One thing I love about my job is the opportunity to mix it up and open up a new conversation. I love writing about food and certainly recipe crafting is more my area of expertise, but when I was given the task of writing an article about an organization that serves incarcerated youth called Inside Out Writers (IOW), I was immediately intrigued. I’m a writer, after all.
What I didn’t expect to find in my research was such a profoundly moving experience. I found a story that I could unexpectedly relate to, and I gained insight into an issue that until then, I had really thought very little about. What I thought would be an hour visit turned into a five hour experience that I will never forget.
So what is IOW?
Inside Out Writers is a non-profit organization that grew out of the vision of juvenile hall chaplain Sister Janet Harris, former Los Angeles Times journalist Duane Noriyuki, and several other professional writers who volunteered to teach creative writing to incarcerated youth in Los Angeles county juvenile hall. The founders believed deeply in the power of putting pen to paper as a means to educate and provide release to incarcerated youth. Their mission is deeply inspiring and highly logical. It’s an organization that deserves attention for its efforts to help improve a system that is profoundly flawed. If you have any extended curiosity on the subject, the New York Times article Flawed Humans, Flawed Justice, gives you perspective.
I attended one of their weekly Thursday workshops. Along with a handful of others, I was among the only attendees who had never been incarcerated—or so they thought when looking at me. When I introduced myself and explained why I was there as a writer for Poppy + Seed, I felt compelled to mentioned that I had been in “mild official trouble before.” I saw jaws drop and people look at me suspiciously: What does that mean, coming from her?
The leader of the circle I attended was Jimbo, a young man who was wrongfully incarcerated when he was only 15. He only spent three months in and has been out ever since. It’s remarkable he was able to escape a system that was designed to keep him behind bars. He started the evening by sharing his story with us to encourage discussion. The theme that came out of his writing was privilege. He was never given a chance to defend himself. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the odds were against him. He acknowledged that guilty or not in this particular event, juvenile hall was almost inevitable. Friends, family, and all of his inner circle had the same fate. He was lucky to get out after three months, and even luckier to stay out. His writing was impressive. More than impressive, it was great. He told his story with all the eloquence and sophisticated skill society expects of a highly-educated professional—or perhaps better.
We were then asked to free write for 15 minutes. With the theme of privilege, flashes of my own experience came to mind and I shared my story, and how uniquely different it was.
I was born ‘privileged’ in a small town in South Carolina with a mother as a lawyer and a father as a doctor. The perfect combination to keep you out of traps. I was good, I made straight As, played sports and for the most part was super well behaved. Towards the end of high school things briefly unraveled a bit. I got to spend the night in jail after I was arrested for drinking at a football game my senior year. It was all completely devastating at the time. I was going to college on scholarship in the fall. I certainly hadn’t done anything “anyone else didn’t do,” but my friend and I were used to set an example and we spent the night in jail. In our cheerleading costumes. It’s a story I tell now almost as a joke because it is so outrageously out of character. The irony.
My second run-in with the law—and the last, thankfully and hopefully—was about two years later in college. Another friend of mine and I were wrongfully handcuffed and thrown into the back of a police car. This time sober, and completely innocent. We met a cop with a chip on his shoulder. Without going into too much detail, it was scary and disturbing. Fortunately, we were let go, our families pressed charges, and the cop lost his job.
Both of these stories came to mind of course. How different they were. How different my experience would have been if my skin was another color. If I grew up on the wrong side of the street. My stories would have been chillingly different.
I caused a cop to lose his job. When I told this story to the group, they were in shock. I trembled and teared up as I told it. How it felt to attempt to relate while never really being able to relate at all felt almost pathetic. For the first time in a long time, I felt definitively lame. I also felt like my writing paled in comparison to the rest of their storytelling skills.
Silence. Then clapping. Then words of thanks and encouragement. Just as the stereotypes have been painted on them, they were painted on me. No one expected to hear those stories come from my mouth. They admitted it. In a group where judgment was supposed to be put at bay for everyone, it was inevitable. We’d all judged each other in some way.
Walls were broken all around. Just as the workshop intended.
Inside Out Writers is so cool. It gives kids a chance to get it out, so they can get out. With the power of writing and journaling at the forefront of every self-help forum it makes so much sense. Writing holds power as both a means for education and therapy. As people with opportunity, we must wake up to our duty to help others. To have empathy. To create chances. To recognize that the human experience, while it can be different in many ways, leaves us all connected through the same joys, fears, doubts and emotions.
What started as a few weekly classes at LA’s Central Juvenile Hall has now grown to more than 43 weekly classes in all three LA county juvenile hall locations. They are also expanding into adult classes in Calabasas, Chino and Ironwood state prisons, with hopes to continue expansion. They’ve developed an impressive alumni program that is structured to foster success outside of jail by assisting with basic short-term needs like transportation, housing, referrals, and obtaining life documents like photo ID’s etc. They offer mentoring programs and life skills workshops. Cultural field trips and community engagement projects are offered to educate and keep participants engaged. And they offer weekly writing circles on Thursday evenings to all who are interested in attending.
I highly encourage anyone interested in being part of making positive change in their own life and the lives of others to check it out. You can visit their website to learn how to volunteer your time or money.