By Ananda Shorey
BALTIMORE – Meditation music hums through the single-wide trailer as 25 men in maroon uniforms, their names scrawled on plastic identification bracelets, sit shoulder-to-shoulder in a cramped circle.
One man with long fingernails grasps a blue Narcotics Anonymous book. When the men introduce themselves, they say, “Hi, family, my name is Michael.” The group responds, “Hi, Michael.”
But this is no church-basement Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. These men are sitting in a worn annex nestled in a sea of chain-link fences and barbed wire, and they have tiny copper needles sticking out from the edges of their ears.
They are drug addicts, inmates at the Maryland Detention Center who have agreed to submit to regular acupuncture treatments in an effort to kick their habits.
In the unlikely setting of the prison trailer, its stagnant air smelling like a mixture of gas-station grime and sour sweat, the inmates talk earnestly, eagerly, about the love they get from their counselors and the healing energy within themselves that they say acupuncture has helped them reach.
“The acupuncture program is more effective than other programs because it puts you in a state of meditation,” said Gwynn, a drug addict for 27 years.
Gwynn, who had gone through several detoxification programs without success, said it took some prodding for him to accept the idea of acupuncture and of working with the powers within his body.
But if any skepticism lingers among the inmates in the trailer, it is not apparent as the men sit in silence and listen to Paul Buchman, the acupuncturist who treats their ailments and addictions as well as providing psychological help.
Buchman tells the group that the natural powers in life do the healing, and his job is to work with those powers to help the men help themselves.
“I can treat you, but healing has to come from within,” he said. “First you rely on heroin, then on acupuncture, then on yourself.”
In addition to Buchman, the inmates are coaxed along by Prenettie Blanton, the director of the prison’s substance abuse program.
Blanton, in a cream-colored fuzzy hat and bright fuchsia lipstick, is a soft-spoken woman, but the men hang on every word as she explains the importance of planning their futures. With each encouraging word, her role as the group’s mother figure became more apparent.
“You are not just living, you are existing,” Blanton tells them.
The irony of using needles to treat drug addiction is not lost on prison officials or the inmates, who show varying discomfort and curiosity as Buchman works his way around the room, deftly flicking small needles into their outer ears.
“It is a paradox — hard-core addicts using crack every day, afraid of the pain of the needle,” said LaMont Flanagan, commissioner of the Maryland Division of Pretrial Detention Services.
“We are afraid of a needle, and so are addicts,” said Flanagan, who began the acupuncture program in 1993. But when addicts are “using a needle to get high, the expected pleasure is greater than the fear of the needle.”
Program administrators said inmates gradually get used to the needles, and that the relaxing environment inside the trailer helps put them at ease. Still, Gwynn has to “brace myself against the wall when the needles prick my ears.”
But most of the men in the trailer said that the benefits of acupuncture outweigh any sting involved with the therapy. Many said they sleep better now, and no longer feel the cravings for drugs that they used to have.
Tracy said he used to turn to heroin to make his loneliness go away, but that acupuncture made him face his emotional pain and helped him do away with the desire for drugs.
“Before, I used to look for cigarettes on the ground,” Tracy said. “But now I don’t want cigarettes or drugs — I don’t even want aspirin.”
Michael said the acupuncture that helps him cope with life also saved his life. “Acupuncture relaxes me and helps me find myself within,” he said.
Treatment usually runs for 14 sessions, with inmates getting 10 needles in their ears at the beginning and gradually decreasing to five needles per session. Visits drop off as treatment advances, but they can be increased if an inmate feels his cravings returning.
“People are sticking me more than I was sticking myself,” as a drug addict on the outside, said Gwynn of the repeated treatments.
But the inmates, who volunteer for the program, keep coming back. Many are like Darryl, who said he had sleeping problems before joining the program.
“Now I sleep like a baby,” he said. “Acupuncture is lovely.”