Thursday, November 06, 2008

SURVIVOR: Lockup -- Eve

Lately I’ve been visiting Creative Writing classes in the L.A. juvenile jails as part of my teacher training. I wrote about my first visit here, and every minute I’ve spent in the jail since, I’ve learned something completely unexpected. Needless to say, this teaching position will undoubtedly be one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

When I tell people about this new job, the most frequently asked question is:
Aren’t you scared?

All I can say is that I am way more afraid of the mountain lion that lurks in the hills behind my house, and the pit bull down the street than I am of these kids.

To me, incarcerated kids are not scary. Here is what they are:

They are appreciative.
Thankful for the few things they have left, like family (if they have any), friends (if they have any), shelter, food, and outsiders who brave the halls of the pokey to mentor and listen to them.

They are curious.
They want to know what I drive, what kind of kid I was, about the books I write, what music I like, if I want to hear the song they wrote, if I like baseball, if my hair is real, why I dress the way I do, why I like the color pink so much, if I like their tatts, why I have no tatts.

They are lovers of reading and writing.
The other night, I sat in a cramped room with 12 alleged murderers; it was two of the most fascinating hours of my adult life. We didn’t talk about murder or gangs or “the outs.” We talked about…books! They crave books more than any other luxury item. More than candy or photos or soap or socks. For them, books are an escape, books are entertainment, books are education and wisdom. Even though many of them can hardly read fluently, they want books. Any books, all books, picture books, girly books, Dan Brown books. This surprised me…have to admit that my little closed mind assumed kid-thugs would find books boring. Boy, did they school me on that one! Writing is many things to them: therapeutic, entertaining, exciting, enlightening, hopeful, and anything but boring.

Most importantly, they are hungry.
Hungry for food. Hungry for shelter. Hungry for money. Hungry for attention. Hungry for respect. Hungry for compassion. Hungry for knowledge. Hungry for a new life. Hungry for guidance. Hungry for hope.

They are hungry because their basic needs have never been met. While on “the outs” they lie, cheat, steal, assault and kill in an attempt to acquire these things. The only difference between them and me as a kid is that my basic needs were always met…I had the luxury of loving, nurturing parents, constant roof over my head, plenty of food, money, role models, and opportunities for success in sports, academics, arts, and social activities.

Working in the juvenile jail is like watching a sick and twisted real-life version of SURVIVOR, where the contestants’ hunger for basic needs remains unmet, and the worst in them emerges. Ever notice how on Survivor there’s always a “losing” team that acts negative and defeated? They’re always out of food and skinny and sick and cold because their shelter leaks and they have no blankets. Then, as soon as that team wins a reward challenge, their demeanor and behavior completely changes. They become confident and happy and positive and physically stronger. Then, they’re less likely to steal food and fight and attack each other.

I believe that you can take the most compassionate and level-headed person and turn him into a monster criminal by stripping his basic needs. And I cannot judge them for the things they’ve done because maybe I would have taken the same route if I’d grown up in their circumstances. I also believe that if we help them gain and sustain these human needs, their behavior will change and hope will prevail.

- Eve


Hardygirl said...

Wow, Eve. I'm speechless.

I'm so glad you're in the world. That's all.


Erik Smetana said...

It sounds like you are doing some amazing work, that is wonderful.

Christy Raedeke said...

Great analogy. Heartbreaking situation. You are a brave and good woman, Eve!

Wild About Words said...


Great post. Thank you for sharing that.


jennie said...


I love that you see the person and not his circumstance.

You're a gift!

Disco Mermaids said...

You guys are wonderful. I promise I did not write this post to fish for compliments!

Truth be told, I get way more out of these classes than the kids do and they are highly entertaining (like watching a riveting movie you cannot tear yourself away from, even for a bathroom break).

I'm fascinated by their lifestyles and how differently we grew up, yet how similar we think on so many issues. And it is heartbreaking at times, but at least for a few hours a day, there's a lot of discussion about change and hope for the future.

Kids who take these InsideOut writing classes are WAY less likely to return to jail after being released. So, I'm pretty convinced it makes a difference.


Suzanne Young said...

Oh, Eve! I am so with you on this!!!!!

And that mountain lion should be scared of you!

Great post!

Hanna Rabb said...

What an amazing experience. I feel as though I've lived it with you.

cynjay said...


tammi said...

Eve...I love this post almost as much as I love the green sweater Robin wore a month or so ago.

Bravo for making a difference!

Disco Mermaids said...

Tammi- you are funny. Green sweater? I don't remember the green sweater. Must go check it out.

Have to admit, as tolerant as I sound most the time, I do get aggravated sometimes when the kids are on the right track and things are going well, then they screw it up by doing something dumb and heading back to jail. So, I'm definitely not an angel. I do get judgmental occasionally.

