His is a story most people know: convicted of burning down a government building in 1992, he was sentenced to 14 years.
After serving his time, three years of it in a maximum-security cell, he was paroled; 11 years later, he became a Member of Parliament. Today, he is a veteran politician and the Corrective Services minister.
Maggie remembers the day he decided to change his life. Locked in “the dark room”, shaking, crying, fearing death, he said his first prayer.
“God, if you there,” he said, “can you give me one more chance?”
He remembers a light. He remembers knowing, in that moment, that he could decide to be different.
“I want to take all the bad things out of my mind, all the stupid things,” he says. “I want to concentrate on one thing: peace. I want peace. I call it mind education. I sit down again and I train my mind.”
On that day, he committed to learning how to read, write, speak English, understand the Bible, and make more positive choices. He was 33. Now, according to Teariki Purua, first officer at Arorangi Prison, Maggie is a leader and a teacher who treats everyone with respect.
His journey explains why Maggie agreed immediately when Natavia, who calls herself a holistic life coach and prefers not to use a surname, asked him if she could volunteer at the Arorangi Prison, teaching mindfulness and meditation to inmates.
Like Maggie, Natavia remembers the difficult process of finding her way out of darkness, addictions, and unhealthy relationships.
When she was 19, a friend gave her a business card that led her to an elderly Greek woman who taught “breath work”, or meditation—the exercise of stilling the mind by focusing only on the breath. For a year, Natavia studied the practice of paying attention, of becoming aware of your thoughts and feelings and noticing they are temporary, changeable.
That was 20 years ago, and today she’ll tell you that what the woman taught her changed her life. She slowed down. She peeled back the layers of sadness and trauma. She began to remember who she had once been: a little girl with dreams of being a fashion designer.
The practice taught her that she could visualise and achieve a different life. Natavia moved from her native New Zealand to Sydney, worked during the day and studied design in the evenings, and eventually began her own clothing label.
“I came back into my space,” she recalls now. “Instead of numbing all my pain with alcohol and drugs, which is what I was doing, I came back to who I was just through breathing. (That) was the beginning of me deciding I don’t want to abuse myself anymore. I don’t want to make choices I’m not conscious of. I don’t want to hurt anyone anymore. I want the boys (at the prison) to be able to see that you can shift out of everything, with belief.”
Prison is cyclical. Inmates who are released often return. There are various reasons for this, but a primary one is this: when you lock someone up in a place where he’s exposed to more violence and more neglect, he’s not learning how to make more positive choices. Most inmates are not only less prepared to be part of society upon being released, but are actually more criminalised. This is a well-documented fact.
It’s also a well-documented fact that mindfulness and meditation courses have achieved remarkable results in prisons around the world. A man named Fleet Maull served 14 years in an American prison for trafficking drugs. While inside, he became a monk; upon his release he wrote books about the depression and violence that are constantly present in prison and how meditation helped him to transform intense pain into “awareness as a spaciousness growing around the intense pain”.
“In ordinary terms, there was absolutely no reason to be cheerful in prison,” Maull wrote. “There was nothing in my environment or daily life at that point to be particularly happy about—quite the contrary.
“My life was a disaster by any conventional measure. Nonetheless, at that edge of depression, I found a joy that was not based on anything going on outside, leading to an unshakable confidence in something good and trustworthy at the core of my being.
“My own direct experience of this transformation of pain and depression into joy and cheerfulness is one of the main reasons why I believe deeply in the power of meditation to change our prisons from the inside out.”
Studies show meditation has been effective at reversing the negative impacts of childhood trauma, something many prisoners have experienced. Technology has also allowed researchers to see how the practice strengthens pathways between the part of the brain that regulates behaviour and the parts responsible for emotion, anxiety, and stress response.
According to a paper published in American Jails Magazine, which defines meditation not as a religious practice or a relaxation technique but a “systematic process of mental training” in which “self-observation leads to increased awareness, self-control, and inner balance”, inmates of one prison who meditated “scored significantly higher on their level of optimism, indicating they were more hopeful about their future”.
According to a paper published in Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, inmates who participated in a meditation retreat had lower rates of “mood distress”.
“Clinically,” the paper says, the practice “holds promise for addressing self-regulation and impulse control, among other barriers to prisoner adjustment and community reentry.”
Another paper published in the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology suggests meditation reduces “the severity of negative emotional states”. It notes that offering “meditation programs to correctional officers and administrators is just as important as reaching the prisoners” because it increases their compassion.
There’s a documentary called Choice, produced by a Kiwi couple, that explores the impact of meditation practice on Apodaca prison in Monterrey, Mexico. Formerly a place of extreme violence and murders caused by gang rivalries, the prison has been impacted to a large degree.
“Today, a quarter of the 2000 prisoners, guards and management in the overcrowded prison regularly practise meditation—and it has transformed life in the prison,” reads a review of Choice published in the New Zealand Herald. “Suicides are down 40 per cent; there have been no reports of violence since 2012; solitary confinements are down 50 per cent.”
Tears well in Natavia’s eyes when she talks about the boys at Arorangi Prison.
“I’ve had a lot of people asking me if I’m scared to go up there,” she says, then apologises for being emotional. “I don’t see it like that. I see their eyes and their souls. I don’t see what they’ve done. They’re all beautiful. They just need love and positive reinforcement to shift them into the light.”
Currently Natavia is only working with men. She acknowledges the pressure in society for men to be tough, which can be confusing for the ones who feel a lot. Inside the prison, she observes more sadness than anger. Mindfulness, she explains, is about controlling the mind and connecting with the heart.
“The mind gets busy, talking too much,” she says. “The mind is meant to be our servant but for a lot of us, the mind is in control. When our mind is controlling us, we’re not even in touch with what we’re doing. But when we choose to act from the heart we’re aligning with God—the source, the creator of all that is. So often we get tempted by the ego and greed and power and being cool and all these other influences, but that just gives us an empty fulfillment. When we go with the ego, we get a lot of resistance blocking us from being our authentic selves. When we go with the heart, this greater power comes in and starts to lay our path and it flows.”
Natavia invited me to attend one of her sessions, attended by about a dozen boys.
Lying there on the tiled floor, I thought about how meditation, when you’re not doing it consistently, can feel unnatural. It takes a lot of practice to still your mind. Certainly my mind had a lot to say that day.
As Natavia reminded us to focus only on our breath, I was frequently distracted by the clanging of chains and keys—prison sounds, reminders of the wardens in the room, watching.
Maull, the inmate who became a monk, wrote a lot about how hard it is to meditate in prison. He also wrote that because it’s more difficult, it’s more rewarding.
Natavia has only been working with inmates at Arorangi Prison for a month, but already some of them are reporting better sleep, less physical pain, and a deeper sense of calm.
She looks forward to continuing this work and hopes it will inspire other people to donate their time and talents to the Arorangi Prison.
“My hope is to show the community that just because these boys made a mistake, don’t throw them away,” she says. “Some of them might not have had much attention or much love in their lives… They might need even more support and love than people on the outside.”
“For anyone who wishes to help our inmates turn the other way,” he says, “I will appreciate that.”