By Darlene Donloe
InsideOUT Writers believes the power of the pen has the power to keep its participants out of the “pen.”
The mission of InsideOUT Writers is to reduce juvenile recidivism by providing a range of services that meet the unique needs of currently and formerly incarcerated youth and young adults.
The organization uses creative writing as a catalyst for personal transformation. Through the program, young people are empowered with the knowledge and skills necessary to successfully reintegrate into communities and become advocates for their futures.
Most are between the ages of 16-25 and are Latino or Black and hail from throughout Los Angeles County. Anyone impacted by the system can participate.
The organization believes that while detained, incarcerated youth typically need positive structure and purpose-driven programming so they can channel the multifaceted emotions associated with juvenile detention in a constructive way.
The writing program encourages students to write with clarity and authenticity about their past, current and future. Through writing, students are encouraged to channel their feelings of hopelessness, anger, fear and frustration into writing, rather than into anti-social and criminal behaviors.
Since 1996, InsideOUT Writers has provided more than 26,000 youth with creative writing classes inside juvenile detention facilities. The program is successful — boasting less than 10% recidivism.
“We’re very proud of that,” said Jimmy Wu, the executive director of InsideOUT.
Wu, 42, knows exactly what the participants are going through because he used to be one of them.
At 16, he was arrested and sentenced to state prison. While there, he was introduced to a former Catholic chaplain.
“She asked if I was interested in a creative, innovative writing class,” said Wu, who was born in Taiwan and moved to this country with his parents when he was 2. “I took a leap of faith. I was a student for six months. That was my introduction to InsideOUT Writers. It helped form what our organization would become known for.”
During his time in prison, Wu, who was released in 2009 when he was 30, said he grew up and remained in contact with both his writing teacher and the chaplain. Three years after he was released, Wu was recruited to join the organization.
“They wanted someone with history,” said Wu, who began as a case manager, then became interim executive director in 2017 and officially took over in 2018. “I wanted to help young people to adapt and grow in this new life.”
Wu said what helped him turn his life around was being able to find himself in “safe spaces” like the writing class.
“Being in class did it for me,” he said. “I was given a tool and allowed myself to be vulnerable and my authentic self. It gave me the ability to do something positive with my life. Hold on to my hopes and dreams.
“It allowed me to find myself through writing. It helped me to heal myself. There was trauma in my life. Incarceration can be a hostile, unforgiving environment. I was able to turn to paper and pen to find myself.”
Wu, who is teaching Arts in Corrections at UCLA for the next 10 Wednesdays, said he hopes everyone involved with InsideOUT Writers is able to “find” themselves.
He believes in the importance of writing.
“There is a lot to be said for writing,” he said. “It’s therapeutic. It’s an opportunity for self-discovery and introspection. We have to acknowledge there is a problem. It helps us grow comfortable with who we are. We are able to help encourage people to speak their own truths.”
The voluntary, weekly, 60-90 minute writing program takes place in one of four Los Angeles County juvenile halls. The program provides arts education to 175 to 250 youth.
Teachers go in and facilitate their own classes. The participants are given writing prompts. They are given a topic for the day. Open dialogue is encouraged as well.
All students are asked to engage to further reflect on what was just shared. Words of affirmation are also shared.
In addition to creative writing classes, the InsideOUT Writing Program offers students the opportunity to share their work with broader audiences through Open Mic Nights and its quarterly InDepth literary journal.
Once students are released from incarceration, they can participate in the alumni program, which started in 2009.
“The Alumni Program has been providing a whole-person holistic approach to its participants,” Wu said. “They still write.”
InsideOut Writers’ students are supported with housing, transportation, counseling and preparing documents.
“We’re all about them being able to move forward, building community and kinship,” Wu said. “It’s important they know that there is a home away from home at our office.”
Wu said for some, reentry after incarceration can be difficult.
“It depends,” he said. “What are they returning home to? Will there be patience from the people they are around? Will there be stability? Will there be resources and opportunities? Are they going to have all those things?
“Also, they may find themselves in a world that has grown without them,” he added. “Trying to find a new social group to be a part of can also be difficult.”
Every Thursday evening InsideOUT Writers hosts a virtual 90-minute Writers Circle. Prior to COVID, participants met in person.
“During that time, they can receive support from their peers and the staff,” said Wu, an engaged father of one.
Wu said InsideOUT Writers also hosts a program to divert would-be offenders.
“It’s for young people who are considered at risk of being incarcerated, but aren’t there yet,” Wu said. “We want to interrupt the path they’re on.”
Wu is an outspoken advocate for juvenile justice reform and a voting member of a historic initiative called the Alternatives to Incarceration Work Group formed by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. In this role, Wu has voted on community safety strategies and was charged with helping develop a roadmap to prioritize reforms and solutions for all justice-impacted populations.
Wu, who last May was named in “Good Morning America’s” “Who is Making AAPI History in 2021: The GMA Inspiration List,” said he would like to see the justice system “truly” become a justice system.
“It’s a punishment system,” he said. “The purpose is focusing on the crime and appropriate punishment. We need to shift the focus to the root causes of crime. Why did it occur?
“Try to understand what the individual was going through. Engage in restorative justice practices. How do we bring people together? One crime can have a domino effect. Then talk about healing together. Then turn it into a sympathetic, empathetic and compassionate system,” he added. “Come up with creative solutions that are meaningful to really help people heal. There need to be alternatives to incarceration.”
Wu said his incarceration had to do with what he was going through personally.
“It was because of things I had undergone,” he said. “I had divorced parents, a sibling who had muscular dystrophy. I needed more love. I was dealing with it on my own. I turned to the wrong people for love. It was a combination of all those things. Crime occurs as a form of survival sometimes.”
Although he’s the executive director of InsideOUT Writers, Wu said he continues to get something out of the program.
“It helps fill my constant pursuit of redemption for the hurt I caused my family and the victim of my crime,” Wu said. “I want my life to be fulfilling. I want to make an impact on those around me.”
Wu said he also wants to be of continued service.
“I really believe that every individual can make an impact on another,” he said. “Each one, teach one. Why not try to make the world a better place? Influence positive change.
“I am here because people took a chance on me when others would have turned the other way. I make sure I never forget that.”
“Making a Difference” is a weekly feature profiling organizations that are serving their communities. To propose a “Making a Difference” profile, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at email@example.com.