Investing in Our Future - Treating Trauma for our Youth in the Juvenile Justice System

It felt like any other inner city basketball court - fence-enclosed cracked blacktop, baskets in desperate need of repair. Except on this court, inmates file in to a circle of mats to spend an hour practicing yoga.

But, this day was different. From across the circle, two inmates meet eyes… and charge. Rival gang members spot each other and get ready to fight in solidarity to their respective gangs. But this isn’t some state or federal prison. These are teenagers. And this is Juvenile Hall in San Diego.

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Today, it’s widely known that these youth who come into contact with the juvenile justice system have high rates of mental health and substance-abuse conditions. 

"Most of us [in juvenile hall] come from traumatic childhoods,” says Missy Hart, who grew up in gangs in Redwood, CA. Now 28, Hart was incarcerated and served time in juvenile hall for marijuana possession.

In fact, as reported by the National Center for Youth Opportunity and Justice, among the youth involved in the juvenile justice system, 70% met criteria for a mental health disorder, 40% for a substance abuse disorder, and 90% had been exposed to trauma such as abuse or witnessing violence.

The impact of trauma on youth development and success

Though it’s well known that trauma increases the risk of youth being exposed to the juvenile justice system, not enough programs are in place to address the root trauma to prevent youth from entering the system.

One out of every twenty-five children, nearly three million in the US, experience some form of endangerment each year - almost a third experiencing direct physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. These childhood experiences are significant risk factors for substance abuse and are strongly related to the development of a wide range of health problems throughout one’s lifespan.

Treating the root cause, not the symptoms

Perhaps one of the biggest dangers to youth who are exposed to the system is the risk to their futures. These youth are two times as likely to not graduate from high school as their peers who have never been arrested. And if formally processed through the system, this rate increases to four times. 

But efforts are being made. Legislation is being passed to help integrate these child-serving systems in behavioral health, education, and welfare, to better address the needs of at-risk youth. Furthermore, communities are learning to divert youth with behavioral health needs into intervention services that provide alternatives to arrest.

Yoga for Trauma: OG Yoga and the San Diego Juvenile Justice System

Yoga is a tried and true method for treating trauma. A report from the Center on Poverty and Inequality at Georgetown Law argues that, since the effects of trauma can be physical, "body-mind" interventions, like yoga, may be able to uniquely address these effects. Slow, steady, controlled breathing calms the body’s flight or fight mechanisms; practicing presence can counteract the dissociative effects of trauma; and yoga’s physical practice can improve overall physical health.

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Here in San Diego, OG Yoga is partnering with San Diego Juvenile Justice system to bring programming to Juvenile Hall (teens awaiting sentencing) and Urban Camps (teens serving sentences). This programming is designed to help these youth access yoga, meditation and mindfulness to heal trauma.

“OG Yoga provides empowered space for youth to make decisions about their body - how deep to take a pose, when to back out,” says JoAnn Jaffe, OG Yoga’s founder. “They are taught self-inquiry to observe thoughts, feelings and emotions and to consciously respond rather than act out in old patterns of anger or violence.”

The key to success is addressing trauma. Trauma is at the root of homelessness, violence, substance abuse, and incarceration. As Oprah Winfrey said in regards to trauma, “If we don’t fix the hole in the soul, we are not fixing the problem.”

About OG Yoga

OG Yoga is a San Diego-based nonprofit whose mission is to deliver trauma- and diversity-informed, mindfulness-based yoga through partnerships with the systems serving marginalized individuals to support healing, resilience, self-development, and positive social change. To date, OG Yoga has worked with 40 organizations across San Diego to deliver our services to 4,000+ individuals over 10,000+ class visits.

But our work is far from over. Help support our mission of healing and bringing programming to those populations who need it most, such as our youth in the juvenile justice system. Just $20 supports one student, and $150 funds an entire class.