Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive


Sentenced to rehab, inmates with a history of drug abuse are taught ways to cope with life's stresses.

Commotion fills the jail unit housing 72 women, their bodies detoxing from drugs, minds fuming about life injustices. Some are missing teeth. Arms are marked with needle tracks. A tiny blue broken heart marks a neck.

Bands on each left wrist show a picture, name and a bar code. Orange pants and shirts are stamped Hillsborough County Jail.

Amid the ordered chaos, a young woman makes a sanctuary. She clears a space at night and lies on the floor of her cell. She pulls a knee up and twists a leg over her body, stretching the muscles on her side, releasing tightness. She turns to the other side. She learned yoga, here, in jail.

For the moment, her mind is quiet.

- - -

Charged with drug possession, battery, prostitution, child neglect, they all have a history of drug abuse. That is how they came to be sentenced to 10 to 12 weeks of education and therapy with Gretchen Sanchez, a treatment counselor.

Pain pills have become the women's drug of choice, she said. Often, now, they are college students, professionals, young mothers.

This is rehab, not punishment. In groups, they tell stories of trauma and mental illness. They take GED classes, learn coping skills and work to reinvent themselves. About 140 women each year come through the program, funded partly by proceeds from inmate phone calls and canteen sales.

Five years ago, organizers added yoga once a week as a spiritual component.

When the women complete the program in June, they will be freed from this jail on Orient Road.

A sour relationship might spur a relapse, bringing some back. If they don't get connected to further rehabilitation on the outside, Sanchez said, there's always a sugar daddy.

They can't take a counselor with them, but they can take the yoga techniques and coping skills they've learned to refocus their minds.

- - -

At first, Rosalind found it hard to relax into the poses. She came into jail detoxing after 10 years on methadone, prescribed to get her off pain pills, she said. Before her latest arrest, she lived in a tent by a lake for two years. She prostituted to feed herself, she said, and then used crack to numb her shame.

The drug treatment program prohibits the media from using last names. The women prefer it this way. They don't want their mothers reading this, or their children. Rosalind has four.

Before class, Richard Olmsted tells the women the mind is a tool and yoga can help to focus it. He has been teaching for free each week for about six months.

"Inhale. Lengthen. Exhale."

He leads them in a series of poses with practical names: cat, child, plank. His pace is faster than usual because inmates have shorter attention spans, he says. The Beatles play in the background as the women stretch and chat about how much weight they've gained on the bland carbohydrate-rich jail food.

"This is called wild dog," he says to them. "Did I show you guys 'stupid human trick'?"

"Noooo," they respond. They give it a try. "Oh, I can't do this," one says.

"I feel like a noodle all of the sudden," says another.

Olmsted gently helps a woman who never speaks. Her eyes are blank.

Rosalind tries a headstand. The others applaud.

For the pose called partner tree, the women pair up and stand side by side. They link an arm and pull outer feet up to inner thighs.

"We got this," Jenni tells her partner. Needle tracks climb the inside of her right arm. From the jail's library, she checked out a spiritual book by Eckhart Tolle called A New Earth. She's reading it slowly to absorb it all.

She had a good South Tampa upbringing, she said. She came in on charges of cocaine possession. She has been getting high on and off with cocaine, heroin and pain pills for 21 years.

Olmsted has learned to read bodies and, in these bodies, he reads tightness. He imagines that jail requires a constant state of heightened tension.

He ends each class leading the women in meditation.

They lie on their backs, motionless, their eyes closed. He tells them they are going down an elevator, down an escalator, across a meadow, across a warm sandy beach to a chair that they sink into.

"If a thought comes into your head, release it," he says. "Go back to the breath. The thought will come back. Let it go."

The room is filled with the soulful voice of K.D. Lang singing Hallelujah. "There's nothing to do and nowhere to go," Olmsted says.

Cameras record their every move, but they are far away from the guards and the noisy hall with the rest of the inmates. Rosa goes back to her childhood with her sisters, when she was innocent and happy.

Angela feels like she's floating.

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at or (813) 226-3431.