Carlee Santarelli is a meditation teacher who works primarily within the criminal justice system in Los Angeles, California. She has been volunteering in jails and detention centres for nine years, and for the last three years she has been teaching mindfulness and meditation techniques to incarcerated individuals, at-risk youths, security workers, and families affected by incarceration. Carlee is currently training as a Mindfulness Facilitator at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. Clay Hamilton interviewed Carlee in summer 2019.

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Briefly describe yourself as a meditation teacher.

I facilitate meditation and mindfulness in the criminal justice system in Los Angeles, California. I currently am facilitating at the Century Regional Detention Center in Lynwood, with individuals incarcerated there and individuals working there, with at-risk youth 11-17 years old in Alta Dena, with family members of loved ones currently incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals in South Los Angeles, at City Hall in Downtown Los Angeles with the City Attorney’s Community Justice Initiative (prosecutors and defense attorneys, etc.), and occasionally guest speaking at CalState Northridge with students studying Criminal Justice. I live in Los Angeles. Most of the meditations I facilitate are loving-kindness to self, others, and the Universe, gratitude for our breath (life), breath awareness and breath manipulation for different techniques, body scan, and beginner friendly classes.

How did you first learn to meditate and why/how did you become a meditation teacher?

I did the 10-day Vipassana course in Twentynine Palms about 6 years ago. I’ve always naturally passed-on positive coping skills that I learned to others and that is what I did with meditation. Mindfulness has always been a part of who I am, so that also naturally was incorporated in my other teachings before I started teaching meditations and mindfulness specifically. Last year, I decided to apply to UCLA’s TMF Certification Program and I got in, so I am completing it this year.

What is the greatest benefit you personally get from meditation? 

I know it’s always there for me whenever I need it. When I start to lose my center, I meditate. When life is great and I want to be present with that greatness, I meditate. But, if I had to pick one it would be when I did the Vipassana course, I shed so much pain those 10 days and learned a new tool I could carry forward with me. ?

Is it more useful for people to know many meditation techniques, or to learn one/few and focus efforts on practising that one?

I think it’s good for people to know a few different techniques, because they each have different purposes. A walking meditation in nature is beneficial when grieving. Birthday cake breathing is great for transforming fear into excitement, or at least helping you cope with it. A gratitude meditation can help bring you out of a negative mood and cultivate positivity. A loving-kindness meditation for others is great for the workplace and to help you cope with all the different personalities you interact with on a daily basis. A loving-kindness meditation for yourself is also amazing when you catch yourself beating yourself up for something you said or did. There are so many different meditation techniques. It’s great to know a few, but it also depends on the person who is learning. They might learn better doing one at a time and slowly building the techniques or they might like to learn different ones as the same time. There’s no right or wrong way to approach this.

Is there anything unique to a detention or incarceration setting which makes it more or less difficult for students, particular backgrounds or stresses or outcomes that are unique? 

Yes, this population is a severely traumatized population and jail is not a safe environment. As a facilitator, I always keep my eyes open in this environment and I tell my students that my eyes are open for them. Creating a safer space is so important in any environment, especially in jail. I am working with a lot of people who have been in and out of the system many times, so they have adapted to surviving in jail. Closing your eyes is not typically what you do to survive in jail. They are constantly looking over their shoulder, don’t know who they can trust, are told to not show their emotions, etc. It is common for students to fall asleep while meditating in jail (and in general for beginners), but I don’t have a problem with them falling asleep in a meditation. They need sleep for their health and the sleeping conditions in a jail are terrible, so if I can provide them with twenty minutes of good rest, I am happy they got what they needed.

If someone can learn to meditate in jail, I say they can meditate anywhere in the world. Jails are very noisy places with lots of distractions in the environment, but I tell my students to be silently thankful for any distractions, whether it be their thoughts or something within the environment, because the distractions are helping them build a stronger practice.

What important aspect of meditation do you find yourself teaching over and over again? Is there a phrase or message or quote you repeat to students again and again?

To be thankful for distractions; to let go of expectations; that there is no right or wrong way to meditate, etc. I always repeat that they have two choices when they get distracted: they can get upset, huff and puff, open their eyes, and disrupt their practice, or they can maintain their practice, acknowledge you have lost focus, thank the distraction, and continue on.

What do you think about meditation retreats (what form, how long, any advice)? What if someone can’t afford the financial or time commitment of a retreat, do you have any recommendations for them?

If finances and time are limited, there are many great online free resources. UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center has many resources on their website and they just came out with an app. Retreat forms and length really depend on the person. I did a 10 day Vipassana retreat not really having any experience with meditation, but I would not encourage anyone who doesn’t have some shorter retreats under their belt to dive into a retreat like that. It’s important to have an understanding of things like people’s histories, health, and preferable learning style to figure out what kind of retreat they might benefit from and for how long.

What misconceptions about meditation do you hear in the media or popular culture?

Conversations are focused on portraying it as a calming or quieting tool. It can be that, but it can also be so many other kinds of experiences that society labels as unpleasant. Also there is a misconception that there is a right way to do it. I believe there is no right or wrong way to practice meditation. As a facilitator of mindfulness, I meet people where they are and if we can take one step forward that’s huge. If they are not ready to close their eyes, I will not force them to. This journey is theirs, not mine. I’m there to facilitate and help empower them to make choices that feel right for them.

What meditation books have you read and admired, re-read, or do you recommend to others (they can be directly or indirectly related to meditation)?

It’s not a book, but I love the documentary The Dhamma Brothers. I show this in the jails. It’s great for people incarcerated to see other people incarcerated meditating.

What books/courses/resources do you have available? What makes them special and how can they benefit a reader?

I offer free guided meditation sessions (in person or online) to individuals affected by incarceration. A shared connection of understanding incarceration is beneficial to my clients.

How can readers get in contact with you or find out more?

My website is or you can find me on Instagram @sisterinmate

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[This interview is an extract. You can see Carlee’s full interview, plus 29 more interviews, in the book How Do You Meditate? Interviews with 30 Meditation Teachers. Available from Amazon.]