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Mightier than the Sword: Young Offenders Find New Way to Express Feelings, Frustrations

Susan Notes: Instead of giving up on youthful offenders, these volunteer writers offer them an opportunity to heal themselves. This program must be effective: even the authorities praise it.

SYLMAR -- Many teenagers awaiting trial at Juvenile Hall who used guns and knives to carjack, rob and even murder have found an even greater weapon while locked up -- pen and paper.

Guided by volunteer teams of writers, these young offenders are using poetry and prose to fight off violent emotions and painful childhood memories -- setting a course for a better future.

"When you are writing, you are not in here," said Roger, 18. "We give up our freedom, but our freedom is not something they can tell me to shut off."

Los Angeles County Probation authorities praise the 8-year-old program, InsideOut Writers, and founder Karen Hunt, a Woodland Hills children's book author, for turning around the lives of hundreds of teens like Roger.

InsideOut Writers workshops are now held in all three of the county's juvenile detention centers, in addition to a number of after-school programs and continuation schools, reaching 600 girls and boys and young men and women each year.

"What hit me so hard," Hunt said, "is that no kid, when they are little ... and looking up with wide eyes, will look at you and say, 'I want to be a drug addict and kill people.'

"You can get back to that child, of what they really want to be and bring back that hope."

She can rattle off story after story of troubled teens who encountered the program at their lowest point. Now, many are productive adults. Some are teachers. One is studying nuclear medicine, which uses radionuclides for diagnosis and therapy.

Juvenile Hall officials say the teens involved in InsideOut are less violent and better behaved than others.

"At first I thought it was going to be just another program we had to watch," said Gregory Jackson, a probation officer who has worked at county-run detention facilities for 14 years. "But to my surprise, the program was encouraging them."

By the second or third lesson, the same teenagers who had assumed a life behind bars was a given were beginning to think about a future, Jackson said. They asked for pencils and paper, then library books.

While the program has transformed lives, sometimes it just makes life a bit easier for the teens.

For Roger, it means picking up a pencil when small frustrations boil inside him, instead of brooding or turning to violence.

The Probation Department, which runs the hall, prohibits Roger from divulging his last name, the city he lived in or any information about the crime he is accused of committing.

Lucas, who lives at Rancho San Antonio, a Chatsworth boys home run by Catholic Charities of Los Angeles, has earned a reputation for being able to sit down and turn out an eloquent poem in a matter of minutes.

"It did a lot of healing -- me dealing with myself and being able to deal with the mistakes that I made and those made against me and not feel ashamed about me," the 18-year-old said.

Next year, Lucas will return home. He is already taking business and philosophy classes at Pierce College and hopes to someday transfer to University of California, Los Angeles.

For Lucas and others who have gone through the program, school was simply an afterthought. Most of the teens who enter Juvenile Hall or foster care read at only the fourth-grade level.

They walk into a highly regimented environment with a cold and distant demeanor, shucking off authority. But when they leave the program, many have a love for words and a thirst for knowledge.

Hunt can quickly come up with three success stories.

In 1998, Benny Wong was facing life in prison on three attempted murder charges. He took a plea bargain and served two years with the California Youth Authority. Now 25, Wong is a real estate manager and attends Pasadena City College, where he is working on an associate's degree in business.

Hip-hop artist Chozen, 25, was convicted of robbery in the late 1990s. He served six years in adult prison, part of it at Folsom State Prison. He is now an InsideOut teacher at the East Los Angeles Skills Center.

Walter MacMillan, now 24, served time for second-degree robbery. Now he's at Drew University in Los Angeles studying nuclear medicine.

Those are the results Hunt intended when she began the program in 1996, after years of book tours and short-term writing classes in mostly suburban schools.

During one of those classes, she asked middle-class students what they would tell the world if they had 15 minutes to stand before the entire planet. A young girl replied: Nordstrom has good shoe sales. Everyone needs shoes, the girl figured.

The shallowness of the girl's presentation disgusted Hunt and prompted her to propose a writing class to officials at Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles.

Rather than focus her energies on suburban schools where material aspirations often crush creativity, she decided to focus on those living in the most precarious situations, those who understood the gravity of life. Today, more than two dozen professional writers and teachers volunteer for the program.

"It changed my whole perception of who these kids are. I had never sat down and talked to a gang member, somebody in Juvenile Hall, facing serious charges. I had no idea what their world was like," Hunt said.

By Roger's own admission, he has seen things most people only hear about on the news. He doesn't want to remember it all, but the writing helps him set order to his life.

"I am not going to say I am going to change, to turn into a saint, but I am going to think about my decisions before I make them. Before, I just rolled with the waves."

Rachel Uranga, (818) 713-3741 rachel.uranga@dailynews.com

— Rachel Uranga
Los Angeles Daily News


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