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Programming, Connections Help California Youth Deal With Demons of Reentry

The entrance to the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride

LOS ANGELES — Near a wooden “Death Row” signpost towering in an orange-lit fog, 25 young people huddled together, smiling and laughing.

Few would guess the crowd waiting to enter the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride and Corn Maze was almost entirely made up of formerly incarcerated youth whose daily lives are in some ways more surreal than a scary event.

LA_bureau_logo2-01Used to a totally regulated life on the inside, they are uncertain how to navigate life on the outside again.

“You’re literally emerging from a time capsule,” said Jimmy Wu, who was incarcerated as a teen in the early ’90s. “Even the pace of life — why didn’t you tell us we were going to be leaving a world that moves in slow motion for a world out here in fast forward?”

Wu and the group of young adults he accompanied are members, or alumni, of InsideOUT Writers (IOW), a nonprofit organization that provides programming and resources to youth affected by the juvenile justice system. On the inside, while incarcerated, youth in the program benefit from creative writing classes, introspective journal entries and taking part in writing retreats. On the outside, after release, students are provided with mentorship, resources, writing circles and fun programming to help deal with their struggles with handling masked emotional demons, and navigating their way through the maze of reentry horrors.

“A lot of our alum ... thought the end of the world was at the end of their block,” said Wu, IOW’s alumni advocacy director. “Once in awhile we give them the opportunity to just get out there, have fun and be the young people they are.”

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IOW member Jesse Molina smiles as he watches other members have fun.

Daniel Bisuano, 21, has been in and out of the system since committing his first offense when he was just 12. Soft-spoken, he said he had to adhere to a persona on the inside to adjust to the juvenile justice system’s predator or prey lifestyle.

“In jaiI, I chose to play the role of gangbanger, but when I am in interviews or whatever, people are like ‘Whoa, you sound so smart,’ and I’m like, ‘That’s because I am,’” Bisuano said. “It’s a mask. In there you’re either a wolf or bunny. I had to defend myself a lot, and that mask helped me defend myself.”

But, after being worn for years, the mask became difficult to shed. According to Bisuano, that’s where a small program like the hayride, or a larger one like a previous tour of colleges in Northern California, can make a big difference in sticking to a new lifestyle on the outside.

“A lot of experiences I’ve had here, I’ve never had before,” he said. “Seeing colleges and being able to think that I even have a chance of going there opened my eyes. I felt like I belonged. These events bring me a sense of joy and of myself. I’ve hidden me for so long that I didn’t know who I was.”

IOW’s writing program, Bisuano said, has helped him be introspective enough to realize that.

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IOW member Jessica Martinez takes a break.

On the inside, according to Sarah Bryer, executive director of the National Juvenile Justice Network, the rigid structure and exaggerated power dynamics often create an environment that shuts down communication and expression.

“These kids are told all the time that they are not worth anything, that they belong in these facilities,”  Bryer said.

Options to remedy situations when youth feel they’ve been mistreated, she said, are very narrow, and the youth sometimes risk personal harm raising those concerns.

“Having adults come in from the outside, have that relationship, and give the implicit and explicit statements to these young people that they are valued and can accomplish great things in this world is tremendously important,” Bryer said.

Youth facilities have a constitutional obligation to provide adequate and supportive services for all committed youths under joint guidelines from the U.S. departments of Education and Justice that came out in December 2014. Research cited in the guidelines has proven that humane treatment provided with care and concern is more effective in rehabilitating youth. Unfortunately, according to Bryer, many facilities fall short of that.

“It’s great to have outside groups come in but that should be on top of the quality education that they receive on the inside,” Bryer said. “Facilities need help, and some have a more open door. The more we can get community volunteers in those facilities to get them to work with people, the more normalized, the more connected, and the better the outcome in the long run. Not all facilities are as eager but they should be.”

Whether on the East or West Coast, resources like those of IOW and similar Washington, District of Columbia organization Free Minds Book Club offer, provide a sense of community not found in most juvenile detention centers. That sense of community, says 18-year-old IOW alum, Rose Morita, has been instrumental.

[Related: Imprisoned as Teens, Speaking Out as Free Men for Change in Juvenile System]

Morita, who has spent the past 17 years in 37 different homes, placed there by child protective services, said IOW’s biggest strength has been helping her to communicate instead of avoiding connection with others.

Daniel Bisuano laughs at having his portrait taken.
Daniel Bisuano laughs at having his portrait taken.

“The only reason I got into it is because the staff on the inside wanted me out of my room,” Morita said of getting involved with the program. “I never came out, and would skip meals half the time. They kind of forced me into it but I ended up liking it.”

