copy of the video that we, that Billy is creating and if you can, forward that to somebody else and encourage them. Tell them it’s great. Tell them how important it is.

Robbie Hammond: Sign up for your email newsletter because that’s a helpful way.

Joh Jarvis: That’s a good idea to sign up for the email themselves. That would be awesome. Yes.

[48:36] A Different Workplace

Robbie Hammond: And how long does it take you to get to Rikers Island?

Joh Jarvis: A long time. Well, just tell the story of how I get there each day.

Robbie Hammond: Yeah, I mean, it’s just an interesting…

Joh Jarvis: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think it’s really interesting for the people who have to visit people in Rikers Island. Rikers Island, as you probably know, is in Queens. It’s in between the Bronx and Brooklyn and Manhattan.

I take a subway that takes a long time. The whole trip from my place to the place I actually walk into is, it’s always two hours at least, sometimes longer, and it involves two buses, and one subway. And there just doesn’t really seem to be an easier way to do that other than buying a car. So that might happen one day. But at the moment that’s, that’s the way that I get there.

Yeah, and so that’s four hours commuting each time I teach. So if I’m teaching five days a week, I mean do the math, it’s a lot. Yeah.

And I don’t know if all prisons are like this because I just know Riker’s Island very well, but this jail closes down, it would appear to me randomly, but it’s always because of violence. The place will close down.

So I’ll get there to teach, and I won’t get any further. Or, I’ll get there to teach, and it happens, the lockdown happens while I’m there, and I’ll be stuck in a corridor for a long time. Just standing in a corridor, and not able to go anywhere.

They just, all the doors, all the things slam around you, and then no one tells me. I mean, I feel like I’m treated very well in Rikers Island, but in that situation, no one will really tell me what’s going on. So I’m just like, “Well, how long is this going to be?” And, it’s a different workplace. That is for sure.

[50:19] Tenderness Amongst Violence and Chaos

Joh Jarvis: Sometimes I’m allowed to take flowers in there, and which is beautiful because that is part of our tradition, and sometimes I’m not, and there are various reasons for that.

 We don’t need to go into the security reasons; I think they’re pretty obvious, but they think that you can smuggle things in, in flowers, so sometimes they have let me take them in.

And because I am only teaching men, I find it so touching, really moving that they absolutely love the flowers. They, you know, treasure the flowers and they’re absolutely not resistant at all to standing there holding a flower while I perform the ceremony. I expected them to be slightly resistant, and they’re not resistant at all, and they often keep the flower and bring it.

So the purpose of the flower is to put it by their bed, so, well, one of the purposes, so in the morning that they’ve got a flower by their bed. So when they wake up, they remember to meditate, and so it, that really helps, and then the next day, they will often bring the flower to class.

And then one particular guy collected all the petals from all the flowers and it was, it made this, so all the tables in there are stainless steel, everything’s stainless steel, and it’s molded to the ground, and he made this incredible pattern with the petals, and nobody touched it.

So therefore it was respected, they all liked it. There’s an incredible amount of tenderness in this extremely violent, chaotic place, that I think meditation encourages because it’s in all of us. Really, it’s just revealing what’s already there, and that’s just a wonderful thing to witness.

Robbie Hammond: Thank you. And thank you all for doing it, and thank you all for supporting this. 

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