Writing program targets youth in justice system

By Shirley Hawkins

Contributing Writer

LOS ANGELES — Jimmy Yu knows what its like to spend time in a juvenile detention facility. He spent most of his teen years incarcerated. 

“When I was a youth on the streets, I made some bad choices by hanging around the wrong crowd,” Wu said.

While in one of the Los Angeles County facilities, Wu was introduced to the InsideOut Writers program, a program that seeks to help juvenile offenders escape recidivism by writing about their feelings while empowering them with the knowledge and skills necessary to successfully re-integrate into their communities.

Twenty-five years later, Wu is the executive director of the program.

Geared toward minority youths age 16 to 25, InsideOut Writers offers three programs: the Alumni Program, which consists of community reintegration services for individuals exiting incarceration in Los Angeles County’s Juvenile Detention Centers; the Writing program, which offers a tailored individual action plan that will address the youth’s specific risks, needs and goals; and the Diversion program, which redirects youth away from further encounters with law enforcement that may lead to further arrests or incarceration.

Over the years, the program has provided resources and helped thousands of incarcerated youths forge a successful path back to society while helping them change their lives for the better. The organization offers 20 weekly creative writing classes inside Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey and the Barry J. Nidorf Secure Youth Treatment Facility in Sylmar.

Wu is in charge of administrative responsibilities for the organization and arranges reentry services for youth in the program while actively leading fundraising.

Wu has witnessed many lives transformed through the program. 

“Through creative writing classes, the participants find out who they really are,” he said.

Inside Out participant Danny Camarena was just 17 when he was charged as an adult for multiple shootings andwas sentenced to serve time in the state prison system. He credits InsideOut for helping him transform his life.

While growing up in Compton, Camarena said he was often embroiled in fights with local gang members.

“The area I grew up in had a high concentration of gangs,” he said. “I was constantly being pressured to join a gang but I refused, and I got caught up in a lot of fights. 

“I tried to keep the fights away from my parents,” he added. “I would lie to them and say the bruises were from playing sports at school or at the park. My mom got suspicious, but she grudgingly accepted my explanations.”

Things changed when several gang members shot up his car and Camarena purchased a gun. 

“I was angry and I went looking for them,” he said.

He found the gang members in an apartment stairwell and opened fire. 

“The bullets hit two of them,” he said. “One of the people I ended up shooting was a childhood friend who wanted me to be part of his gang.” 

Camarena was sentenced to 22 years in prison.

“The extreme depression and sadness I felt while I was locked up was overwhelming,” he said. “I felt like my life was over.”

During his incarceration, Camarena was introduced to the InsideOut Writer’s program. He was released from prison after 14 years for good behavior and now serves as the alumni advocacy director for the organization.

“I’m in charge of the alumni program for youths and young adults who have been in foster care or were or who are still incarcerated,” Camarena said. “Through writing, we explore such topics as emotional regulation, work-life balance, the importance of community, identity, relationships and trauma through a weekly writing circle.”

Camarena said that most of the youth enrolled in the program grew up in areas where joining a gang was a means of survival. Some participants reveal that they have lost friends to gun violence or come from neighborhoods where they have witnessed poverty, violence and the proliferation of drugs.

Many credit the program for helping them rethink life choices and make better choices in the future.

InsideOut participant Alton Pitre, 33, has high praise for the organization. 

“InsideOut Writers is a great organization that has integrity,” he said. “You realize when you are locked up that writing is freedom.” 

Raised in the section of Baldwin Village known as “the jungle,” Pitre witnessed his share of poverty and crime. 

He claims he was framed by police for a robbery he didn’t commit when he was was 17.

“There were two cops in my neighborhood who were always harassing me,” Pitre said. “They repeatedly said, ‘We know you’re doing something and we’re going to get you.’”

He was transferred to the county juvenile facility in Sylmar, where he enrolled in the InsideOut program, where he used his creative writing talent as a catalyst for self expression.

“We had weekly creative writing classes in juvenile hall,” he said. “I wrote poetry, I rapped. I was known for having a rhyme book of raps and songs. I wrote about everything such as my goals, feelings about injustice and my experiences growing up in the jungle section of Los Angeles.” 

Pitre said he was surprised when the Los Angeles Opera Company took some of the program participant’s poetry and songs and incorporated them into a full scale opera.

“That was pretty cool,” he said.

Released after two years, Pitre turned his life around and enrolled in Los Angeles Valley College. Determined to further his education, Pitre applied to Morehouse College in Atlanta. Rejected the first time he applied, Pitre tried again and was accepted. 

While success stories abound, there are still incarcerated youths waiting to walk out of the gates and begin their lives of freedom. 

Joseph, L., a youth currently incarcerated at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey, expressed how he plans to make his life better in the quarterly InsideOut magazine.

“I’m looking forward to going home and never coming back to jail,” he wrote. “I look forward to making my family proud. I look forward to good opportunities in the new year. I look forward to being a new man. 

“I look forward to the future. I look forward to being an example to [other] youth so they do not go through the same thing. They don’t need to go through these walls of shame. I would do anything to not come here again. I would do anything to get my freedom back. I learned that it’s never too late to change.” 

Shirley Hawkins is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers. She can be reached at metropressnews@gmail.com.