Since the first time she made her group members cry with her writing, the program’s pace and its writing circles, she says, has become her “safe haven.” Its entertaining outings serve as a break from what could easily become roadblocks to reentry.

“It gives you time to escape placement or the current situations you’re in. It can get your mind off of all of your problems,” Morita said.

The night of the hayride, there were three fights and two arrests in her current placement home in Hollywood. A staff member was hospitalized due to one of the fights, she said. Had she been there when the fighting broke out, Morita, who takes medication for impulsivity, speculated she might have been pulled in.

With a job interview lined up, her own apartment on the horizon, law classes at community college set to begin in January, and finally being put back in touch with family, the fear of failing to keep it together just a little while longer is a reality far more frightening than a haunted hayride.

The same goes for Bisuano, a recovering addict. When he was younger, his fears about transitioning from the inside to the outside centered around drugs and creating a social life — when he could get his next fix, what school was going to be like and if he was going to be popular.

Those concerns changed after he was charged with a felony, and a subsequent DUI car crash put him in a three-day coma. Now enrolled in a 12-step recovery program, and four months clean and sober, Bisuano said rehabilitation, writing skills he learned with IOW and the family connections he has been able to create with other alum help him cope with his fears. The biggest: failure to make it on the outside.

“I say to myself: When I get to a place where I can take care of myself … that’s when I get there, but for now I’m focused on surviving. I don’t want to survive anymore, I want to thrive. But right now I have to survive.”

With a lack of funding leading to shrinking staff, Bisuano said it’s hard to get connected with vital resources like he used to. He often eats one meal a day of a sandwich and vegetables, but says he’s used to it. He estimates he’s lost 20 pounds since his last release in August. When the cousin he’s been living with moves in with her father later this month, Bisuano will have no place to stay except a shelter. His full-time job is looking for work.

“I’ve been on the verge of life and death,” he said. “Death was easy. Seeing people dressed up in [Halloween] masks is easy. But life — just getting integrated back into society is scary. You know, the lifestyle I knew was jail. Everything was easy in there. I’m afraid of not being able to do [life on the outside].”

He recognizes the importance of surrounding himself with a strong community, one he says inspires him to aspire to be better, get an education and continue advocating.

Morita agrees that that describes the IOW space.

“I live by this quote,” Morita said. "It says, ‘Even the darkest skies can create the brightest stars.’ Bad situations are the leading cause to better events. You can still come out and see clearer and better than you did before. IOW can really help with that.”

Youth Today has partnered with IOW’s alumni program in our Youth Voices column since 2015.

California Teacher Uses Writing to Inspire Incarcerated Youth

Johnny Kovatch and former InsideOUT Writers students in 2010.
Johnny Kovatch and former InsideOUT Writers students in 2010.

LOS ANGELES — The walls of California’s juvenile halls act as a barrier to a world most people will never experience or understand. More often than not, these halls are viewed as places of isolation and despair.

However, others, like Johnny Kovatch, see an infinite amount of potential and opportunity that can be found just on the other side of these walls.

Kovatch, a long-time juvenile justice advocate, volunteers at several of California’s most well-known juvenile halls and prisons, including Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall, Ironwood State Prison and Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles. He first began volunteering at these institutions as a way to connect with incarcerated youth around the state.

JJIE Los Angeles Bureau“I wanted to work with a population that was underrepresented,” Kovatch says. “These kids don’t know it but they represent truth and they represent purity.”

A personal tragedy in Kovatch’s own life also contributed to his desire to help reform the juvenile justice system.

“When I was in high school, my friend was murdered and robbed for $40,” Kovatch says. “I always wondered what would cause a kid to do something like that. I wondered what was missing from that life, and whether it was a parental influence, a lack of love or a lack of support that was the incentive behind it.”

Kovatch first began volunteering in juvenile detention centers as part of a program called Restorative Justice, where he provided one-on-one counseling to juvenile inmates. During his time in the halls, however, Kovatch discovered a new passion: InsideOUT Writers.

Johnny Kovatch holding a student's son while attending his court date.
Johnny Kovatch holding a student's son while attending his court date.

“I saw a teacher named Todd Rubenstein teaching a writing class through the glass within one of the units,” Kovatch says. “I always wondered what he was doing, and knew that I should be a part of that program.”

InsideOUT Writers is a nonprofit organization that uses creative writing to encourage personal growth and transformation within the California juvenile justice system. The organization is funded both by the county and private donors, and it ultimately aims to reduce the juvenile recidivism rates by offering a range of services to currently and formerly incarcerated youth.

