A writing and mentoring program in Los Angeles for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated youth is changing their lives from the inside out.
“There were many lessons my dear friend and mentor, Mark Salzman, taught me and the rest of his students 15 years ago. The ones that made the most profound impact in my life were to be vulnerable, to remain true to myself, to never forget the person I was and the person I was going to become. He taught us to believe in ourselves. … Mark also showed us the phenomenal power of creative writing—a tool I would use throughout my incarceration to vent my frustrations and sorrows.” From The InsideOUT Writers’ Corner, Fall 2012, Vol 2 Issue 2. “Jimmy Wu’s Journey: New Beginnings.”
Executive Director Wendelyn Killian pinpoints the origin of California non-profit InsideOUT Writers in the person of one Sister Janet Harris, who in 1996 was serving as chaplain at a juvenile hall in Los Angeles. Speaking to the young men about what they were going through, she found them frustrated, hopeless, afraid, and concerned they wouldn’t live to see adulthood. “What outlets could she provide for them to process those feelings?” asked the nun who is known as “The Velvet Hammer” because, as Killian describes her, “she can talk anyone into anything.”
Sister Janet thought a writing experience would be good for the young people incarcerated in the juvenile hall. After Los Angeles Times journalist Duane Noriyuki wrote about one of her students, Sister Janet asked him to come and teach a writing class. The program blossomed from three weekly writing classes offered in 1996 to an organization, co-founded by Harris, Noriyuki and other professional writers, that currently offers 38 weekly and biweekly classes at three Los Angeles County juvenile halls and one probation camp, serving 200-300 students within the Los Angeles County Juvenile Hall System every week.
The classes, taught by a volunteer staff of writers, poets, screenwriters, journalists and educators, give students the opportunity to refocus their lives without the influence of peer pressure. Through writing, participants are able to tell their stories, reflect on the past, and decide how they will write the next chapter of their lives.
Jimmy Wu was one of InsideOUT Writers’ first students. Today he is the first former student hired by IOW. In the same issue of the organization’s newsletter, in “Alum in the Spotlight: Edwin Moran,” the subject is quoted on his experience of InsideOUT Writers: “I realized I could drop the street persona and be true to myself. The pen made me honest.”
Killian describes the writing as “a sort of therapy.” “Writing gives them a sense of self respect, an opportunity to process all that they’ve gone through that has led them there in a way that they haven’t before. Many of the young people who are caught up in the criminal justice system have parents who are incarcerated, Killian says, and too many have been , subjected to community violence and poverty, and often face their struggles without positive adult role models or a sufficient safety net. The writing classes let them describe what they’ve experienced: what’s happened to them, and the choices they’ve made. Some use the opportunity to express their regret by apologizing to people in their lives who had tried to help them.
The classes are small—six to twelve students— and intense relationships form between the students who take pride in their accomplishments, and the teachers who tell them they have power in their voices. Over the years, some of these bonds have developed into mentoring relationships.
In 2010, InsideOUT formalized an Alumni Program. When students get out of detention, they can receive case management, life skills training, continued creative writing classes, and mentoring, to build on what happens inside. “Now that they’re out, what do they need so they won’t go back?” asks Killian. “The prisons have 70-80% recidivism rates. We want to break the cycle before these kids are in the adult system.”
In juvenile detention, anyone who has been on good behavior for the previous week has an opportunity to participate in an IOW writing class. Roberta Villa writes of teaching in “the Compound” at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar. “This is the hardest part for a Compound teacher, teaching the same lesson at one table to some students who will go home alongside those who will never leave prison.”
“Some are facing long-term detention,” says Killian. “Do we want them to go in with a chip on their shoulder? No, we want them to find a niche, to be as successful as they can be.” She advises her students to use the opportunities available within the system to get an education, to deal with mental illness and substance abuse issues, and to “steer clear of whatever’s waiting for them inside. You’ve got to let that frustration over your circumstances go so you can be successful and not fall into the same traps.”
She talks about generations of kids raising kids, with no mentors in sight. There’s no one in their families to ask for help with substance abuse, with getting a driver’s license, or with any number of challenges that most people consider matters of routine adult competency. These are just some of the barriers that formerly incarcerated youth face in securing such basics as jobs and housing. Then there is the discrimination, perfectly legal, against those with criminal records. “We encourage them to find alternatives,” says Killian of the mentors who work with IOW alumni. “How to find a job, how to deal with a boss, with your anger, with other people with different values.” Volunteers guide the students through these challenges by teaching practical and emotional skills. They provide the mentorship that has been missing from their students’ lives, and they listen without judgment.
By the end of our interview, Killian is speaking to me, but her words are for the young people inside. “Just because you’re here now doesn’t mean this is where you have to end up. But wherever you are, be the best you can be.”
InsideOUT Writers is supported by donations and grants. You can make a donation by credit card via Network for Good at their website, www.insideoutwriters.org or by mail at InsideOUT Writers, 1680 North Vine Street, Suite 614, Hollywood CA 90028.
Read more on Mentoring and Volunteering.