Incarcerated Women and Trauma-Informed Yoga Study in STL

Incarcerated Women and Trauma-Informed Yoga Study in STL

Guest post by Katherine Kelton, Saint Louis University Diversity Fellow.

Women are the fastest growing population in our nation’s prisons and jails. Since the 1980’s, the rate at which women are incarcerated has increased by 700%.1Each year, 60,000 to 72,000 women are released from prison. Unfortunately, an average of 60% will be reincarcerated within 3 years.2

When returning to their communities, often concentrated in economically disadvantaged areas, the physical and mental health of these women impacts the overall health of their communities through family relationships, community violence, employment, and use of health services.3,4,5If our goal is to create safer communities and lower the recidivism rate, we’re failing. And it’s costing us a fortune, both materially and in measures of human suffering. We advocate for a different approach to getting ‘tough on crime,’ starting with insight and compassion.

yoga buzz st louis incarcerated women prison yoga projectFor women, a common pathway to crime are traumatic events. For example, trauma survivors may try to handle emotions from their abuse by seeking revenge by physically harming an abuser, or by escaping the effects of abuse by using drugs.6In fact, 70% of incarcerated women have been raped at some point during their lifetime and over half report child sexual abuse.Rates of Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in incarcerated women range from 50% to 75%.7,8

Traditional trauma therapies aren’t entirely suitable for incarcerated women because prisons and jails are not considered to be safe and secure environments, which is generally a requirement for trauma therapies. Unfortunately, women are likely to continue being exposed to traumatic experiences during incarceration (like violence or exploitation) and after release.9Traumatic-related distress, hallmarked by detachment from self and others, may originate in the mind, but often manifests as constantly feeling unsafe in one’s own body. Trauma survivors often describe unbearable physical sensations, difficulty regulating emotions, and behavior, and hold negative-self perceptions that negatively impact their everyday functioning.

We believe that trauma-informed Yoga is a way to teach incarcerated women skills to better regulate their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, which is the same goal of most trauma therapies.

Yoga has been shown to be an effective tool in helping people manage the symptoms of and heal from trauma and it’s gaining wider acceptance for use in prison and jail settings.10Yoga increases awareness of reactions happening within the body. By noticing how the body feels, women are likely to appropriately label trauma-triggered emotional responses and form greater tolerance for negative emotions. A physical practice that includes a range of choices also empowers ownership of one’s body, often lost after traumatic events.11, 12, 13 We believe that trauma-informed Yoga is a way to teach incarcerated women skills to better regulate their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, which is the same goal of most trauma therapies.

Saint Louis University Diversity Fellow, Katherine Kelton, is partnering with Yoga Buzz, women of color Yogis trained in teaching trauma-informed Yoga, the Prison Yoga Project, as well as Trauma expert, Dr. Terri L. Weaver, Criminology expert, Dr. Michael Vaughn, and Public Health expert, Dr. Darcy Scharff, to study the impact of trauma-informed Yoga on self-regulation skills for incarcerated and previously incarcerated women in Missouri and Illinois. Women mandated to a reentry center in Fulton, Missouri and women in a women’s prison in Decatur, Illinois will have the opportunity to engage in a twice a week, month-long trauma-informed Yoga practice. We hope that by providing evidence that Yoga works, the Department of Corrections will be encouraged to adopt trauma-informed Yoga as a formal rehabilitation program.

You can help us in this study! We would appreciate any new or gently used block donations to assist the women in their Yoga journey. Blocks are wonderful to assist being gentle with the body, and the support from the blocks can help prevent injury, especially for beginner Yogis.

If you’d like to learn more, donate blocks, or further support the project, please contact Katherine Kelton at [email protected]

yoga buzz st louis yoga for incarcerated women stl prison yoga project


Interested in learning more about sharing yoga and mindfulness in prisons?  Brick City Yoga is hosting the Prison Yoga Project for a weekend training April 13-14, 2019.   Click here for more information.

prison yoga project st Louis stl brick city yoga yoga buzz


1) Carson, E.A., and Golinelli, D. (2013). Prisoners in 2012—Advance Counts. NCJ 242467. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

2) Durose, M. R., Cooper, A. D., & Snyder, H. N. (2014). Recidivism of prisoners released in 30 states in 2005: Patterns from 2005 to 2010 (NCJ No. 244205). Retrieved from

3) Dumont, M. D., Brockmann, B., Dickman, S., Alexander, N., Rich, D. J. (2012). Public Health and the Epidemic of Incarceration. Annual Review of Public Health, 325–339.

4) Golembeski, C., & Fullilove, R. (2005). Criminal Injustice in the City and Its Associated Health Consequences. American Journal of Public Health. 95(10).

5) Massoglia, M. & Pridemore, W. (2015). Incarceration and Health. Annual Review of Sociology, 41, 291-310. Available at SSRN: or

6) DeHart, D.D. (2018). Women’s pathways to crime: a heuristic typology of offenders. Criminal justice and behavior, 45(10), 1461–1482. DOI: 10.1177/0093854818782568

7) Lynch, S.M., Dehart, D.D., Belknap, J., Green, B. L., Dass-Brailsford, P., Johnson, K.M., & Wong M. M. (2015). An examination of the associations among victimization, mental health, and offending women.

8) Salina, D.D., Lesondak, M.L., Razzano, L.A., & Weilbaecher, A. (2007). Co-occuring mental disorders among incarcerated women: preliminary findings from an integrated health treatment study. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 45(1).

9) Dirks, D. (2004). Sexual Revictimization and Retraumatization of Women in Prison. Women’s Studies Quarterly, 32(3-4), 102-115.

10) Muirhead, J. & Fortune, C. A. (2016). Yoga in Prisons: A review of the literature. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 28, 57–63.

11) Sciarrino, N.A., DeLucia, C., O’Brien, K., McAdams, K. (2017). Assessing the Effectiveness of Yoga as a Complementary and Alternative Treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Review and Synthesis. Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine, 23(10), 747=755.

12) Rhodes, A.M. (2015).  Claiming peaceful embodiment through yoga in the aftermath of Trauma.Complementary Therapeutic Clinical Practice, 21, 247-256,

13) Gallegos, A.M., Crean, H.F.,  Pigeon, W.R., & Heffner, K.L. (2017). Meditation and yoga for posttraumatic stress disorder: A meta-analytic review of randomized controlled trials. Clinical Psychology Review, 58.


Photos by Robert Sturman


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