Penning freedom from within prison walls

I have a book on my desk in the newsroom called “What We See,” a collection of poems and essays written by youth incarcerated within LA County’s juvenile detention system.  I received the book when I went to visit with television writer Susan Cuscuna, who leads writing programs inside the juvenile detention center in Sylmar.  It was lunchtime, and the kids got plain hot dogs with one thin line of ketchup spread over the meat. Their holding cells were as drab as could be. The photo above is from the LA Times:     From my story, (Daily News June, 2007):

SYLMAR – They write as if the words they search for deep inside can tear down the concrete walls holding them or melt the shackles from their ankles and wrists.

Inside Sylmar’s Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall, teenage boys grab donated pens and notebooks, eager to compose honest accounts of their troubled pasts.

As young as they are, they already understand that, like truth, it’s the words that can set them free.

Free to write about fathers who walked out, or the disappointment in their mothers’ eyes. Free to express the bad choices they made while gang-banging. Free to admit they are scared of what awaits them when they move on to the penitentiary.

“When I’m stressin’, I put it on paper,” said one teenage boy, his hair neatly trimmed, his gray, county-issued sweat pants, sweat shirt and black Converse sneakers crisp and clean.

“I like how it makes me feel when I write. It’s like freedom. My escape.”

Since 1996, journalists, poets and screenwriters have voluntarily brought pens and notebook paper into the county’s Juvenile Halls and camps to teach incarcerated boys and girls how to express themselves through the written word.

Called InsideOUT Writers, the program was formed by Juvenile Hall chaplain Sister Janet Harris, children’s book author and illustrator Karen Hunt and journalist Duane Noriyuki in Los Angeles’ Central Juvenile Hall.

Since those early days, the program has grown from three classes to more than 28 a week with 150 young writers. Some of the students’ work is then compiled for an anthology called “What We See.”

“Instead of putting a fist through a wall, you can channel that anger through the pen,” said Jackie Gelfand, who was appointed recently as executive director of InsideOUT. “They may write about what happened in court that day, how they miss their mother.”

Funded through grants and fundraisers, the $300,000-a-year program provides a modest stipend to its teachers. InsideOUT Writers is now taught at three Juvenile Halls, but Gelfand’s goal is to expand the course to the juvenile camp system.

“If I were to really boil down what the program is about, it’s about listening,” said Harris, the chaplain who 30 years ago produced a documentary on gangs. And she saw that within the juvenile detention system, there were not enough rehabilitation programs that let teens talk about why they committed the crimes they did.

“A lot of kids are dealing with father hunger,” she said. “They have scales over their hearts. Even though they were caught up in gangs, there is a core of inner goodness in many of them.”

On a recent Saturday morning in Sylmar, teacher Susan Cuscuna passes out papers with the word “empathy” written across the top. She tells them that empathy means to feel what another feels, to walk in someone else’s shoes.

“We saw the movie `The Pursuit of Happyness,’ and I felt empathy for that man,” one boy said of the Will Smith movie about a father trying to make life better for himself and his son.

Cuscuna then asks the boys to write about a time when they showed empathy for someone else or someone showed empathy for them.

They struggle at first. Some stare off, their minds far away. Then the pens begin to move.

“We look forward to this class,” said another boy. “No one writes to me. I don’t write to anyone, so I write to myself.”

While Cuscuna teaches a wide range of offenders, the boys in this class live within a section of the Sylmar facility called the compound.

Surrounded by yards of chain-link fence and topped with spirals of barbed wire, the compound houses what the Los Angeles County Probation Department calls the system’s worst offenders. Some have killed; most are awaiting trials and court dates. Some, already 18, will soon go to the Pitchess Detention Center until they are sentenced.


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