In the U.S., almost 2.3 million people are incarcerated in various types of facilities, according to 2020 data from the Prison Policy Initiative. The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) indicates that about 600,000 people are released from prison each year.

In the U.S., almost 1.9 million people are incarcerated in various types of facilities, according to 2022 data from the Prison Policy Initiative. The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) indicates that about 600,000 people are released from prison each year.

Those who have been released may never fully readjust to life outside the system—two-thirds of the formerly incarcerated will be arrested and half will be incarcerated again within three years, says ASPE. A significant number end up part of the homeless population.

This is the population served by Care Through Touch Institute, an organization founded by massage therapist Mary Ann Finch, CMT, which in 2020 was awarded a $5,000 Community Service Grant from the Massage Therapy Foundation to help fund efforts to bring free chair massage to formerly incarcerated individuals in the San Francisco, California.

“When people come out from prison or jail, unless they have family that they’re going back to, they usually end back up either on the streets or in a shelter,” Finch says, noting that a few may go into what are called SRO (single-room occupancy) hotels, just a step up from homelessness, or in encampments with other homeless individuals.

Unhealthy Touch

In prisons, touch is typically either non-existent or negative, Finch says. “The only way I was touched in prison was when they put handcuffs on me,” a formerly incarcerated massage client recently told Finch. “Taking me back and forth to jail or to a doctor’s appointment or whatever.” Others may have experienced unhealthy touch in the form of unwanted sexual or violent contact.

Re-experiencing healthy touch, says Finch, means much more than just receiving a relaxing massage. “The greatest benefit of touch …. is that touch has enabled them to establish a connection—and a really caring and safe, loving connection—with another human being. That’s been extremely rewarding.

“Those experiences … have left a really, really deep impression on me as well as on them.”

Taking it to the Streets

Much of CTI’s work with the formerly incarcerated and homeless doesn’t take place in an office, studio or massage room. Finch and her staff and volunteers often take massage therapy directly to their clients, whether that means in homeless shelters, “on the streets, under bridges or wherever homeless people are. That’s our mantra, to go wherever and do whatever to whomever it is needed.”

Carrying out the hands-on work outlined in their grant was interrupted by COVID closures, so Finch and her staff used much of that time to develop handbooks and training materials for volunteers and teachers; when she spoke with MASSAGE Magazine in January of 2022, they had begun providing massage therapy to clients again.

The therapeutic relationship, she adds, can mean a lot to both her and the client, and often evolves into something deeper. For example, one of her regular massage clients, known as “Tree,” would walk Finch from the shelter back to her office to look out for her safety; later, she would visit him twice a month after he went to jail; and then, after his release, when he needed hip surgery, she was able to coordinate a doctor’s visit and get him the help he needed. She visited him in the hospital, as well.

“Each time I would go, I was always in touch. Sometimes it would be his shoulders, sometimes it would be giving him a foot massage, sometimes it was giving him a hand massage,” she said. “Touch leads to relationship, and relationship in and of itself is touch that goes so much further than just the physical touch … it takes you into the humanity of the person.”

Walk-ins Welcome

Most of Finch’s clientele comes to her when she sets up her chair and starts massaging, and word spreads. Working in a shelter, for example, she will place a sign-up sheet nearby so people can sign up for a certain time.

Other times she and her crew might set up in connection with “harm reduction programs,” which can take place directly on the street, and may also offer food and counseling. (If there’s no chair available, she gives massage while the client is sitting on a milk crate or fire hydrant—whatever is nearby.)

“They see us working and they say, ‘Can I have one of those?’ and they sign up,” Finch says.

Staff members of CTI may work three-hour shifts giving massage; or, if a volunteer is with them, two-hour shifts. Volunteers are always paired with a staff member when going out to perform massage.

“We have regular staff meetings, too, so that we can check in with each other and [talk about] some of the conditions that we’re encountering. What are some of the scary moments?” Finch says. “The thing that most people love to talk about is what are some of the precious and wonderful moments?”

The Deepest Benefit

The deepest, most important benefit of providing healthy touch to the formerly incarcerated population, says Finch, is often the touch itself. It’s the “sense that person knows that they’re worthy of being touched, no matter what their status is. I think that sense of worthiness causes people to feel better about themselves, to feel more positive about themselves. To be more motivated to take whatever next steps they need to take.”

Allison M. Payne

About the Author

Allison M. Payne is associate editor of MASSAGE Magazine. She has written many articles for this publication, including “This is What We Know About Long-Haul COVID-19 Survivors” and “Rehab Massage: A Focus on Clients’ Comeback.”