June 2, 1998
are children. But they're under lock and key for crimes including
murder. Authorities are grasping for new methods to reach
them--techniques that attempt to tap into the souls of these
SPECIAL TO THE TIMES
It's a shocking image--even to the accustomed eye.
children, the oldest of whom is 11, are lined up, marching
with hands clasped tight behind their backs at Central Juvenile
Hall in East Los Angeles. The youngest child, 8 years old,
is outfitted in bright orange prison garb, signifying he is
a high-risk violent offender, a category that includes murder,
assault and armed robbery.
usual prison shackles are absent--those are saved for when
the kids are transported in and out of the detention center--but
spiritually and emotionally, the shackles are there for many.
the spiritual realm these young offenders are being helped
with today, as a team of Buddhist monks and teachers spends
an hour teaching the children how to meditate and how meditation
might help those who will need to survive extended time in
the California prison system.
this overburdened, underfunded juvenile detention system,
officials have turned to a relatively new youth-detention
concept: teaching spiritual practices. They hope these skills
will help heal the emotional scars of these young inmates
and help them learn to manage lives that are clearly out of
Russell heads Central Juvenile Hall's Excel program, which
since 1993 has offered classes in "life skills," such as drug
and AIDS/HIV awareness, to incarcerated children. He says
officials were desperate for new approaches. As both state
and federal law prohibit the mixing of religion and classroom
instruction in public institutions, many of the spiritual
practices are viewed as "life management" skills.
were almost literally at our wit's end," Russell says, noting
that there are about 670 children, ages 8 to 18 (about 630
boys and 40 girls) housed at the East L.A. facility.
kids here feel society has written them off, and the kids
were also feeling warehoused. That resulted in high assaults,
both between the kids and between the kids and staff," Russell
says. "We were willing to look anywhere and everywhere for
California juvenile justice officials have looked, in part,
is to spiritual techniques like yoga, Buddhist meditation,
Native American sweat lodges and Tibetan sand mandala ceremonies,
martial arts practices like akido and tai chi, and psychological
strategies such as keeping journals and consciousness-raising
groups. One Buddhist monk even teaches meditation principles
along with how to overcome suffering through blues harmonica.
Most techniques have been in place in various facilities for
about a year.
question, the introduction of these ideas has been better
than even I had hoped," Russell says. "The kids felt heard,
seen and listened to, and I think they responded like anyone
would respond to caring: They became less angry." He claims
the rise in assaults and in gang activity has been dramatically
curbed in the last eight months since the programs were instituted,
and says officials are currently compiling a report with firm
Burkert, superintendent of Central Juvenile Hall until last
week (he has been promoted to bureau chief of auxiliary services
for the Los Angeles County Probation Department), says he
promotes the idea of these volunteers "as long as they don't
preach their own personal gospel and they're not here to convert
anybody. Sadly, not a whole lot of people want to work steadily
with these kids." He calls the spiritual programs at Central
"a positive priority. We'll keep the doors open until someone
proves to me they should be closed."
you went inside the heads of these kids, it's like 12 fire
alarms going off in an insane asylum," says David Eaton, a
deputy probation officer at L.A. County's Camp Kilpatrick
in Malibu, where Los Angeles Buddhist monk Rev.
Kusala teaches the blues
harmonica class every Tuesday. Kilpatrick is one of 13 juvenile
detention camps owned and run by the county.
that can help these kids clear and calm their minds, even
for a few minutes, is great," Eaton says. "I've noticed a
discernible difference in a whole lot of kids."
about spirituality was a bit much for preteen boys who assembled
on one recent day to learn how to meditate from Kusala and
Michele Benzamin-Masuda, an instructor with the Jizo Project
from L.A.'s Ordinary Dharma Center.
is this some kind of psychic gig?" one 10-year-old shouts.
continues steadily with her teaching, asking the boys to try
and focus on their breathing.
I might as well have stayed in my room and done voodoo," yells
a 9-year-old, running from the room.
rings a bell and asks the children to focus now on the center
of the room. The kids begin to bombard the brown-robed monk
boy says of meditation, "It's kind of like a dream. You know,
like Martin Luther King. Everybody followed him because he
said he had a dream, and he thought he knew what his dream
was and everybody followed him sort of wanting and hoping
the dream was true."
children settle down and begin to practice meditating.
of the trouble is that these kids' defense systems are very
high to begin with," says Kusala, who is with the International
Buddhist Meditation Center in Los Angeles, which has been
instrumental in bringing Buddhist spiritual practices into
the juvenile halls. "Remember, people often had deceptive
motives when they paid any attention to them. Some classes
are more chaotic than others, and some are smooth as silk."
says it's generally the older boys--15 and up--"who realize
a little better what their reality is and know they need help
and seem to catch on very quickly."
visit to a meditation class in the "KL" group (boys 16 to
18 who are standing trial for murder) finds students who are
attentive, intelligent and polite.
I stress about my case, and my situation, and the things that
have happened, I can focus on my breathing and get a respite,"
says a 17-year-old boy who has been in the KL unit for a year.
"Sometimes not having any words is better."
Stauring, Central's Catholic chaplin, thinks the silence and
meditative practices have a more profound result for troubled
youngsters "rather than just having supportive people who
show up to listen to their problems. The discoveries these
kids are making about themselves is amazing. Our hope is that
these discoveries will remain, and I think the silence has
helped a lot. They don't get a lot of silence in this institution."
believe such notions are heartfelt but misguided.
course there's nothing intrinsically wrong in trying to teach
kids some spiritual values and practices," says David Altschuler,
a Johns Hopkins principal research scientist who has done
extensive juvenile delinquency, crime and prevention research
at the Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies in Baltimore.
"But to say in and of itself it's any great new workable approach,
in my opinion, is naive.
kids the bagpipes would likely have a similar effect," he
says. "It's not necessarily what is being taught, but the
fact that the children are feeling attended to."
says spiritual teaching, if used as a means to begin to tackle
some of the major issues that brought these children to corrections
institutions--such as serious family dysfunction, drug dealing
and violent peer pressure--may help.
on its own, I have my serious doubts," he says. "My question
here is, where's your evidence?"
claims the "obvious answer" is more and better clinical staff
supervision that consistently "deals directly with these kids."
with cutbacks in clinical supervision--according to Russell,
the ratio of clinicians to children at Central has gone from
1 to 150 in 1993 to 1 to 350 today--addressing the day-to-day
problems of the inmates can't wait for research to catch up.
the 15 state juvenile facilities in California, three have
Native American sweat lodges. At the California Youth Authority's
correctional facility near Camarillo recently, several dozen
young people experienced the ancient ceremony, which symbolizes
a return to Mother Earth's womb to gain strength, guidance,
purification and healing.
90 minutes (divided into four rounds: one dedicated to the
participants, another to their relatives, a third to their
surroundings and the last to their ancestors), the inmates
sing, beat drums, pray and sweat.
will either get their anger out or act it out," says Josie
Salinas, a Youth Authority counselor who was instrumental
in opening the lodge at the facility. "This is an ancient
and peaceful way to purify what's imbalanced."
a group of teenage girls crawls out of the lodge, one assesses
know this isn't going to change the fact that I'm in prison,
but it helps me realize some reasons I got here," she says.
"It helps me think more clearly, and that's not something
I'm very good at."