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Newspaper Article
This article was featured in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on Wednesday, November 7, 2001.

Healing Hands at the County Jail
By Mary Sanderson, Staff Writer

Two inmates are stretched out on examining tables in a classroom at the Hampshire County House of Correction, each with a pair of their peers standing over them. The men on the tables lie still as the others place their hands gently on their legs. After a few minutes, the hands move to the abdomens, the chests, the necks, the heads.

Seated throughout the room on folding chairs, about 30 other inmates watch as Michelle McCarthy explains what's going on.

Those moving their hands along the volunteers' bodies, she says, are practicing a Japanese relaxation technique called Reiki.

The practitioners are positioning their hands on the volunteers' chakras, or energy centers, and are using their sense of touch and intuition to figure out where energy is blocked.

As they touch the chakras - located in the head, neck, shoulders, upper chest, abdomen, legs and feet - the practitioners try to channel ki, or life-force energy, from the environment, through their own bodies and out their hands to the bodies of the men on the tables, she explains. If they sense a specific area of the body needs work, they will stray from the chakra points to focus energy there as well, she says.

Relieves Stress

McCarthy, a reiki master from Chicopee, has trained the inmates demonstrating the technique. She has been holding sessions at the house of correction since June. Health counselor Cathy Rigali invited her after attending one of McCarthy's classes.

Since some reiki therapists say the technique relieves stress, balances emotions and eases withdrawal symptoms for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, Rigali says, she thought it might be beneficial to inmates.

McCarthy was willing to volunteer her time, but she says jail officials seemed wary. "I don't believe any of them for one minute thought there was anything to it," she says with a laugh.

Several meetings and rounds of paperwork later, McCarthy was given permission to hold a Reiki information session with jail staff and inmates.

Since then, she has held two daylong workshops at the jail to teach Reiki techniques. So far, five inmates have been trained in the basics. One has proceeded to an advanced level.

While the men work on their peers on the examining tables, others are performing the technique on men who are seated.

Though a treatment usually consists of resting hands on each of a person's seven chakras, it can be modified for those who may feel uncomfortable with being touched, says McCarthy.

Practitioners, instead, can utilize a person's aura, or energy field, located three to six inches from his or her body, says McCarthy.

They might also skip working on someone's neck if they think the contact might make the patient feel vulnerable or defensive.

Students can be taught to perform Reiki on themselves by concentrating and channeling energy through their own bodies to the various chakras, according to McCarthy.

But most of the inmates who are volunteering at the demonstration appear to have no qualms about receiving a regular, hands-on treatment. "I think more people wanted the contact," says Joshua Washburn, 22, one of the Reiki-trained inmates.

Students can be taught to perform reiki on themselves by concentrating and channeling energy through their own bodies to the various chakras, according to McCarthy.

Human contact is limited in our society in general, and even more so in jail, says Scott Campbell, 41, another inmate who has learned the technique. That often makes the inmates feel awkward about signing up for Reiki, he says. They see it as "one guy touching another guy, and they get freaked out about it."

But according to Campbell, that human contact is part of the beauty of Reiki. "It's a sharing of energy," he says.


After about an hour, the demonstration is over. The inmate practitioners make sweeping motions with their arms over the volunteers' bodies to clear away negative energies that may have been released during the treatment.

The men on the beds slowly sit up, still in a sleepy stupor. The blood rushes back to their faces. The practitioners hand them glasses of water and tell them to drink six to eight glasses of water daily for at least three days. The water acts like a final sweep to flush out toxins.

Before they can completely get their bearings, those in the audience are asking what it was like.

"It felt warm. It felt good," says Melvin Harris, 25. "I liked it."

Gary Hatzipetro, 36, concedes he was nervous about receiving the treatment - especially in front of his peers.

"I was in front of a whole room of people, which seemed uncomfortable at first, but after I got up on the table, it was very relaxing and felt very safe," he says. "I had a lot of stuff on my mind, and I was able to let things go."

About Change

McCarthy says she stresses that Reiki is about change. She asks her beginning students to keep a journal. "Start writing because you are not going to be the same," she tells them.

When McCarthy was introduced to reiki, she says, she was in the emotional throes of divorce, was overworking herself and had a short temper. For her, Reiki was a release that allowed her to calm down so she could smooth over problems and find balance in her life.

"We have to fix ourselves," she tells the inmates. "When you fix yourself, you become a beacon of light in your community."

Change is something these inmates welcome, they say. That is what prompted many of them to apply for Life Skills, an educational program at the house of correction which aims to rehabilitate inmates and provide them with skills such as computer programming that will be useful when they leave.

The program requires inmates to take three classes on subjects such as parenting, anger management and substance abuse. Reiki workshops are offered as an extra activity similar to art, music and woodshop classes available for Life Skills participants.

"I'm trying to change my life," says Jason Benoit, 22, who has learned to perform Reiki. "I'm trying to do different things."

Benoit says he has two toddlers to think of and does not want to end up in jail again. He says Reiki has made him happier and more open-minded. And it helps him relieve stress and tension, he adds. When he gets angry, he does a session on himself to calm down.

Chris McLeod, 27, who attended the first Reiki workshop, admits, "My first couple minutes [in the workshop], I thought, 'Why did I sign up for this?'" But he says he felt Reiki eased his stress. Now, he practices it nearly every day to fall asleep easier or to help peers with aches and pains.

"This ended up being one of the smartest moves for me," he adds. "It helps me deal with everything I encounter."

Washburn says he shares his new skill with others every chance he gets, whether he is working at the library or waiting for his turn in the barber shop. "I think most of them are surprised when it works," he says.

Orlando Wright, 28, is the first inmate to complete more advanced training called Level II. He says helping others is what makes Reiki so appealing to him.

"You get more benefit out of watching someone's face after they have received Reiki," Wright says. "If I put a smile on someone's face, then my good deed for the day is done."

Officials Convinced

While McCarthy says jail officials seemed skeptical at first, the program appears to be earning their respect.

"It's quite an accomplishment to commit that amount of time to become practitioners," says Sheriff Robert Garvey.

While each level requires only one day of training with a master, the skill is largely developed independently. McCarthy advises her students to practice on themselves every day and to listen to their instincts to find what works for them.

To reward that dedication, jail officials are working with the inmates to develop the program.

Reiki practitioners are now allowed to perform the technique in their peers' living quarters, and staff and inmates were recently given the go-ahead to practice Reiki on each other.

Another training workshop is being planned for new students.

Scott Campbell has written a proposal for a weekly Reiki exchange that will allow inmates to practice their skills on a more regular basis.

"It's the first time I've ever done something like that," he says. "It's quite a project."

The proposal had to include considerations for security, jail schedules and rules for behavior. Campbell is now awaiting a meeting with officials to negotiate the matter.

In the meantime, Garvey has volunteered for a Reiki treatment to show his support. "And I look forward to it," he says.

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