Monday, January 2, 2012

The Razor Wire Chronicles: Define Crazy

"You have to out crazy them." I heard that from one staff recently and it immediately hurled me back in space and time to my experience at Martin Center, an inpatient adolescent psychiatric treatment unit, that I worked in shortly after I graduated from college. I was sitting at a picnic table across from a guy named Bruce doing what constituted an interview at that facility. Bruce had wild Einstein hair that never had any two hairs pointing in exactly the same direction and he liked to smoke a lot of weed and talk platitudes which made sense to nobody except for him. I had little bit of experience at a rougher facility so I managed to wrangle an interview. I expected to sit in an office and face the usual inquisition from 2-5 earnest management types. Sitting at a picnic table was definitely more my style. At the tender age of 24 I was easily impressed by such seasoned veterans of the social service system. That awe would fast fade but Bruce's rhetoric pulled me in for awhile.

In my latest reincarnation as the mostly self-identified change agent of another social service system, ( a lockup facility this time), such rhetoric seems dated and bizarre. It could be a combination of age (I just turned 50) and weathering. I have been doing this stuff for over 25 years now. This Stuff is doing everything I possibly can to help young people make better lives for themselves. I am no longer interested in out crazying them. Today I am more interested in out wising them. There was a time when I bought into such nonsense. I believed, like Bruce believed that if I acted crazier than the residents they would magically come to some sudden state of awareness and enlightenment. Today those notions seem anachronistic.

It's not that I am not macho and masculine. But somewhere along the way I became a peaceful warrior. I discovered little tricks like speaking softer and softer and softer still. Magically this gets the boys to listen even better. I hear tales of trying to get the boys to follow rules. Rumor has it one veteran staff read them the rules for four hours. Doing learning style and psychological math this means that they were listening for about twelve minutes which leaves three hours and forty eight minutes of absolute wasted time.

Some of these kids are veterans of the system as well. Some cite their long list of program failures like other men brag of trophy bucks and skiing down impossible chutes. They are not impressed easily or by much. They have seen the best and worst the system has to offer (or not offer). They have mastered the art of tuning us out. Somebody droning on for four hours about rules will most likely not capture their imagination.

What captures their imagination is unrelenting kindness and acceptance. They like people who are genuinely interested in them and listen. They like people who have something different to offer.

They have seen crazy too. There is always someone bigger, badder and more intense. To quote Jack Nicholson: "Go sell crazy somewhere else, we're all full up here."

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Razor Wire Chronicles: Lavender Flavored Sandals

I'm not sure because I have not asked around on this particular issue but I am reasonably certain that I am the only juvenile detention officer or GLC (Group Life Coordinator) who sprays his sandals with lavender water before coming to work. It's not that I believe it will somehow elevate my consciousness or cleanse my aura. It's that after a few days at work my hiking sandals start to stink. I have noticed that I am the only staff that wears hiking sandals and Hawaiian shirts even in the middle of winter. A few people have observed and commented on my apparel but for the most part I am accepted as the token offbeat creative slightly out of sync with the popular culture paradox.

I just came to accept that I make a pretty crappy detention officer. I can't figure out all these keys. I'm at that point in my life where few things make me feel I have to raise my voice. The years have passed too many suns now to keep me mean any longer. I have a tough time taking all these rules seriously and I still suffer from the naive and idealistic stance that if we all tried a little harder,meditated a little more and laughed at ourselves at least once a day things would work out a little better.

I have noticed that most everybody else wears cowboy boots, "business casual" or sturdy tennis shoes. They see my sandals with my pale winter toes poking through and they either shudder or put me in the watch closely category. Maybe they think I'm just trying to be weird or different but the reality is I never had to try to be weird or different. That comes to me just as naturally as breathing.

The reality is that my feet just get really hot quite easily. This may have come from a lifetime of either going barefoot or wearing sandals and mocassins or perhaps it's a condition which only a practitioner of Chinese medicine can cure. When I wear sock and shoes indoors (which seems quite barbaric to me) my feet sweat.  Sandals with closed toes are the best option.

A few months into this ride I can say I have already made changes. Kid in JAIL have yoga mats in their rooms. A few months from now a labyrinth outlined by lavender plants will grace a spot that is now a lawn. We toss swords, do yoga and meditate. "The future's so bright I gotta wear shades."

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Razor Wire Chronicles: Breaking More Rules

I did it again. It could be a carefully calculated impulse control disorder. Is getting bored too easily at 50 an issue? Is wanting to keep things interesting an issue for myself or the residents or both?

A few days ago I brought some knockoff kendos to work play with after dodgeball. That may not have been the best idea. A few residents treat dodgeball like Armageddon. They became a litttle too involved in the outcome of the game.  I  put my kendos away for another day.

A few days later before yoga class I circled up the boys and started talking about awareness, paying attention, stillness and other classic warrior concepts. It helped that I showed "Peaceful Warrior" the night before. They were tuned in and they were ready. I jokingly asked the woman who monitors the cameras to turn them off for an hour or two. It seems like some of my activities make her nervous.

After a brief chat and frontloading about not wanting to get smacked in the head we began tossing the kendos around. This was something new and different: weapons or potential weapons inside of a secure facility!

