Kevin Riordan: Taking them deep inside

A workshop offers inmates new insights on themselves.

Posted: April 28, 2011

The murderer, the drug dealer, and a dozen other convicted criminals close their eyes and concentrate on the words.

"Breathe in . . . and slowly breathe out. Nice and slow and easy," instructor Marie Jackson intones, pleasantly and firmly.

"Inhale the beautiful light of your intention for this class today, and then exhale it. Share the light of your intention with the room. Share the light of who you are."

With this brief session of guided meditation, another "Living the Power" workshop gets under way at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Union Township, Hunterdon County.

For the next eight weeks, two tables of khaki-clad inmates will practice meditation and other techniques, such as self-assessment (there's a 29-item questionnaire). The goal of each 90-minute session is to help them change their thinking and ultimately, their minds - about themselves, the world, and their eventual place in it.

Edna Mahan, a.k.a. "Edna Mayhem," began hosting the weekly sessions in November after a staff member recommended Jackson. Inmates who express interest are selected for the classes.

"We want to give them some tools for reentry into the community," says William J. Hauck, the warden (official title: administrator) of the campuslike complex on a hill near I-78.

As is true of the male population in the state corrections system, the majority of the nearly 800 inmates at Edna Mahan will eventually go home.

And while the rate of recidivism in New Jersey has fallen by 4 percent in the last decade, according to a new study by the Pew Center on the States, about 44 percent of those who leave are likely to be reincarcerated.

That's where Jackson, who is not paid for her work at the facility ("I'm not really sure why I do it," she says), comes in.

A 62-year-old Lambertville resident who developed the "Living the Power" workshop after 20 years of private studies, she blends the earnestness of a teacher, the sensitivity of a counselor, and the uplift of a preacher.

"I help people understand the choices they make," Jackson says, standing at the front of a nondescript classroom at the 275-acre complex. She uses the word choices a lot; it's like a Living the Power mantra.

She's already chalked several inspirational sayings onto the blackboard, and placed an array of books about meditation and other practices on the tables. Her manner is brisk, but reassuring.

"I don't need to know your prison number," she says, making eye contact, working the room. "Where you are is not who you are."

The diverse group of women, most in their 30s and up, regards the instructor with expressions that vary from vaguely beatific to deeply skeptical. At times, one inmate seems to be catching a nap.

Others seem energized.

"It's about getting centered, in a place that's the farthest thing from being centered," says Karen Ryerson, from Morris County.

"Positive [attracts] positive," says Karen Allen, 54 and originally from Trenton.

"We have a responsibility to ourselves," 41-year-old Phillipsburg native Kim Hirko adds. "It isn't easy."

Later, I ask Jackson if Job One for convicted criminals ought to be feeling better about themselves. Don't they need vocational training or self-discipline? How about remorse as a rehabilitation tool?

Patiently, Jackson notes that a majority of offenders are drug addicts and alcoholics. Many female inmates also suffered physical and sexual abuse before becoming criminals.

"People who are incarcerated aren't the only people in prison," she says. "We are all to some extent imprisoned by the choices we make. We are all doing time, one way or another.

"I believe everyone is entitled to peace. Everyone is entitled to introspection. With the skills these ladies develop, and practice . . . they come to a place of peace."

A prison, in her view, is not only a place of punishment.

It's a place where people who have hurt others and themselves can begin to undo the damage.

"It can be the perfect place to heal," Jackson says.

Let's hope so.

Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or Read the metro columnists' blog at


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