Soul Searching;

By: JANET KINOSIAN - The LA Times, Tuesday, June 2, 1998

They 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 young inmates.;

It's a shocking image--even to the accustomed eye.

Fourteen 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.

The 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.

It's 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.

In 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 control.

Noy 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.

"We 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.

"Most 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 some help."

Where 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.

"Without 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 data.

William 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."

"If 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.

"Anything 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."

Talk 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.

"Hey, is this some kind of psychic gig?" one 10-year-old shouts.

Benzamin-Masuda continues steadily with her teaching, asking the boys to try and focus on their breathing.

"Shoot, I might as well have stayed in my room and done voodoo," yells a 9-year-old, running from the room.

Benzamin-Masuda 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 with questions.

One 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."

The children settle down and begin to practice meditating.

"Part 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."

He 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."

A 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.

"When 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."

Javier 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."

Critics believe such notions are heartfelt but misguided.

"Of 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.

"Teaching 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."

Altschuler 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.

"But on its own, I have my serious doubts," he says. "My question here is, where's your evidence?"

He claims the "obvious answer" is more and better clinical staff supervision that consistently "deals directly with these kids."

But 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.

Of 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.

For 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.

"Kids 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."

As a group of teenage girls crawls out of the lodge, one assesses the experience.

"I 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."

Rev. Kusala spending some time in Central Juvenile Hall
with Buddhist volunteer
Michele Benzamin-Masuda.

Playing some blues for the guys in Juvenile hall with
volunteer Michele Benzamin-Masuda looking on.

Accepting the “Good Samaritan of the Year” award with
friend and Excel coordinator Mr. Noy Russell.


by Silvia - Los Angeles, Central Juvenile Hall

Two days after my conviction they found me guilty of 1st degree murder,
conspiracy and robbery, which carries a life sentence without parole. And the
horrible thing about this is that I did not do it. They convicted me without any
evidence. I feel sad and real bad because they took my whole life away. I had
dreams of being somebody. I had dreams I wanted to accomplish. Now I don’t
have anything. All the things I wanted to do and the person I wanted to be died
on April 7, 1997.

I’m really hurt. I don’t know how I’m going to tell my parents that their little
girl has been found guilty of all charges. And it’s really hard for me because I’m
still a little girl. I was only sixteen years and nineteen days old at the time of the
crime. Now I’m eighteen years and two days old and I still feel as if I’m only
sixteen. Why did they take my life, dreams, hopes and family away from me?
Don’t they know I could have been somebody? I could have been a famous
doctor, lawyer, teacher, or anything I wanted to be, but now I can only be an
inmate for the rest of my life.

Oh, how it hurts. It was my birthday the day they decided to take my life
away. Why, why? That is the question I ask myself. Why did they find me guilty?
God, answer my question, please. Why did you allow this to happen to me?
Sometimes I lie on my bed and I cry, then I laugh and say to myself, God, why
do you want me alive, what’s the purpose? If I going to suffer all my life, I’d
rather be dead than go through this. Why was I ever born? I guess I was born to

But the one thing I want to let them know, and for you to know, before
they lock my door and throw away the key, is that I was only sixteen, in love,
confused and stupid, and I did not commit this murder. So even if they convicted
me of it, now you know I did not do it. And if you don’t believe me, it’s okay
because at least God and I know the truth.


I hardly cry. I haven’t cried for a long time, but today I shed some tears as
my friend brought memories of my trial and the last day when I got convicted.
That was the worst day of my incarceration. I cried like a baby all night long.

I remember my friend Osuna bringing me a cup of water. I showered right
after I came from court and me and Osuna stood inside the bathroom crying.
She was telling me she wanted to do some of my time. Then we had to come out
of the bathroom because they had cake and ice cream. It was my birthday, but I
was to sad to celebrate.

Now I’m trying to erase that day. It felt good after I cried, but throughout
the next day I kept crying as people asked what happened in court. I couldn’t
answer their questions but through my tears they knew what had happened. Now
I’m trying to heal from the day the jury found me guilty and trying to prepare for
my sentencing day. I know then I will cry a lot. But for now, my tears are dry.

The LA Times... Tuesday, June 22, 1999

A Night to Remember!

L.A.'s most notorious youth lockup is an unlikely place for a
prom. But Saturday evening, That's just what it was.

By SAM BRUCHEY, Times Staff Writer

 They call this place the crossroads. It's where children pass the final
of their youth in bright orange uniforms and 10-foot-by-12-foot rooms that lock
from the outside; and where the only reminders of life on the
"outs" are murals of such heroes as Oscar De La Hoya
and Florence Griffith Joyner on the concrete a barbed wire walls.

Until now.

On Saturday afternoon, the Los Angeles Central
Juvenile Hall did what no other juvenile hall in the
county has ever done: It held a prom.
The event was intended to give 73 youths--ages 16 to
19--a reward for earning their high school diplomas,
something Central officials say minors in
incarceration are altogether unaccustomed to receiving.
"It gives them an opportunity to feel proud," said
Dr. Jennifer Hartman, assistant superintendent of the
Los Angeles County Office of Education.
"It lets them feel human again."

But some Central staff members worried that too much
freedom, such as allowing direct contact between male
and female minors--something Central ordinarily
forbids--could lead to problems.
"We held a mixer last week and talked to the boys
about treating the young ladies with respect," said
Kenyaata Watkins, one of the coordinators of the prom.
"Once that went well, it alleviated qualms we had about [the event]."
"Some people don't think the kids deserve a night
like this," said Shirley Alexander, Central's
superintendent. "But you've got to do more than stick
kids in cells if you want them to rehabilitate and return to society."

