I’m going to jail. And I couldn’t be more excited.
I’ve always been fascinated by jails and prison culture. And I know I’m not alone. C’mon, who among us wasn’t mesmerized by Escape From Alcatraz, The Green Mile, and Midnight Express? I watch prison documentaries, the MSNBC San Quentin Lockdown specials, and bug my Public Defender sister every day for stories of her jail visits.
I read Mark Salzman’s True Notebooks a few years back and was blown away by how real and sad and funny and inspiring and haunting it was. The book is Mr. Salzman’s nonfiction masterpiece about his time teaching writing to HROs (high-risk offenders), the most brutal juveniles in the Los Angeles penal system, who are mostly charged with rape, murder, and armed robbery. At the time (1997), InsideOUT Writers was a small project, the brainchild of Sister Janet Harris, a chaplain dedicated to creating an avenue for the incarcerated to “express themselves and feel that they are listened to.” The organization has grown, now features over 30 classes a week in the three main L.A. juvenile detention facilities, and boasts a stellar lineup of teachers, including prolific authors, award winning screenwriters, producers, and professors.
There’s something so sad yet intriguing about the idea that thousands of lost souls are currently locked up in cages, shackled like animals. It’s especially shocking to think about kids shut away in these places with little food, freezing concrete rooms, and no toothbrushes or soap or other human comforts. Back in college, my roommates and I worked for the UCLA Prison Coalition, an innovative program using college students as tutors in the L.A. juvenile detention system. Fa-scin-a-ting. Amazing kids. Amazing stories. So much talent. So much heartbreak. So much misguided energy and anger. The kids I worked with at Camp Kilpatrick (Gridiron Gang was a movie about this same prison camp, starring The Rock…Hi, Dwayne!) were respectful, sweet, and funny. Most importantly, they wanted desperately to learn. Anything. Everything. How to read. How to write. How to measure the universe.
Though I gripe about still being pre-published, I realize I could have worse problems. And during this long, bumpy journey, I’ve learned a ton. I feel excited and privileged to have this opportunity to teach what I’ve learned to these kids. These forgotten kids who have very little to look forward to. I’m not delusional enough to believe that I’ll change the world, or change anything for that matter. But, if in my tenure even one kid feels excited about writing, feels listened to, or feels a sense of pride in his work, then my trip on this writing road hasn’t been for nothing.