Kate McLeay begins reading from the pile of letters she’s received from inmates who write to thank her, and her sponsors and supporters, for the work she does within Hawke’s Bay Regional Prison.
“It has helped me out a lot through the stressful times that I have been through in this environment,” reads one.
“These eight weeks have changed me for the better, taught my brain how to come to stillness, focus on the present moment and then spread that stillness and focus to other areas of my life,” another prisoner shares.
And then there’s this one. “This is my first time in jail. I’m overwhelmed with regret. Until I did this course I had terrible issues with ruminating at night. I really feel like mindfulness has helped set the tone, not only to make life in jail more tolerable but for a better future for myself as a father, son and brother. Being in jail really makes you feel forgotten, and unworthy of help. It was such a surprise to find out there are people out there who haven’t written me off.”
Kate isn’t formally paid for her work with the residents at the prison, which accommodates offenders in minimum security right through to high security settings . A meditation and mindfulness practitioner who runs eight-week programmes with men serving sentences for everything from violence, to robbery, to drug crime, she believes only in their potential.
“Willingness,” she begins, when asked what she sees in the groups of 10-12 men she leads through her course. “And such gratitude. I really want these men to enjoy the same benefits I’ve had from the practices of mindfulness and meditation. I love seeing their faces when the light flicks on and they suddenly understand that, even for the few who won’t be out in this lifetime, they can still have a tremendous impact inside on the guys who will return to the community.”
So, who is this woman – who radiates such warmth, empathy and hope – and how did she arrive here?
Kate grew up in Australia – a military daughter who recognised early how beneficial yoga could be to prompt calm and connection. “My mum used to practice it at the village hall, and while we’d giggle at her when she was teaching us tree pose, I think as her kids we recognised that it really helped her. She probably had depression, although no one really talked about it back then. But what we appreciated, even as children, is that she was happier when she did yoga.”
Going on to become a schoolteacher, travelling to Africa with Kiwi husband Cam and children Archer, Arabella and Xander, Kate also learned that a daily practice was enormously beneficial to her, particularly when dealing with the stresses of leading and managing an international school in Uganda, a role she held for five years. “At the beginning of my tenure it felt very much like I was on a tightrope without a net beneath me, but my yoga practice was like an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, and on the days I wasn’t in good shape the oldest of my children would ask me ‘Mum, have you done enough yoga today?’”
Leaving her job as principal, Kate followed that passion, training as a yoga and mindfulness teacher. And when the family packed up and returned to New Zealand for the children’s high school years, she began running classes in Havelock North. But she wanted more. “I think I really craved diversity, and feeling useful,” Kate explains. “So I rang the prison and said ‘hello, it’s Kate here and I’d like to do some yoga.’”
That was the beginning of a rich association with the Regional Prison, and the men who live there. It became very clear to Kate, early on in her time as one of the prison’s yoga teachers, that adding in mindfulness and meditation could be hugely beneficial in helping inmates deal with their often complex feelings of guilt, anger, bitterness and longing.
“Yoga was a great ‘in’” she explains, “because I got a whole lot of guys coming along to complement the weight training they were doing in the prison gym. They could easily see the benefits of good breathing, stretching and recovery.”
Adding mindfulness and meditation to the mix was more challenging, but the men adapted – and very quickly grew to love their 90-minute sessions with Kate. “I’ll do things like mindful chocolate eating to make it accessible,” says Kate. “and because food is a great motivator! But it really doesn’t take long until they get it.”
Some are gang members, many are participating in the prison’s drug treatment programme – Kate opens her heart to every one of the men she encounters. She’ll hear a lot of stories in her sessions, she says, that she “can’t unhear,” but there’s also plenty of humour. “For example, when we talk about the science of different reactions in the body, such as the reactions to stress, I’ve had someone call out ‘It’s like that sixth sense when you’re selling drugs and you just know there’s about to be a raid!” or “Oh, yeah, I was being chased by a guy with a hammer once. I was pretty stressed then!’”
After their two months with Kate, prison staff have reported a huge shift in behaviour – men who are calmer, more at peace with their situation, and motivated to be better human beings. “There was one guy that management kept sending off for a drug test because they were convinced he was on something that was making him happy. Another guy said one of his prison tutors kept asking him if he was alright, because he had been really quiet rather than acting out and being the class clown as usual. He replied ‘That’s because I’ve really learned the value in listening.’”
“100 percent of my last group have signed up to continue their study of yoga via correspondence,” she adds.
It’s something to be immensely proud of, but although she continues to see such progress in the men she leads through the programme, it was never going to be enough for a dynamo like Kate. “After a while working with prisoners I thought ‘How can I help stop these guys entering the system?’ Some of these prisoners are very young men filled with lifetimes of potential and it’s vital that we try and stop them taking the path that leads here.”
So, not one to rest on her laurels, Kate joined the team at a cultural leadership programme for whanau development called Orawa. It’s based at nearby Mihiroa marae in Paki Paki, and it’s here that Kate works with individuals looking to connect more deeply with their roots and live with purpose. “We’ve run 12 courses so far and it’s been incredible,” smiles Kate. “People really value it and take what they learn home to their whanau.
“And we’ve had some real success stories,” she says. Like one “beautiful woman”, with a long history as the victim of abuse, who’d never been able to sustain work. “She was in her 40s – very smart, full of heart, with some tertiary education, but the longest stretch she’d been in paid employment was six weeks. Yet she was so talented! She embraced a range of tools to work through and live with her trauma, and now she’s working within her community and has been for over a year.”
Kate has also plucked two of her community graduates to assist her on the wellness retreats she and husband Cam run at Cape South – a beautiful colonial property on rambling rural land overlooking Hawke’s Bay’s Ocean Beach. Here, women and men travel from all over New Zealand to fully relax, unwind, and upskill in meditation, mindfulness and yoga. It’s a low-key but luxurious vibe, full of love and laughter, with a pool and hot tub to take a dip in, an entirely plant-based menu to feast upon, a range of massages (one of the regular therapists is Nigella Lawson’s go-to when she visits New Zealand), medicinal gardens and apothecary, and lots of heart and humour from Kate and her team. It’s a place to stop, connect with others, and really take a breath – (it also helps enormously, says Kate, that the cellphone reception at Cape South is terrible).
And although the content is different – catering more to stressed out executives, busy mothers, and the retreat-curious – the concepts are the same as those Kate brings to her work with inmates. A percentage of each retreat fee (a three-day, two-night retreat is a very reasonable $880 share twin or $1320 for your own spacious room and ensuite) helps to fund Kate’s important work within the community.
During a stay at Cape South, you’re treated to many stories of how your payment is helping facilitate something wonderful. It seems very much like a win-win – you’re absorbing amazing, in-depth, instantly applicable skills, all the while supporting prisoners to do the same.
“I realise I can’t solve all the world’s problems,” says Kate with a little smile, “but I can encourage others to live a life that’s peaceful, with tools to navigate the journey with a bit more ease and happiness.
“The gold star moment for me,” she adds, “would be having some of these guys who have been through my programme and loved it, begin to deliver it once they’re released. And I really feel that is in my grasp now.”
An extraordinary woman, doing what is clearly critical work. It feels only right to let this prisoner, have the final word.
“Since doing time with Kate,” he writes in his letter, “and teaching my mind, body and soul to relax there’s been such a positive shift in me. I’m 100% committed to practicing mindfulness and yoga when I’m released from this playground. Now it’s my job to snap out of being a dickhead and stop robbing banks and be some sort of role model.”
For more on Kate McLeay and her retreats at Cape South, see https://capesouth.co.nz/