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Learning to Be Real Men

June 07, 2004

Los Angeles County's newly minted Domestic Violence Dudes, as they call themselves, closed their graduation ceremony May 27 at the Lynwood jail with a rendition of "Lean on Me" so raucous and emotional that Bill Withers' version sounds reedy and flat in comparison.

But the 33 men who completed the innovative Bridges to Recovery program -- convicted batterers all -- didn't land behind bars because they were touchy-feely guys. A couple had tattoos over their eyebrows; all had that tense chip-on-the-shoulder look.

Still, each man beamed when the programs director at Lynwood's Century Regional Detention Facility, Sheriff's Department Lt. Terence McCarty, called him to the podium for a certificate and a handshake. Some gave a thumbs-up to their buddies in jail-blue suits. Some got teary-eyed.

For two hours, the jail felt like a revival meeting. In a way it was, because the men who finished the difficult six-week program knew that the ceremony could mark the start of a new life.

In his turn on the podium, an elegantly dressed and beaming James Beard, one of the program's no-bull instructors, asked the graduates to recite the watchwords that now guide them.

They roared back:

"Don't interrupt her!"

"Listen!"

"Don't take it personal!"

Those glib slogans mask painful weeks spent with their fellow inmates. Each day these men had to share long-buried anger and hurt. They've had to own up to punches thrown at wives and girlfriends and beatings inflicted on cranky toddlers or mouthy 10-year-old sons. Each day they've struggled to understand why that abuse is wrong and to learn new ways to act toward the women and children in their lives. Now they promise to do better, to live like "real men," as Javier Lopez, one of four graduation speakers, vowed.

Bridges to Recovery is one of three innovative programs at the Lynwood jail. The other two focus on drug users and military veterans who have committed crimes. For five years, as waves of budget cuts have crashed over county government, Sheriff Lee Baca has sheltered these modest efforts at inmate rehabilitation. Why? Because they're relatively cheap and they seem to work.

Sheriff's Department data from the program's early years show that only 9% of Bridges graduates were convicted of domestic violence within a year of their release.

McCarty and his staff acknowledge that some of their success comes from careful screening. They don't accept criminals who have used a gun, and no inmate is required to participate. Those who volunteer live in the same cellblock. If you fight, you're out. The only equipment the handful of charismatic instructors use are hard plastic chairs and a box of Kleenex.

But for those open to the possibility of change, it seems to come, one painful insight at a time. State prison officials and sheriffs in other counties ought to take notice.

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