AVP-Baltimore Penitentiary

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On April 28, 1992 my friend Natalie Sokoloff and I facilitated the first of three AVP (Alternatives to Violence Project) workshops at the Baltimore Penitentiary, a maximum-security prison housing violent offenders. Built in 1811, the building's old turrets and walls of stone made it ominously cold, grey, and foreboding. It was like a remnant of a dark past. Though I had conducted AVP workshops in other prisons, this was the first time I had been inside this particular facility.  Natalie, a professor of Sociology at John Jay College of Criminal-Justice, accompanied me as my co-facilitator in order to conduct research of her own. I was glad to have her by my side.

The interior of the building was typical of many prisons I'd visited. There were the usual iron bars, and chain-link cages. The guards were courteous as they performed their routine of checking our paperwork and verifying our identification.  After we cleared the first checkpoint, we passed through a gate to a holding area where we were scanned for contraband and given our visitors badges. Grumbling iron bars parted slowly to reveal a large, rectangular asphalt courtyard called the recreation area. This is where inmates were allowed outdoors for an hour each day to walk around.

The guard, who is typically unarmed, escorted us through the yard to the Education Building where the workshop was to be held. Inmates milled around in small groups stopping to stare at us as passed. Once at our destination, the inmates who had requested the AVP training, met us and introduced themselves. The guard told us to call if we needed anything, then left us on our own and returned to his post in the reception building.

There were fifteen participants in our group. They ranged in age from 19 to 38 years. All of them had long sentences. Some of them were 'lifers'. They had heard about AVP and hoped that by taking the training, they might make their time behind bars more bearable. They also knew that if they wanted to, it was possible to take further training to qualify them to co-facilitate AVP workshops.

AVP workshops typically take about 20 hours spread out over a three-day period. Exercises are experiential in nature and build on basics concepts such as, communication skills , cooperation and community building. They are meant to help participants cope with the violence in their lives. The first day is always introductory in nature. We covered the ground rules, practiced basic listening and communicating skills, and generally became acquainted with one another.  At the end of the day, Natalie and I were pleased that the men seemed receptive and ready for the conflict management skills we would introduce the next day. We called for the guard, who escorted us back through the recreation yard to the reception area where we turned in our badges and went home.

On the following morning when we returned for day two, the tension was palpable in the receiving area.  All was quiet. There was no casual conversation between the guards who stood with their backs to the walls and glanced from side to side. I asked what the problem was and one of them told me that it had just been announced that the LAPD Police Officers accused of brutally beating Rodney King, had been acquitted. That acquittal sparked what is known today as the 1992 Los Angeles Riots.

We looked outside and saw the inmates were not casually walking around in small groups this time. They formed one large group just outside the doorway. Fists were clenched. Jaws were set. Some had their arms crossed against their chests. Eyes were narrowed and focused on the reception center. On this morning the guard who would normally be our escort, opened the door and told us that we knew where to go and we could get there on our own. Natalie and I looked at one another and nonverbally decided to suck it up and go for it. As we walked through the yard, the men parted to let us through and we arrived at our destination safely.

Compared to the previous day, our participant group was ominously quiet and tense. They greeted us politely, but they looked away from us and stared into space. There was nothing we could say to make it better, so we set up what we called a ‘confrontation in triads’. We divided the inmates into groups. Each group of three persons was to sit, as a group, separately from the other groups.  They were to take turns playing three roles. a. The confronter (Rodney King). b. The confronted (a juror). c. The observer.  “Rodney King” was to ask the juror how he justified acquitting the police officers. The juror was to defend his actions. The observer was to simply observe the confrontation and report back to the group. Three minutes was allotted to each role, making the total exercise last less then 10 minutes.  When the exercise was finished, we gathered the participants to talk about their experience. No one had a problem with the exercise and, many reported being amazed that they found  themselves genuinely defending the juror's position. In the end, the demeanor of the inmates was noticeably softened, making it possible to continue the workshop as we had planned it.

When it came time to leave that afternoon, the inmates escorted us back to the main building.

1992 Los Angeles riots

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The 1992 Los Angeles Riots, also known as the 1992 Los Angeles Civil Unrest and Rodney King Uprising, were sparked on April 29, 1992, when a jury acquitted four Los Angeles Police Department officers accused in the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King following a high-speed pursuit. Thousands of people in the Los Angeles area rioted over the six days following the verdict. At that time, similar, smaller riots and anti-police actions took place in other locations in the United States and Canada.[5] Widespread looting, assault, arson and murder occurred, and property damages topped roughly US$1 billion. In all, 53 people died during the riots and thousands more were injured.