The main focus of InsideOUT Writers is the Writing Program, which is open to students who are being held in various juvenile detention centers across Los Angeles County. Currently, there are 39 classes being taught each week by volunteer instructors like Kovatch.

“During my first class with InsideOUT Writers, what I discovered was that all of the students were extremely grateful that I was there,” Kovatch says. “At the end of class, every kid came up to me and said thank you, welcomed me back and asked if I would be there the following week.”

Carol Chodroff, who has been involved in juvenile justice issues for almost 20 years and is now a board member of InsideOUT Writers, has seen firsthand the positive impact that the Writing Program can have on students.

“The first time I sat in on a writing circle, I saw the kids interacting and the power of literature and poetry. I felt change happening in the room,” Chodroff says. “So many of the kids in the program have lives that are filled with sadness, obstacles, challenges and pain. Now, they have this opportunity to express themselves and to find their voices. Seeing them work together in class shows the best of the education process, the best of rehabilitation and the best of humanity, really.”

The classes and writing prompts address a wide variety of topics, but they all ultimately have one goal: to give the students the confidence to express themselves and get their thoughts and ideas out in the open.

“The biggest thing I encourage is when there’s something they feel like they don’t want to write about because it would too hard or too painful, then I tell them that’s exactly the type of stuff that they should write about,” Kovatch explains. “They write about everything. They write about how they grew up, they write about abandonment, their peers, maybe those who have been incarcerated or have died in gang related activities, and they write about wanting to have a better life.”

Participation in the Writing Program is completely voluntary, and it can often be challenging for students to first decide to attend a class.

Johnny Kovatch and his former InsideOUT Writers student, Jaki Murillo.
Johnny Kovatch and his former InsideOUT Writers student, Jaki Murillo.

Jaki Murillo, a former student in the Writing Program, was tried as an adult for attempted murder and robbery at the age of 15. After being found guilty, she began serving her prison sentence at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, Calif. It was here that Murillo first heard about InsideOUT Writers.

“My old roommate first told me about InsideOUT Writers and she told me I should go, but I didn’t want to. I didn’t get along with the other girls and wasn’t open to new people, so I didn’t go.” Murillo says. “Instead, I used to write by myself in my room, but I would flush it down the toilet because I didn’t want people to read it.”

However, one day after a yoga class that was being held in Murillo’s unit was cancelled, she decided to finally give the writing class a shot. That was when she met Kovatch for the first time.

“From day one, the way Johnny presented himself, the way that he cared, I had never experienced something like that before,” Murillo said. “He never gave up on me. He would always come up to my room and ask me to come out, and eventually I just gave in.”

Although it was not easy, Murillo slowly started to become more open with her teachers and her classmates.

“I started seeing everybody sharing and eventually you just start sharing yourself,” Murillo says. “I would write a lot about betrayal and drugs and drug addiction, and it helped me be more comfortable with myself. I went through a really deep guilt process about a lot of the things I’ve done and it really helped me heal. I was able to share with people from a whole other world and way of life.”

Kovatch continued teaching Murillo for the next year, and was constantly inspired by her both inside and outside of the classroom.

“She always showed up with a positive attitude, she was always smiling and she showed a courage and strength that inspired others to open up and be as honest and truthful as possible,” Kovatch says. “It was her vulnerability that gave others the courage to be just as vulnerable.”

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Learn more about community-based alternatives at the Juvenile Justice Resource HubLearn more about community-based alternatives at the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub.

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Murillo’s time with InsideOUT Writers did not end once she was no longer incarcerated. Now, she is part of the organization’s Alumni Program, which aims to transition former Writing Students into productive lives once they are released. She is also getting ready to begin classes at Los Angeles Mission College this fall, and she hopes to eventually pursue a career in the film industry.

For Kovatch, Chodroff and all of the other InsideOUT Writers volunteers, it is crucial that programs like this one continue expanding to juvenile halls across the country.

“In my mind, one of the biggest issues we have as a society is that we put our emphasis on the wrong end. All of the money gets thrown into putting a Band-Aid on the problem and paying or incarceration and giving kids long sentences rather than preventing them from ending up in that situation in the first place,” Chodroff says. “InsideOUT Writers really advocates for the kid when they’re on the inside. They try to help them survive in this culture that is really counter to everything children need. When they get out, InsideOUT Writers acts as a preventive measure for a new cycle, supporting their reentry and giving them new opportunities.”

No matter where the students and alumni are at now, what Jaki Murillo and many other InsideOUT Writers will remember most are the instructors that guided them throughout their journeys.

