Program unites young offenders, volunteers

by Judith Phillips | 11/2/01 6:00am

"Hurt and anger fuels my soul, I guess that's the reason my heart is so cold. Why do I feel this way? Is it because of where I stay?" -- Juvenile hall resident Darnell, from "Heaven or Hell"

The Inside Out Writing Program, which brings volunteer writers and juvenile offenders together within the confines of Los Angeles' Central Juvenile Hall, began six years ago when Sister Janet Harris and Karen Hunt combined their passions for literacy, justice and youth.

Inside Out's goal is threefold: to give the participants an outlet for expression, to increase public awareness regarding juvenile incarceration and to be a preventive tool for other young people.

The volunteers present the participants, divided into groups of eight to 12, with writing topics that the students work on both during and between sessions.

Harris is the prison chaplain at Central Juvenile Hall. She has worked in the prison ministry since 1969. She noticed that "we seemed to be regressing in terms of justice. Every year, there was an increase in the number of years young people were serving. They're below the radar. Once they get into the system, they are pretty invisible."

Before Inside Out, Hunt, the author and illustrator of 21 children's books, taught writing in public schools. Although fascinated by what the students valued and wrote about, she desired a "more challenging setting."

Hunt met with the principal of Central Juvenile Hall, and though he was reluctant to include her as a volunteer, she "just kind of refused to leave his office."

Harris said the meeting was "meant to be. Beyond serendipity."

The volunteer writers assign exploratory writing topics such as "Who am I?" and encourage the participants to start with their features. The volunteers and the students then "pick out things in the writing that take you in other directions."

Hunt, now the Executive Director of Inside Out, works mainly with the female participants -- especially high-risk offenders. Some of her pupils have committed high robbery or even murder.

Despite the participants' exemplary behavior in the program, at the beginning, Hunt said "they look so tough and so mean. If I had seen one of these girls on the street, I would probably have gone to the other side to escape them."

The women were "angry, distraught and closed at the beginning," Hunt said, but when provided with an "environment where they could speak openly about themselves for the first time, the faade was taken away. It is hard to reconcile the people with their crimes."

"So many people have abandoned them on such a regular basis that

when I continually showed up, the trust was built," Hunt said.

"All children are the same underneath it all. They are all yearning for the same kinds of acceptance or love. A lot of times I'll tell them a story or fairy tale. They've never had this before. That's a wonderful feeling to be able to do that."

After participating, enough of the students could express themselves as eloquently as Darnell to compile their writings into the book "What We See: Poems and Essays from Inside Juvenile Hall."

The students not only grow in relation to themselves; they also develop in relation to each other. "On the street they might be enemies, but on the writing table they form friendships. These young people are doing the same thing that anybody would do in their environment. When they get in the writing group, they can leave that behind," Hunt said.

Harris noted that they boys "have little more sense of self. But with the girls there are dependence issues, especially with older men."

Not surprisingly, both Harris and Hunt find potential in the youth and fault in the justice system. "Each person is precious," Harris said. "To simply punish and destroy them and to put them in an environment that is not life giving" is reproachable.