 Many Violent, Repeat Offenders

Most won't be returning to society any time soon. The
facility, which holds 619 minors, making it the
largest in Los Angeles county, is also the most
notorious. Central houses more violent and repeat
offenders in Los Angeles than any other facility.
According to Central officials, all the boys and most
of the girls attending the prom fall into that category.

Yet the prom, dubbed "Stepping Into the Next
Millennium," went off without a hitch.
Beginning at 4 p.m. on a clear and breezy afternoon
inside Central's vast interior grass courtyard, 45
nervous boys in black tuxedos, cuff links and stiff
new shoes escorted 28 girls, who wore glittering
gowns and walked unsteadily in high heels, to the
gymnasium for four hours of dining and dancing.
All of the clothing for the event was donated by
local merchants. Beauticians volunteered their time
to style the girls' hair and apply makeup.
"They said they would come but only to do one girl,"
said Maria Alvarez, who sat on the prom committee.
"But once they got here, forget about it. They were
so touched, they didn't leave until every girl was done."

Outside the gym, couples stopped momentarily for a
photograph in front of their choice of donated luxury
car--Mercedes, Rolls-Royce or stretch limousine--to
create the lasting impression of having arrived in style.

The gym was festooned with black, white and gold
balloons, drawings and paper decorations. Appetizer
arrangements included an apple juice fountain, mounds
of cheese and crackers, and ice sculptures filled
with fresh fruit. Dinner included chicken, baked
potato and ice cream with strawberries and cookies
for dessert.

"For a while I forgot that I'm incarcerated," said
Martin, 17, from East Los Angeles, whose trial is set
to begin later this summer. "This is the closest I'll ever get to a
prom. For others, however, the best part was just being
able to move about without restriction.
Juveniles at Central typically march in highly
structured groups, called movements. They are led by
trained detention officers and are required to walk
in silence, facing forward with their hands clasped
behind their back.

Ordinary activities such as using the bathroom,
making a phone call or writing a letter are
privileges at Central that require permission.
"When I got here tonight," said David, a wiry
17-year-old who has been incarcerated for more than a
year, "I wasn't sure if I needed to raise my hand to
get up. I was afraid to walk around."
Security officers were worried that the freedom might
lead to fights or even attempted escapes.
"You wouldn't know it tonight," said Duane Leet, who
was in charge of security for the prom, "but a lot of
these kids are aligned with hard-core street gangs
and would be going at it on any other night."
Still, full precautions were taken. The event was
staffed with 10 security officers, each carrying
pepper spray. Tables were arranged in a semicircle,
with minors seated farthest from the exits. And,
throughout the night, minors were discouraged from
clustering in groups or milling around the doors.

 Good Behavior Was 'A Pride Issue'

The evening passed without the slightest ruffle,
because, most said, nobody wanted to ruin a night this special.
"It's a pride issue," said Corey, 18, who was
selected prom king on the basis of his essay about
leaving the past behind. He and prom queen Sylvia,
19, shared the first dance. "We wanted to prove to
everyone that if they showed faith in us to do good,
then that's what we were going to do."
An encouraging attitude from hard-core offenders.
"Some of these kids are looking at 25-years-to-life
sentences," said Marty Fontain, a teacher at
Central's school. "For them to finish their degrees
in spite of all the distractions in a place like this
is extraordinary."

One of those distractions is a transfer to someplace
worse, such as the California Youth Authority or San
Quentin, which comes when a juvenile turns 19. So for
many at Central, education takes on an entirely
different meaning.

In prison, a GED can mean a safer yard assignment
with offenders who are less violent. It can also mean
greater store privileges, or better jobs, including
clerical, library or even tutorial work.
Mostly, though, education becomes a source of pride.
"I passed my GED as soon as I got here so I could do
something for my mother," said Charlie, 17, who
described himself as a "very high-risk offender."
"Taking classes has also eased the pain of being
locked up and taken my mind off court."
In the last several years, the number of minors
earning their high school diplomas or GEDs in Los
Angeles juvenile halls has increased dramatically.
This year, 998 graduated from high school; nearly 600
more than in 1994, according to Larry Springer,
director of Juvenile Court and Community Schools in Los Angeles.

Springer attributes the rise, in large part, to the
increased number of GED test centers. Several years
ago, minors could only take the GED at one juvenile
facility in the county. Today the test is offered
once a month at every juvenile facility.
Those at Central, however, give credit to the
school's strong curriculum, year-round classes and
favorable student-to-teacher ratio of 17 to 1.
Students, they say, routinely overcome reading
deficiencies measured at three or four years beneath grade
level. And this year's reward for that progress may be
incentive for future inmates hoping for a prom of
their own, although officials have not yet committed
to future dances.

After the prom, detention officers bent the rules and
allowed the boys to talk as they marched back to
their units. They laughed about the dancing, the
music and those who missed out by not graduating.
"These kids are going to be talking about this night
for a long time," said Joe Sills, a senior detention
service officer, as he pointed to the shadowed
figures of other boys staring out from their rooms at
the returning group. "They'll make sure the other
kids know how good this was."

"I'm not saying they wouldn't go out and make the
same mistakes again if they were let out today,"
Sills said. "But tonight they weren't murderers,
thieves, thugs, rapists and all the rest of that
madness. Tonight they were kids."


Also See:

Buddhism and Social Action An Exploration...Ken Jones

Violence and Disruption in Society...Elizabeth J. Harris