But I try.


Lee Wind said...

Wow. You ROCK. That is such an amazing use of your power - to teach, to mentor kids that frankly, the rest of society has given up on. I applaud you, but know that you CAN be judgemental. In fact, it's good and healthy for you to keep your boundaries about what's right and wrong - it will help you keep your center, even as you exhibit such deep compassion, and at the same time, I bet the kids will respect you more for being real with them when they do something stupid. (Also, change is scary, and probably there's some self-sabotage going on for some of them as they face the unknowns of going out into the world and trying to do it "right" this time...)

I'm really proud of you! (And I can't wait to read the book you're going to write that's inspired by your experiences with these kids...)

Namaste and a HUG,

Sarah Laurenson said...

What a great way to give back a small piece of the life that was given to you. And what great benefits you have gotten from this experience. If more people understood that, we'd have a much larger flock of volunteers making this world a better place for all.

Thanks for doing your part. I'm sure these kids appreciate it more than they can tell you.

Toran23 said...

Eve, I am part of the Youth & Outreach program of the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. I also go to jail and work with youth offenders and adult inmates. In fact, I am currently teaching a Flash Fiction course for adult inmates. It's awesome, they love the concept of writing a story of 500 words or less. They like the challenge, and today we just brainstormed and talked about the writing process. This felt like a normal library program, not something that you would think would happen at a jail. I have facilitated graphic novel book clubs, Wii gaming programs, computer classes, poetry classes, and resume writing. Each class is just as you described it- the guys are so thankful that someone- anyone- is there, taking an interest in their talents. I try to write about my experiences in my blog, The Snarky Librarian, but alas, between working full time and going to grad school part time, blogging takes a back seat. Keep up the good work, believe me when I say that it is needed and appreciated.

Laini Taylor said...

Eve, I'm seeing this late, but it is a fantastic post. It's shockingly simple, I guess, the basic needs thing. Thank you for saying it so beautifully.

tone almhjell said...

Tell them I read about them in Norway, and tell them I told my friends how amazing they are, wanting to read and write and learn, even when they'd been dealt a lousy hand.

kendalee said...

Wonderful, thoughtful post. Thanks for sharing this experience with us!

myrna said...

Hungry for books? They don't have books for them to read? I bet readers here would be willing to donate books if the place would take them. I know I would.

tinker said...

I found your post by way of Laini's. This is beautiful - yet heartwrenching - and so much food for thought. I wish more of those in charge of 'the system,'could see inside it, through your eyes.
Even at the local 'alternative' high school (code word for 'last stop before juvie/expulsion'), their library is woefully sparse. Thanks for this reminder - there's some books that sorely need to be delivered there!

TadMack said...

Was headed this way via Laini Taylor's blog, and went backwards and read your first post on the topic... I'm so glad you're there. My first real teaching job out of school was for the State - my kids were in Sac, not L.A., but it was a lot the same, and "hungry" is the right word. Blessings on your journey there, may you keep your focus on the hunger and not the rest of their occasional bs. ;)

Janet Brown said...

This is an affirmation of why I read blogs--thank you for making my world larger.
Janet from the PaperTigers Blog

Disco Mermaids said...

Thanks for the support, guys!

Myrna makes a great point...and, NO, they don't have books to read.

Softcover books are the only luxury item they are allowed to have in their cells; HOWEVER, the "library" is actually just a tiny shelf of a few (and I do mean A FEW) old torn up books that they've all flipped through hundreds of times.

When we visit, they all have lists of specific books they want us to bring for them...which makes me think that I really need to create some kind of book donation program asap!


laurasalas said...

Wow--thank you for sharing (with us, and with the kids).

Graeme Stone said...

how ironic I'd make a joke about water-vs-friendship and then you bring up Survivor. I think the bad people do is most often motivated by desperation. And it's a very 'there but for the grace of God' kind of situation in which any one of us would have fallen in the right (or wrong) circumstances. Survival is something I'm obsessed with because people's circumstances can change them. Some hang on no matter what, but take away the basics and people become motivated by very strong instincts to survive, and anyone in the way gets hurt.
Your work is pretty amazing and not something I'm sure I could do. Kids scare me, and juvies, I think they'd eat me alive. But then again, maybe I'd see the humanity in them. And they'd see something in me. Last, does the program take book donations? I'm reading and giving away each book in my collection that I finish.

G. Neri said...

Hey Eve- great work here. Keep it up! You mentioned book donations and I just wanted to turn you on to Jessica Fenster-Sparber and her site:
Jessica has assembled one of the best YA/MG libraries I have ever seen...anywhere, let alone for a juvie facility. And she did it from scratch! I'm sure you could get something going for your place.More power to ya!