There is something about being trusted that brings out the best in people. We threw the fake swords for fifteen minutes or so and then we settled into a long vinyasa yoga class.  The boys got it. Every day that something works is a good day.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Razor Wire Chronicles: Breaking the Rules

I broke the rules. I suppose it was just a matter of time. It wasn't like I required practice or it was something new. I have a long, familiar and fond association with breaking rules. A great deal of my fondest and most formative memories came from not quite doing things the way I was taught or told. In my last job I started from the beginning by deviating from the official curriculum.  While initially my methods were viewed with skepticism and doubt by official minds, eventually I was invited by state officials to present at state conferences on how I broke the rules and how much better that was than the old programs. At times, in formal classroom settings, I even teach kids to break rules. I teach them to break the three rules of dysfunctional families:

  • Don't talk
  • Don't trust
  • Don't feel
The rule I broke was created by someone long ago at the institution and few doubt its veracity. Quite simply, the residents are not allowed to touch each other and staff are not allowed to touch residents. Nobody shakes hands, puts a friendly hand on a shoulder or hugs. The residents, in addition to passing weeks or months without natural sunlight, must forgo human contact for indefinite periods of time.

The first time I broke the no-contact rule, it was a matter of necessity. I was teaching a Yoga Calm ( class. One resident, who might be slightly dyslexic, had twisted his body into an uncomfortable mutation of triangle pose. My attempts to "verbally adjust" his asana had only been met with frustration on his part so I simply asked if I could physically adjust him. I generally refrain from physical adjustments but this time it was the best option. He thanked me from his much more comfortable pose.

A week later I found myself with more residents in my yoga class. We had been doing pretty much the same flow for several weeks now and I wanted to shake things up a little. I inserted "Tree Challenge" into the routine. During Tree Challenge, two people stand in tree pose and while pressing palms against each other attempt to get their opponent to put the other foot on the ground.

After that it was easy. By the next week, several had been on work crew and were asking for poses that might relieve shoulder pain. I showed them my personal "one cord of wood asana." Then before I knew it I was asking them how they felt about doing partner stretches. All were in agreement so we just moved forward into Lynea and Jim Gillen's series of partner shoulder stretches. It might get worse this week. Stay tuned!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Razor Wire Chronicles: Dodge Ball is Alive and Well

 The house of detention where I am am temporarily incarcerated and employed eight or more hours a day five days a week may be the only place in North America where people still get to throw volleyballs and basketballs at each other. The entire court is only about sixty feet long so the balls still have a lot of velocity. Play is fierce and frantic. It may the only time during the day when the residents can openly express aggression.

Some of the residents who cannot dominate in other areas of milieu life and otherwise don't "succeed" within the level system and other rules find 20 or 30 minutes of success. Of course there is the downside that like tag, dodgeball teaches youth how to pick off the weak and the slow.

Strangely enough, youth who to use the local vernacular, "suck" dodgeball still play it with abandon. They are often the first pegged by the rapid fire onslaught but it's a momentary escaped from the mundane and I think they consciously or unconsciously recognize that. At least when a ball is hurled at them they are getting some attention.

In America beyond the walls, whole committees of parents organize to remove dodgeball from PE. Maybe that's a good thing. But as this boomer one day away from 50 ponders these things I just have to remember that I survived dodgeball and somehow not completely avoiding pain, risk and injury in my childhood may have made me a better person that knows how to duck.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Razor Wire Chronicles: Original Instructions

If you hang around Native people and Red Road ceremonies long enough, eventually you will hear allusions references to "the original instructions." Few people know what these actually are but they they are important. Even medicine women and men can't really explain what this means although most will try. It probably is just common sense stuff: honor the earth, protect the elders and the children, store enough food for hard times, never smile at cougars and never ever listen to bluejays (they are notorious liars).

When it comes to corrections, there were some original thoughts which we have strayed from as well. "Penitent" is the root word for penitentiary. The original idea behind penitentiaries was to be penitent. Those who broke the law were sent to a monastery like setting to live with monks and priests. The idea was to pray, meditate, reflect, and eventually be forgiven for one's sins.

If you go to a monastery or prison, you may notice some subtle similarities.  Austere quarters,minimal food and simplicity are the norm......but today the United States, with only 5% of the world's population has 20% of the world's prison population......Somebody must have forgotten the original instructions.....

To Be Continued

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Razor Wire Chronicles

These days, instead of walking past playgrounds full of laughing children on my way to my office in a school somewhere in America, I drive through a cyclone fence gate decorated with a coil of razor wire. I am working,  shall we say, on the other end of prevention.....prevention gone wild. This is where the kids go who flunked prevention. Perhaps all of our best efforts failed them. I am 49 years old and I have to go through three locked doors to go to the bathroom. The "residents" have a list of demands and grievances each day. They rarely say "hello" or "how was your day Jeff?"

Nevertheless I have already made changes. Almost all of the boys now have a yoga mat in their cells. Five large exercise balls materialized on the cellblock one night. Although a few boys abuse the privilege of these items I dryly warn them to keep their balls on the ground or they will be removed.

It can be a grim setting. With the exception of paper sized window in each cell, no natural light enters the facility. Residents can pass weeks or even days with only the glare of fluorescent lights coming off and on to mark the passing of night and day. Life in the institution could prepare them for a winter in the Arctic.

To Be Continued