Violence Ends Where Love Begins

The prison was the last stop for boys who had committed the worst of crimes, no petty theft cons here. These boys were in for 707 B offences- murder, rape, and armed robbery with a deadly weapon. Wearing identical khaki pants, cotton polo shirts, and close cropped hair, none of these clean cut wards was a day over eighteen. These boys were angry, depressed, suicidal even. I wondered how these children can value the lives of others when they hold no intrinsic value for their own life.

I was visiting the Challenger Memorial Youth Center in Lancaster, California to learn how a program called Prison SMART could help young inmates manage the negative emotions that landed them in prison. The cornerstone of the program, a meditative breathing technique called the Sudarshan Kriya- SKY Meditation, purports to reduce stress at a cellular level, curb unhealthy behaviors such as violence, apathy, and lethargy, and help human values such as compassion and selfless service emerge. The program needed money and I hoped to help by writing a few grant proposals.

My friend Tommy, a barrel chested teddy bear of a man who spent time as a troubled youth himself, was teaching the course. A bit rough around the edges, Tommy was also the most generous person I knew with an uncontainable heart.

One evening, I watched as Tommy lead one hundred-plus kids through a guided meditation before they went to bed. Row after row of boys all sitting on their cots, breathing to the same rhythm. The young wards then lay down on their beds and Tommy pulled out his guitar and sang them a song he wrote for them called “Street Lights.” A palpable wave of calmness entered the dark prison, and for a moment, these boys, all who had landed in prison with their bad choices and different stories, were experiencing the story of love.

The prison director told us he had never seen anything like the program in his 33 years of probation experience. He was astonished that the wards who entered the camp with hard angry compusures and delinquent attitudes were in his words, “transformed by the end of one week into happy, smiling youngsters.”

I had to collect testimonials to send to foundations, and they broke my heart. One boy wrote, “The program allowed me to relax my mind, as well as clear it, and build confidence that was hidden deep within I didn’t know about. My times aren’t the best right now, but I will strive on to survive. At one point in time in my life I wanted it to end, but as I concentrated and looked deep inside myself, I found vital value. There is a lot for me to live for. There is responsibilities I have to take care of; there is a lot for me to change for. Thank you for all you’ve done.”

I don’t think teaching SKY Meditation and human values is a panacea for everything, a silver bullet to keep kids out of prison and prevent them from committing violent crimes. There are so many layers to this problem that I cannot even list them all here. But I do think it can help give these kids a better chance when the odds are stacked against them. And that chance can make all the difference. #makeyourpeacestrong