“When I’m stressin’, I put it on paper,” said one teenage boy, his hair neatly trimmed, his gray, county-issued sweat pants, sweat shirt and black Converse sneakers crisp and clean. “I like how it makes me feel when I write. It’s like freedom. My escape.” Since 1996, journalists, poets and screenwriters have voluntarily brought pens and notebook paper into the county’s Juvenile Halls and camps to teach incarcerated boys and girls how to express themselves through the written word. Called InsideOUT Writers, the program was formed by Juvenile Hall chaplain Sister Janet Harris, children’s book author and illustrator Karen Hunt and journalist Duane Noriyuki in Los Angeles’ Central Juvenile Hall. Since those early days, the program has grown from three classes to more than 28 a week with 150 young writers. Some of the students’ work is then compiled for an anthology called “What We See.” SYLMAR – They write as if the words they search for deep inside can tear down the concrete walls holding them or melt the shackles from their ankles and wrists. Inside Sylmar’s Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall, teenage boys grab donated pens and notebooks, eager to compose honest accounts of their troubled pasts. As young as they are, they already understand that, like truth, it’s the words that can set them free. Free to write about fathers who walked out, or the disappointment in their mothers’ eyes. Free to express the bad choices they made while gang-banging. Free to admit they are scared of what awaits them when they move on to the penitentiary. “Instead of putting a fist through a wall, you can channel that anger through the pen,” said Jackie Gelfand, who was appointed recently as executive director of InsideOUT. “They may write about what happened in court that day, how they miss their mother.” Funded through grants and fundraisers, the $300,000-a-year program provides a modest stipend to its teachers. InsideOUT Writers is now taught at three Juvenile Halls, but Gelfand’s goal is to expand the course to the juvenile camp system. “If I were to really boil down what the program is about, it’s about listening,” said Harris, the chaplain who 30 years ago produced a documentary on gangs. And she saw that within the juvenile detention system, there were not enough rehabilitation programs that let teens talk about why they committed the crimes they did. “A lot of kids are dealing with father hunger,” she said. “They have scales over their hearts. Even though they were caught up in gangs, there is a core of inner goodness in many of them.” On a recent Saturday morning in Sylmar, teacher Susan Cuscuna passes out papers with the word “empathy” written across the top. She tells them that empathy means to feel what another feels, to walk in someone else’s shoes. “We saw the movie `The Pursuit of Happyness,’ and I felt empathy for that man,” one boy said of the Will Smith movie about a father trying to make life better for himself and his son. Cuscuna then asks the boys to write about a time when they showed empathy for someone else or someone showed empathy for them. They struggle at first. Some stare off, their minds far away. Then the pens begin to move. “We look forward to this class,” said another boy. “No one writes to me. I don’t write to anyone, so I write to myself.” While Cuscuna teaches a wide range of offenders, the boys in this class live within a section of the Sylmar facility called the compound. Surrounded by yards of chain-link fence and topped with spirals of barbed wire, the compound houses what the Los Angeles County Probation Department calls the system’s worst offenders. Some have killed; most are awaiting trials and court dates. Some, already 18, will soon go to the Pitchess Detention Center until they are sentenced. But Cuscuna said she is not interested in her students’ crimes. For a few hours a week, she turns Los Angeles’ incarcerated youths into poets and songwriters, observers and essayists. They are children with something to say, she said. “They’re not just a sea of thugs,” said Cuscuna, who has written docudramas for television for 25 years. She currently teaches five classes at the various Juvenile Halls. But Cuscuna said there are challenges to teaching these kids. She is often confronted by contradictions. Some look hardened, their skin covered in tattoos, their eyes vacant. But when they thaw, these offenders become the children they are, happy when Cuscuna hands out doughnuts or gives them a folder covered in Snoopy cartoons. “They are the best of the best, and the worst of the worst, all at the same time,” Cuscuna said. “They are kids who made mistakes, and some are heinous, but they are mistakes.” Some who have moved on to prisons write to Cuscuna, which means they have realized the goal of InsideOUT Writers. “Part of the notion is to convince them that – while prisons can take away their freedom and put them in a box – they can’t take away their brain and their heart or what they can put on paper.” email@example.com (818) 713-3664 From the 2005 Anthology “What We See: Poems and Essays Written By Youth in the InsideOUT Writers’ Program.” “Sitting in this county jail bus shackled at my wrists and ankles, I gaze out through barred windows and realize I may never again behold such beauty. In the past, I seldom delighted upon the magnificent aspects of nature. I never truly appreciated the earth. … I never thought I would find myself on a bus, crammed with convicts, bound for prison.” – Mario “Bricks Count them by the thousands When you locked up and looking back On all the things you’ve done All the mistakes you’ve made You start making those bricks stepping stones to freedom.” – Shanti R.160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!