Juvenile Inmates Learn to Chill Out
Oakland Tribune, Aug 29, 2004
by Alex Katz, STAFF WRITER
All inmates used fictitious names for this story.
SAN LEANDRO NICOLE, AN INMATE at Alameda County Juvenile Hall, knows a lot about stress.The 17-year-old from Oakland has a daughter and says she has been incarcerated five times, often for violating her parole.
Although Nicole can’t leave juvenile hall (at least for a few months), she says she is learning how to stay calm and deal with stress, thanks to classes taught at the facility by a San Francisco- based yoga and meditation group.
The Mind Body Awareness Project teaches the ancient practices of yoga and meditation in Bay Area high schools and the juvenile justice system to give young people ways to handle anger, think clearly and avoid violence.
“It helps them discipline themselves somewhat because they’re kind of frisky,” said George Perkins, senior institutional supervisor at Alameda County Juvenile Hall in uncorporated Alameda County near San Leandro.
Instructors from the group taught a recent class at juvenile hall where a sign on the wall warned “pepper spray is used in this area.”
Girls came to class after a meal of sloppy joes and fries in the cafeteria. They giggled and goofed off until a guard in the back of the room said “Anybody talking from this point on is dead!”
The girls learned several yoga poses, practiced meditation techniques and even heard a poem by Rumi.
Near the end of the class, instructor Spring Washam rang a bell to start a meditation practice. The ringing faded and the room was quiet except for the machine hum of the building and the jingle of Perkins’ keys.
One girl had trouble paying attention to instructions and was escorted out of class. In the next room was a salon where inmates practice doing hair, and the girl ended up sitting under the dome of a hair drier with a jailhouse scowl on her face.
Nicole said she uses the meditation techniques she learns in class when she is alone in her cell.
While meditating, “I think about my daughter,” she said. “I try to be humble and peaceful.”
Yoga and meditation can be a big help to students, many of whom have absent parents or live in group homes, and have emotional as well as legal problems, Perkins said.
Stress and anxiety are normal feelings for young inmates, he said. Children in juvenile hall spend a large amount of time alone in small cells with one rectangular window in the door, and have to ring a buzzer to call a guard when they want access to a bathroom.
The average stay is 19 and a half days, although some children are there much longer. Still, juvenile hall “is nothing compared to (adult) jail,” Perkins said. Children in juvenile hall go to school for more than six hours a day. They get time in the recreation yard and are allowed to participate in programs run by outside groups such as the “God Squad,” which comes to juvenile hall to preach Christianity to inmates.
Although the Mind Body Awareness Project introduces inmates to Buddhist principles, “We weave it in in more of a general way because we don’t want the kids to get freaked out,” Washam said.
After the girls’ class ended, the instructors walked down a few long hallways separated by locked metal doors to get to the boys’ side of the hall. The boys, who are much more squirrely than the girls, formed a circle in the cafeteria. They followed the instructors’ poses, but they moved around constantly or flopped on the floor when they lost balance.
Some of the boys in the class look like grown men, and others look like grade school students. The youngest inmates incarcerated in the facility are 10 years old, officials said.
Instructor Susan Fauman used to run a one-room private school in India, and now teaches at the Yoga Mandala studio in Berkeley. At juvenile hall, she teaches a breathing exercise to the boys, and says they can use it to calm down if they get angry.
“We’re training our minds to be warriors so we don’t get dragged around by our thoughts,” Fauman told the boys.
In the boys’ class, the instructors talk about how yoga and meditation can help control anger and other negative emotions. That’s different from the girls’ class, where they focus more on how meditation can be used to explore and embrace emotions.
Brian, 14, said he loves the classes, and might even stick with yoga when he gets out of juvenile hall. He declined to say how he got there in the first place. Meditation can “keep you calm and keep you out of trouble,” Brian said. “Yes, that’s very important, because it can keep you out of here.”
Contact Alex Katz at firstname.lastname@example.org
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