Quiet approach to calming jail

Baltimore: Methods varying from classes in meditation to cell searches seem to be succeeding in reducing violence among female jail inmates.

April 20, 2002|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

Sharron Cole is awaiting trial on drug-dealing charges. But with the help of Baltimore jail officials, she's also awaiting inner peace through yoga and Zen meditation, both of which she and 20 other inmates have been learning behind bars.

"When they first came to me in jail and said, `Do you want to learn to meditate?' I just laughed," said Cole, 30, who is being held at the Baltimore City Detention Center on drug charges for the fourth time. "I said, `I've sold drugs all my life. What do I want to meditate for?'"

The meditation program for female inmates, which state officials say is the first of its kind in the country, is the latest unorthodox approach by LaMont W. Flanagan, commissioner of pretrial detention and services, to reducing jail violence.

Those efforts include a squad of black-uniformed "special security" officers who roam the jail - occasionally armed with chemical and electrified weapons - confronting inmates and tearing up cells in search of homemade weapons.

The aggressive search-and-seizure tactics have turned up dozens of weapons at the detention center in the 400 block of E. Madison St. Such homemade weapons can range from crude knives, called shanks, made from toothbrush handles to electrically charged guns made from the motors of portable compact disc players.

In recent years, the outspoken Flanagan, whose motto is "Let's entertain them before they entertain us," has staged preacher rallies, stand-up comedy nights and semi-pro boxing spectacles in the jail.

Flanagan said both approaches are needed to reduce jail violence, which he says has decreased by more than 50 percent since the program began in October 1999.

"This is an attempt to continue our serious work in reducing violence and to provide these inmates with mechanisms to deal with life in both its good and bad circumstances," he said.

"The meditation program gives the inmates the opportunity to think about themselves and gives them the ability to cope with depression, stress, and disappointment in ways other than drug addiction."

Buddhist instructors

The meditation program began in September, led by instructors from the Buddhist Network of Greater Baltimore and including female inmates charged with offenses that include assault, drug distribution and theft.

Jail officials say the main aim is to help the women reduce stress, aggressiveness and violence.

The meditation classes usually last 90 minutes or an hour, and each inmate is expected to attend about four sessions a week to "graduate."

Participants meet in a classroom setting, often lying back on padding at the urging of an instructor and going into a meditative state.

Instructors say the lessons of meditation aren't complicated: mindfulness, humbleness, kindness and self-discipline.

"One of the lessons we teach is that if they can learn to discipline themselves through mindfulness and meditation, they won't have to be disciplined by the state," said Gry Gambert, a volunteer instructor from the Baltimore Dharma Group, a meditation collective.

"We are extremely impressed by what is going on here. It's a pioneering program in the U.S."

Last week, Flanagan, wearing a blinding white Nehru outfit, presided over a jail ceremony at which women who have finished the institution's stress meditation course got a graduation fete, a Baltimore City Detention Center T-shirt and a written testimonial from the commissioner. Each got a Polaroid picture of herself posing with Flanagan.

Among the graduates of the most recent class is Helen Prettyman, a 36-year-old East Baltimore woman who was arrested Nov. 11 on drug-distribution charges. Prettyman said she never expected to go to jail and learn something that would help make her a better person.

Boost for self-esteem

"I'd never heard of meditation in my life," said Prettyman, who also took part in the yoga component of the meditation training. She performed a ballet number in front of more than 100 female inmates at the Detention Center on Thursday and got a standing ovation.

"It's doing a lot for my self-esteem," she said. "Just because we're in jail doesn't mean we can't improve and grow. It also makes for a more peaceful environment; there are no fights in here."

That's one of the main aims of Flanagan's violence-reduction program at the 2,933-bed detention center. In a report he prepared on jail violence, Flanagan estimates that more than 45,000 inmates a year pass through the city detention center.

The meditation approach contrasts starkly with other efforts begun in 1999, a year with 233 inmate-on-inmate assaults in the first quarter.

Among them was creation of a Special Security Unit made up of about eight officers whose primary job is searching inmates and their cells for homemade weapons that have become a trademark of jailhouse attacks, the report said.

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