JANET KINOSIAN - The LA Times, Tuesday,
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 young inmates.;
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
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
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 data.
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
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
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
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."
Kusala spending some time in Central Juvenile Hall
with Buddhist volunteer Michele
Playing some blues
the guys in Juvenile hall with
volunteer Michele Benzamin-Masuda looking on.
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
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 dont
have anything. All the things I wanted to do and the person
I wanted to be died
on April 7, 1997.
Im really hurt. I dont know how Im going
to tell my parents that their little
girl has been found guilty of all charges. And its
really hard for me because Im
still a little girl. I was only sixteen years and nineteen
days old at the time of the
crime. Now Im eighteen years and two days old and
I still feel as if Im only
sixteen. Why did they take my life, dreams, hopes and family
away from me?
Dont 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, whats the purpose? If I going
to suffer all my life, Id
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
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 dont
believe me, its okay
because at least God and I know the truth.
cry. I havent 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
after I came from court and me and Osuna stood inside the
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 Im 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 couldnt
answer their questions but through my tears they knew what
had happened. Now
Im 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
Night to Remember!
most notorious youth lockup is an unlikely place for a
prom. But Saturday evening, That's just what it was.
SAM BRUCHEY, Times Staff Writer
call this place the crossroads. It's where children pass
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
"outs" are murals of such heroes as Oscar De La Hoya
and Florence Griffith Joyner on the concrete a barbed wire
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."
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
"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
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
Behavior Was 'A Pride Issue'
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
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
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
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.
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."
and Social Action An Exploration...Ken
and Disruption in Society...Elizabeth