Norfolk man pardoned after 21 years uplifts inmates who practice yoga to reduce recidivism

NORFOLK, Va. - Eyes closed, deep breaths and the body at ease. In a compact, hot room with fans blowing, four men are practicing yoga. They are inmates at the Norfolk City Jail.

The goal for their practice? For each inmate to learn how to control their impulses, make better decisions and ultimately not become repeat offenders.

"You have to have mental discipline to sit and focus and tune into your inner self," said Darius Cooper, one of the inmates. News 3 previous spoke with him when the Virginia Community Jail Project first launched at the jail.

Tuning into himself is something Messiah Johnson has learned to do very well.

"The practice of yoga allowed me to really have perspective, a more profound perspective on life," said Johnson.

For 21 years, Johnson sat behind bars for a robbery he said he didn't commit. In January, he was granted a partial pardon after the Innocence Project took his case.

Click here for our full coverage on Messiah Johnson's case

"I think you can be traumatized by the system in a way," said Johnson. After he was released in April, Johnson started looking for ways to give back before moving into a career. He had done yoga while incarcerated and eventually connected with Christine Harrell.

Harrell is the leader of the Virginia Community Yoga Jail Project and fundraised money for all the yoga mats, blocks and other tools inmates would need for their practice. She invited Johnson to come to the final day of classes and the graduation to speak with inmates and offer them perspective on how yoga helped him.

"One thing that incarceration teaches you is patience more so than anything. I think with yoga as an extension of what they're already being taught or unconsciously, I think that yoga allows them to internalize it, gives them insight on how to apply it," said Johnson.

He also wanted the inmates to know yoga is a way to life balance. After a three-month program and 12 hours of yoga practice, some inmates said while it's not a 100 percent change, it's a major start.

"I give it about 65 percent. My journey is still ongoing but this is something I can use as a motivational factor. I'm more so patient now. I get a deep breath and I just let bygones be bygones. Every action doesn't deserve a reaction," said Cooper. He is serving time for a drug and firearms charge.

The class of 12 became a class of four over the 12 weeks as inmates were released. Johnson believes programs such as this can not only reduce recidivism but make each inmate better.

"I think that you have to have something you're striving for with the tools you're utilizing. And for me, it's striving to be righteous and civilized. Yoga didn't necessarily determine that for me but it did help me," Johnson said.