With a total inmate population of 80,002 (at last count) the United Kingdom operates prisons at a capacity of 112%, ranking its detention system as one of the most overcrowded in the world. The result is a place that is “starved of love”, according to Certified iRest Meditation Teacher Paul Collins. As the founder of Thrive Inside, a nonprofit organization that offers iRest to residents and staff in HMPPS (Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service) sites, Collins aims to bring that missing love. In the prisons, writes Collins, “I met men crying out for help to deal with the pain of their pasts. I knew iRest could give them some tools to deal with the hurt that was unresolved.” Here, we talk with Collins about his dedication to the prison residents, and to sharing the Thrive Inside program.
What is your background, and how did you first encounter iRest?
I was in corporate business for nearly 20 years and served in the Royal Marines before that. I burnt out from a life chasing material wealth and happiness in drink and drugs. I lost my business and family because of my addictions and needed to find a new lifestyle.
I traveled the globe looking for a new vocation, searching for something that really worked for me. I came across various healing modalities, including yoga and meditation. I started teaching yoga in 2003, mainly in rehab centers, but wasn’t fully comfortable with what I was teaching--I didn’t think I was a proper yoga teacher, as I was not a traditional asana teacher. I was mainly interested in breathwork.
A friend and fellow yoga teacher, Kathryn Varley, introduced me to Richard’s book, Yoga Nidra: A Meditative Practice for Deep Relaxation and Healing. Richard then came over to the UK to do a weekend in 2009, which I attended and was gripped. I loved the simplicity of the 10 steps, which brought together everything I had learned over the previous decade of study and gave me a template, going forward.
How did Thrive Inside come to exist? What compelled you to launch a meditation program for inmates?
I was teaching a weekly yoga class in HMP Lewes, a UK prison unit, for a few years which included an iRest practice. The prison went into special measures, meaning there were no activities within the prison and its residents were locked up for 23 hours a day.
So I used to visit the wings and do short practices with the prisoners in their cells, either with them lying on a concrete floor or sitting on their beds. I could not meet the demand from men wanting to see me within the short space of time I had while they were unlocked. Using the iRest practice to see what was needed, I set up Thrive Inside.
I had the idea of developing a course that they could use in their cells so they could practice whenever they wanted and needed. I first recorded a CD, as they have no Internet access. I also wrote a simplified workbook to give them some background information about the iRest practice.
Working with the residents on a one-on-one basis, it became apparent that most of the men I was working with had been traumatized in the past--many very severely. Their backgrounds of abuse and violence was driving their offending and addictive behavior, and there was not much to help them deal with it. I met men screaming out for help to deal with the pain of their pasts. I knew iRest could give them some tools to deal with the hurt that was unresolved.
Thrive Inside is a complete personal development program to help these residents find meaning and purpose in their lives, and to become worthwhile members of society. The program supports an excluded part of society that have been punished, locked away, and forgotten.
What are the primary goals of the Thrive Inside program?
The intention and deep wish for Thrive Inside is to support rehabilitation and recovery. It’s to reduce suffering and give people hope for their lives, to find meaning and purpose from what they have experienced, when many inside have none. With the tools of iRest, they can deal with past conditioning and emotions that drive their addictions and offending behaviour.
Prisons are a place starved of love, full of very naughty children in adult bodies. People screaming out for help, repeating patterns that many of them are sick of yet, seemingly have no hope or way out of escaping the cycles of offending and addiction.
My vision is to give them a way out.
You run a men’s group, and your work supports primarily male inmates. What do you see as some of the key needs that arise among the men you serve, and how might iRest address those needs?
From my experience with dyad work, anything that arises generally just wants to be acknowledged--to be seen and heard. In the format of the group, we allow that to happen.
Each week, we have a topic of one of the 10 steps of the iRest protocol. We first have a check in to see what is going on with everyone and how they are feeling. We then have a group discussion on the featured step discuss what it means to them in their lives. I share my experience and understanding of the step, but allow them to discuss openly how and where it arises for them in their daily lives. The emphasis is on listening to others and allowing the men to express themselves freely.
Using the principle of non- fixing from iRest, we allow them to find their own answers within the group, as per the practice. This helps them understand themselves and what it means to be a man. We let them know it’s safe to be able to open up and talk freely about their thoughts and feelings, and to learn to listen to others without giving advice. We try to create a safe environment where they can take off the mask of survival and truly be seen and heard. After the discussion, we engage in a full iRest practice to process everything, then share a cup of tea at closing.
I am now setting up men’s groups outside of the prison to help men deal with specific issues around masculinity, using iRest and systemic family constellation work, which will operate on a donation basis. These groups will allow men released from prison to join in with the community and will help fund Thrive Inside. It will also be a space to train men to deliver this work.
Do you have ways of knowing whether participants might continue to use iRest skills once they are out of the prison system?
Some men have reported how life-changing the experience has been, and have continued with the iRest practice just using the Thrive Inside CD and workbook. Our clients often do not have the availability, funds, or living conditions to access classes and continue to practice in a group. I am setting up a weekly online group so they can access the material anywhere in the country, as long as they can access a phone or laptop. This is why I want to produce the in-cell course which will give them greater access to iRest regardless of their position, even if they are homeless, in special approved premises or bale hostels.
What is the greatest challenge of the work? What is its greatest reward?
The greatest challenge has been working with the prison system and raising funds to continue with the work. The system is primarily punitive with a lot of red tape to get through. There are changes being brought in with forward-thinking programs, but it moves at a very slow pace, and staffing and limited regimes can be challenging.
Working with iRest and welcoming it has helped me to create a format that hopefully works within the system. While funds have been very limited, it has pushed me into seeing how I can fund it long-term and continue to support this client base.
The greatest reward is the gratitude. I cannot express the feeling when, at the end of a session, every member of the group comes and shakes my hand and says thank you. I read notes and feedback describing how much this work has changed their lives, reporting that it’s the best course available to them. It’s incredibly rewarding seeing the whole project unfold and the vision become reality. Joy!
What are your hopes for the future of Thrive Inside?
My hope is to have iRest and Thrive Inside available in every prison in the country, available globally to any English-speaking prison around the world. I’d like to have the in-cell course available free of charge to any resident wishing to do the course.
I intend to fund this by selling the course online, marketing it to people who are dealing with addiction. When someone buys the course, it will fund a prisoner to have a version on a playback-only device that they can listen to at any time. The person who buys the course will be put in touch with someone inside that they have funded by buying a course so they can go through the course together and share experiences by email. The inmate will then have a mentor who supports them along the way with information about iRest that they cannot access inside.
Please feel free to add any additional thoughts.
I am so grateful to Richard Miller and to all those committed to sharing the wonderful work of iRest. It has helped me to find peace and deal with life in a body that I did not want to be in. It has helped me understand myself and to make sense of my life.
Working with the prison population gives me so much gratitude. It has given me a real sense of meaning and purpose and makes it worthwhile being alive. The joy that iRest has helped me find is such a gift, and to rebuild my life and connect with my daughter and family is priceless.