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Soul Searching

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 (the name he uses) 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."

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