“Johnny has a tattoo on his arm that says ‘No estás solo,’ meaning ‘You are not alone’,” Murillo says. “No matter what the struggle, he never gave up on me and he always showed up. “

These three simple words written on his arm constantly remind Kovatch’s students that they will always have someone supporting them along the way.

“I want them to remember that they have their whole lives ahead of them,” Kovatch says. “Kids are redeemable and it’s important for them to understand that why they were incarcerated doesn’t define them. They are more than what led them in there.”

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Healing Words: Creative Writing Programs as Therapy for Kids in Detention

Coosa Valley Youth Detention Classroom. Photo by Ryan Schill.

ANNISTON, Ala. -- Mercy Pilkington’s classroom, at first glance, seems like any other in the nation’s public school system. Novels penned by John Steinbeck and Harper Lee are stacked over a U-shaped row of cubicles. The walls are lined with laminated posters; crayon-colored cutouts of chubby red robins and lime-green pigs are pasted on the room’s sole window.

Pilkington, 39, has taught for 11 years. For the last six, she’s been an English instructor at Coosa Valley Youth Services (CVYS), a facility for juvenile offenders in this northeast Alabama city tucked in the foothills of the Appalachians. After years of distress from discarding her students’ writing after they left the facility, Pilkington decided to give her students -- both former and current -- the ability to share their writing with the world at large through a blog called “Writers on the Inside.”

The blog gives students access to their essays, poetry and stories long after they leave CVYS, Pilkington said. “When you’re not here, you can call up this website and there’s the story that you wrote,” she tells her students.

On this day, Pilkington’s classroom is primarily an audience of young boys, all clad in neon-orange jumpers, a reminder that this is no ordinary school. She carries a chemical restraint canister at her hip, and a personal alarm is tethered to her keychain. Still, through six years at CVYS, she said she’s never had to use the chemical restraint, and used the alarm only once -- when one of her students experienced a seizure in class.

Although Pilkington has worked with several young people that came from “good homes,” the majority of her students have extensive histories of abuse and neglect, she said.

“If you live in a home where your stepfather rapes you,” she said, “or you live in a house where you come home everyday wondering if your mom is there -- let alone if she’s sober -- it’s not going to turn out well.”

She added: “People need to understand society created these kids. We turn them into the things they end up being.”

“There Are A Lot of Us Interested In What They Have To Say”

Pilkington’s program is not the only one of its kind in the United States. Many programs

Coosa Valley Youth Detention library. Photo by Ryan Schill.

incorporating elements of creative writing have been set up across the nation’s juvenile halls and treatment facilities, with the National Endowment for the Arts recognizing creative writing workshops like Massachusetts’ Actors’ Shakespeare Project and the Los Angeles-based InsideOUT Writers. Proponents of such programs believe not only can creative writing play a huge role in the rehabilitation of young offenders; they additionally serve as opportunities to instill both a sense of empowerment and consistency to a juvenile population frequently considered downtrodden and unstable.

David Inocencio, co-founder and director of The Beat Within, a San Francisco-based magazine that features essays and stories written by juvenile detainees, says creative writing can definitely be a therapeutic process for young people in the nation’s juvenile justice system.

“You’re going to get a young person that’s carrying a lot of baggage to put the baggage in thoughts on paper,” he said. “They’re going to get this amazingly thoughtful writing that speaks to a young person wanting to see a better life for him or herself.”

Inocencio started publishing the magazine in 1996. For the last 17 years, he’s held writing workshops inside juvenile halls across California. Currently, The Beat Within personnel serve more than 5,000 young people in California, and conduct multiple workshops across the nation, including programs in Arizona, Texas and Washington, D.C.

Making writing a habit for young people, Inocencio stated, is a tremendous platform for young people to express themselves and air their concerns about the environments they inhabit.

“We encourage the young people to keep on writing no matter where they go,” he said. “Whether it’s penitentiary, rehab, a group home or back into their communities -- that they keep writing to tell their story.”

Inocencio said writing programs like The Beat Within allow a population without a voice to speak up. The effects, he believes, also prove positive for adults within the juvenile justice field, as it gives attorneys, service workers and judges greater insight into the lives of young offenders.

“We’re able to get a window in the world of this young person,” he said. “In the end, when you read the publication, reading what these young people have to say through the workshops, you’re seeing what’s broken.”

He also believes writing workshops allow young people to develop trust for adults. “There are a lot of us interested in what they have to say,” he said.

The benefits of implementing creative writing programs in juvenile detention facilities are apparent, Inocencio said. “Seeing your writing, knowing that it’s going nationwide and read by folks in Washington, D.C., Alabama, Hawaii -- it empowers a young person.”

