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Behind bars, needles help to heal Acupuncture treats addicted female inmates


After years of using needles to get high, Bridget hopes to use the curative needles of acupuncture to reclaim her life.

In jail at age 24, Bridget, who asked that her last name not be used, is one of hundreds of women addicted to drugs or alcohol taking part in a program of counseling and acupuncture at the Baltimore City Detention Center.

"It cleansed me and cured me of drug dreams," said Bridget, a mother of four who has used heroin since she was 21. "When I was doing drugs, I was never able to look inside myself. Now I have a plan."

Bridget is one of six female inmates at a jail ceremony highlighting the 2-year-old program. The Federal Bureau of Prisons and the American Jail Association say it is the only one in the nation to offer acupuncture behind bars. Officials said the effort has been so successful that the jail soon will begin offering it to male inmates as well.

Early results suggest that program participants are less likely to return to jail after their release. But a better assessment will have to wait until a thorough follow-up study is completed.

"I must confess I wasn't sure it would work," said Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. "But I believe anything that has that lasting power must have something that works."

Acupuncture, the 3,000-year-old Chinese art of healing, is now being used regularly around the country to treat drug addiction. In Oregon, for example, heroin addicts are required to undergo acupuncture before they are admitted to a program in which they receive methadone, the heroin substitute.

Jail Commissioner LaMont W. Flanagan said he decided to offer such a program after seeing a news report about a similar effort in New York City.

"We felt if it could help the hard-core addicts in New York City, it could certainly help the hard-core addicts in Baltimore," Mr. Flanagan said.

Paid for by federal and state funds, as well as a grant from the Baltimore-based Abell Foundation, the program provides six hours of counseling, education and acupuncture for two weeks. Acupuncturists from Traditional Acupuncture Institute in Columbia provide the 45-minute treatments five days a week.

Participating women live in a special jail dormitory to try to encourage support. Once they leave the jail, the women are urged to enroll in similar programs at several sites around the city.

Mary McCaul, a Johns Hopkins research psychologist who directs the program, cautioned that the jail sessions are not a cure-all.

"It's intended to jump-start the people," she said. "It's not intended to solve their problems."

Jayne, a 34-year-old inmate who recently finished the two-week program, said she felt an adrenalin-like surge when she underwent acupuncture.

"It helps to keep you calm if you're anxious or angry," said Jayne, who described herself as a longtime alcoholic who sometimes used crack and marijuana. "It helps you get in touch with your inner feelings."

In a treatment session yesterday, Jayne had six 1-inch needles in one ear, five in the other and one between her eyebrows. "For all the addicts out there, I just want to say this will help," she said. "But they have to want to be clean."

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