JANET KINOSIAN - SPECIAL TO THE TIMES - 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 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 control.
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 some help."
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
harmonica class every Tuesday.
Kilpatrick is one of 13 juvenile detention camps owned and run by
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 with questions.
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
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
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
a group of teenage girls crawls out of the lodge, one assesses the
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."