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In Brooklyn, Using Yoga To Help Locked Up Youth Escape A Life Of Crime

Brooklyn’s Brownsville, one of the toughest neighborhoods in New York, is also home to one of the city’s three juvenile detention centers. There, a social worker and a choreographer are using yoga and meditation to help rehabilitate the center’s troubled

Participants in NYC's Lineage Project
Participants in NYC's Lineage Project
Luis Lema

BROOKLYN – Welcome to Brownsville in Brooklyn, one of the poorest districts in the Big Apple. It's also one of the city's most violent neighborhoods: this is the place where, almost traditionally, the first murder of the New Year is committed, every Jan. 1 at around 2 a.m. Dozens of murders follow, while nearly everywhere else in New York City, crime rates are dropping.

Brownsville is also home to Crossroads, one of New York City's three juvenile detention centers. For Beth Navon, the "white lady" who works with the facility's detainees through a yoga and meditation program called the Lineage Project, the location makes sense. Many of the 200 teenagers permanently incarcerated in Crossroads hail from the area, as do a lot of the guards keeping watch over them.

Technically speaking, Crossroads isn't a prison, since it doesn't house convicts. The detainees are instead youths awaiting trial. But it certainly looks like a prison: windowless walls, barbed wire, watchtowers, highly secure doors and security checks that are so strict that visitors would never be able to smuggle in even a pen or a notebook.

Like other detention facilities in the state, it also has a reputation for violence. The state of New York has come under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice over allegations of abuse and the death of one teenage inmate. Critics say the state's penal system routinely tramples on detainees fundamental human rights. Which is where Beth Navon comes in. The Lineage Project, she acknowledges, was chosen over many others to try to humanize a system that had clearly proven to be a failure.

Beth works with Jeremy. Together they walk through the last security gate towards the girls' block, where 20 cells surround a common room, several tables and chairs, a TV set and an old video game console. The young girls, dressed in white T-shirts and blue uniforms, are all aged between 13 and 15. Some of them look twice their age, with their arm and neck tattoos and their overly unbuttoned outfits. Others look half their age and seem to be under the control of the tattooed group. All of them are black or latino.

Jeremy is a choreographer. She is seven months pregnant and the guards have allowed her, for this one time, to bring a bottle of water to help her fight the stifling heat. Like Beth, Jeremy loves meditation and yoga. For many years, both women have been trying to reach out to the children at Crossroads. Careful not to offer unrealistic illusions, the women try nevertheless to establish links between the world of these juvenile inmates and the daily world outside the detention center.

Today's lesson will last an hour – and will end when the guards come in to clear the room. The exercises function as a rehabilitation program. It is in fact the only rehabilitation program available to the Crossroads detainees. For the girls, this funny lesson is not only an unusual way of changing their daily routines, but also an opportunity to show who is the roughest and toughest.

"What happens in your body when you're feeling angry?" Jeremy asks them. From experience, the girls know the answer well: tightening muscles, heightened breathing, sped up heart beat. "Well, let's try to feel differently," Jeremy suggests. She wants the girls to be self-aware, to forget about their hostile and stressful environment and to relax physically. The teenagers try the lotus position. They seem to be enjoying themselves, and then begin to laugh when asked to move their pelvis back and forth for a yoga exercise.

Later, when they are alone in their cells, will these young girls close their eyes and try to forget their living conditions by focusing on their inner selves?

The Lineage Project's files are full of promising stories about young people – even if difficulties still lie ahead for them right now. Meditation and yoga have proved useful and brought about spectacular changes in adult prisons. Programs have even been introduced for death row prisoners. Backers of the approach say that through mediation, prisoners can free their minds and thus in some sense transcend their physical incarceration. Yet the people running the Lineage Project are actually struggling to drop the "meditation" label. Apparently it scares off potential donors, even if Jeremy the choreographer and Beth the social worker are hardly new age guru types.

During the hour-long exercise sessions, the young girls have learned to open up their hearts as if they have known Beth and Jeremy their whole lives. The lessons offer a real contrast to the cold interactions they normally experience at Crossroads. "Here, people treat us like animals," Samantha says, sounding very upset. "No one can get out; we even need permission to go to the bathroom."

Before beginning a session in the boys' block, Beth Navon enjoys a quiet 20-minute break. "People will cross to the other side of the street on passing these teenagers when they get out of here," she reflects. Even more discouraging is the fact that many will end up back at Crossroads – sometimes just a few weeks after their release. "We'll see those same faces again," she says, "because some of them will have committed other offences."

In the common room, the boys are as tired and badly-behaved as the girls before them. But for a while, at least, the normal tensions of life at Crossroads dissipate. At the end of the lesson, guards search the boys from head to foot. All of the anger and pent-up violence returns. The inmates seem ready to explode.

But the lesson has triggered something for Sergio, the most rebellious boy in the group. Focusing on meditation and internal energy, he is reminded of a Mexican god with universal strength and the power to launch fireballs. Without realizing it, Sergio is referring to Tezcatlipoca, the most terrifying of the Aztec gods. God of the night sky, Tezcatlipoca tempted men in order to lead them to their own destruction. But he could also absolve them of any wrong-doing and sometimes help them change their own fates.

Read the original article in French

Photo – Lineage Project

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