Creative writing not only changes a young person’s conceptualization of self, but also alters his or her life goals, Inocencio believes.

“It also helps the young writer realize that there’s more to his or her life than what got him or her in the system in the first place,” he said. “I don’t have to stay in the path of destruction [and I] do have the tools to get a high school diploma, or go on to higher education. Or that I am bigger than the label that has been placed on me.”

“I’ve Had Some Really Surprising Stories”

Coosa Valley Youth Detention classroom. Photo by Ryan Schill.

Pilkington says many of her students ask her if their blog entries have received any additional comments from website visitors. “They’re just blown away that people want to read it,” she said.

The Writers on the Inside entries consist primarily of in-class assignments, which, once redacted, are uploaded to the blog. “The students can’t use people’s names or their hometown,” she said. Additional safeguards ensure blog visitors cannot contact students, and students are not allowed to respond to comments posted on their entries. One of Pilkington’s greatest concerns is that individuals involved in some of her students’ charges may leave hateful or intimidating messages on the blog. She remedies this by setting the blog so all comments have to be pre-approved by her before being visible to visitors to the site.

“Almost everything that’s been put up there has been free writing,” she notes. “If you’ve got something in mind you want to write,” she frequently tells her students, “you’re more than welcome to.”

She said many times, her students just want someone to know what’s happened to them -- to have someone believe their accounts.

“It’s like they have this urge to get out and say, ‘Hey, this is what happened to me,’” she said. “I’ve had some really surprising stories.”

In one essay, titled “This is My Life,” one of Pilkington’s students reflects upon a long history of abuse suffered at the hands of her parents.

“When I hear somebody talking about how bad their life is just because they have a ‘fight’ with their parents, I get really mad.

“My real dad tried to kill me and now I’ll always have that big ugly scar on my stomach to remember it by. By the time I was seven my mom was a stripper/prostitute; she would do anything in order to get money for her drug addiction. Even if that meant selling her own daughter to grown men for support of it.”

Another essayist writes:

 “I have had a terrible life. My biological dad was in jail when my biological mother died, but he had two choices. 1. Find somebody to take care of me or 2. Put me in Foster Care.

“He decided to pick neither. Instead he tried to sell me and my other brother. My brother had some mental issues. He tried to kill me twice. Each time he had tried to drown me.”

Pilkington said although many of her students write about their own experiences, an equal number would prefer writing about more fantastical subjects. “I’ve gotten just as many that will not write about their personal life,” she said. “They want to write fiction short-stories.”

One of her students wrote of a fictitious inmate receiving a lethal injection, while others wrote about high school baseball stardom, earning their driver’s licenses and going fishing with explosives. The theme of guilt and punishment is common, even when the young writers dwell upon made-up worlds.

“As he left the scene of the crime, Victor was bawling,” begins one short story, titled “The Cry of Goodbye,” by a resident named J.F.

“He couldn’t believe his father had murdered that young boy.

“Victor had paid for the fine and the cars, but he new he could never pay for the little boy’s life. Victor had went to the little boy’s house so he could apologize to the little boy’s parents. The little boy’s parents were very happy that he had apologized.”

If You Like To Write, Or You’ve Got Something To Say, You Do It

Pilkington said she was initially surprised the CVYS administration wanted to start the program -- an idea she said was green-lit following an informal parking lot conversation.

“There are great facilities out there; there are some horrible facilities out there,“ she said. “And this happens to be one of the good ones that really cares a lot about what happens to kids.”

Pilkington said, gauging from their reactions to comments posted on her blog, her

Mercy Pilkington. Photo by Ryan Schill.

students believe they have something “worth saying” and something “that people want to know about.” During classes, she said she’s shown her students how to set up a blog, and demonstrated how she can update the site through smart phones and other mobile devices.

“If you like to write, or you’ve got something to say, you do it,” she said. “You don’t worry about what other people think about it or if just two people read it today. It’s your site.”

At the facility, Pilkington said some of her students have to write their essays using felt tip markers.

“I’m a writer myself, and I can’t imagine having to write my story on notebook paper with a magic marker,” she said.

Her students’ desire to write, even when having to resort to unconventional implements, demonstrates an emotional need to get their stories out, she believes. In some instances, Pilkington said, her students’ work is barely legible.

“We go through every single word and fix it to make it readable,” she said. “We sit there, and word for word, put a comma here, capitalize this.”

Pilkington said her intent with the blog is multifaceted, but at the end of the day, she just wants visitors to realize many of her pupils have a knack for the written word.

“I want people to read it,” she said, “and go, ‘Wow, the 15-year-old burglary suspect actually can write a decent story.’”