“Dear Odd One, You were only 12 years old when you first saw the world behind cold steel bars, Those lonely nights & Terrified days, You kept it tough, Showed no fear at any space"
Gloria Basulto was facing a harsh reality.
Raised by a single dad in Hollywood, California, Gloria’s mom was a heroin addict who left when she was just 8. “I don’t doubt that she tried to care for me, I just don’t think she knew how to. She was very young when she had me. She was 19,” says Basulto. “I don’t blame her. I don’t have any anger towards her. I used to.”
Gloria was 12 when she was first sent to a juvenile detention center. Angry at everything and everyone, her teenage years were spent fighting students, teachers, and anyone else who didn’t move fast enough off her path of self-destruction. The result was six years spent in and out of juvenile halls, for periods lasting as long as nine months at a time. But what she didn’t realize then was that her peace and salvation would be found through the written word with the help of non-profit InsideOut Writers (IOW). “Writing saved my life,” says Basulto.
IOW uses the power of writing to help thousands of kids in juvenile detention centers throughout Los Angeles. The program works with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals with the goal of reducing the juvenile recidivism rate. Recidivism rates – the percentage of former prisoners who are rearrested for similar offenses – vary, but the general accepted statistic for the state of California is 70 percent, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Basulto, like so many other young people growing up on the gang-ridden streets of inner city Los Angeles, found herself stuck in the vicious juvenile prison cycle.
“I didn’t care about hurting people," says Basulto. "If anything, I wanted to hurt people. I wanted people to feel the pain I had because I never had anything else. I was always so angry at everything and everybody.”
Inside the detention centers, Basulto felt alone, lost, and misunderstood. And then, at 15 years old, something changed: She took her first writing class with IOW teacher Jesse Bliss.
“When I would look into Gloria’s eyes, I could see myself so clearly and I could see how she wanted to make choices that were good and she wanted to find a way. And I could tell she was a person that could. And if I gave her my time and attention, it was going to pay off for her,” says Bliss. “She wrote about her pain a lot and that was the theme of all of her earlier work. She longed to have this hole in her heart filled.”
“16 years old when you made a mistake that only empowered you to change, When you learned how much harm you could unintentionally do, When you paid for every battle through time, & Unforgiveable lies, It's amazing how much pain can be stored without it ever coming to light”
The kids in the writing class at Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles, CA were talking about “violence, abuse, neglect, home, being homeless, not having a voice,” says Basulto. “At first I felt extremely lonely. I always thought everyone was my enemy. And then I went inside the first writing circle and realized everything everyone was saying, I could not only relate to, but I could see little pieces of me. And seeing how everyone could relate to me meant I wasn’t alone anymore.”
She began sharing more about her past with Bliss. And it made a difference.
“I remember her immediately telling me that she hadn’t had a relationship with her mother. And that her heart was really hurt over that,” says Bliss. “She seemed extremely open to me being a female in her life that she could trust.”
For the first time, Basulto felt like someone believed in her. "I didn't believe in myself, but Jesse believed in me," says Basulto. Bliss became the mother that Basulto never had and she became like a daughter to Bliss.
With writing, came healing.
“My writing started to change from anger to reflection because I wanted change for myself,” says Basulto. Bliss agrees: “Her work was becoming more slanted toward who she wanted to become and looking more forward and less in the pain and more out of the pain. And it was really a powerful thing to witness.”
In Los Angeles County, only 20 to 40 percent of incarcerated juveniles graduate from high school or get their GEDs. The average reading level of incarcerated youths is 5th grade, according to a report titled “Research on the Educational Experiences of Dependent and Delinquent Youth.” And about two-thirds of those who leaving custody don’t return back to school.
Basulto was determined not to become part of that statistic.
She was incarcerated for the last time in December 2008, and, since then, has not only graduated from high school, but is now attending college with plans to major in sociology. She still writes daily. Despite her recent successes, she admits she'll never completely be able shake her past. “I still feel like I am living a double life. I’m meeting more people who believe in me. And I know this sounds ridiculous, but it’s pretty awkward for me,” says Basulto.
Her teacher is one of the believers. “Every time I see Gloria in street clothes and not jail clothes, no matter how many years it’s been, it makes me well up with a combination of pride and awe of her, because I know how brave she is and I know how much she’s had to overcome,” says Bliss. “She’s living proof of the capability of the human spirit.”
Basulto has returned to her old neighborhood, where she is caring for her dad. “I’m not used to anyone believing in me, so now having this community of people who believe in me and going back to a home that is destructive in nature, it is difficult to believe in myself, so at the very moment, I’m just doing my best to prove myself wrong and go through obstacles as if they’re opportunities to grow and to believe.”
She finds herself reaching for the phone every time she has an important decision to make in her life. And finally, there is someone on the other end to answer her.
“Now you are 21 years old Practicing new habits, One step at a time, Knowing one mistake does not define you, But realizing your reactions do”
Find out more and learn how you can help IOW and the Anti-Recidivism Coalition.
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