How One Nonprofit Is Bringing Value to Incarcerated Kids’ Lives

See how youth prisoners are rewriting their own futures.

When people recall sophomore year of high school, they might picture a time filled with learning and awkward moments. But for Taylor Balk and other youths like her, those formative years were spent inside a detention facility.

One nonprofit organization, however, is giving incarcerated youths a chance to develop life skills and express themselves through a simple and cheap activity: Creative writing.

Keep reading to learn about the true cost of one man’s time in jail, and what he’s done with his life ever since.

The Price Tag on Childhood Incarceration

For kids like Balk, there was a price attached to her youth — $150,000, to be exact. That’s how much it costs to incarcerate just one child in a juvenile detention facility — and that was the reality Balk faced after she and her mother were arrested.

“I was a kid sitting in a courtroom being called a monster,” she said. “I had gotten locked up with my mom and it was kind of like, ‘Ok, you could be getting a life sentence for this,’ so it was scary.”

Crafting Their Own Stories

Enter InsideOUT Writers. Founded in 1996, the nonprofit organization set out with a mission of reducing the overall juvenile recidivism rate by providing creative writing instruction to incarcerated youths.

According to their website, “IOW grew out of the vision of juvenile hall chaplain, Sister Janet Harris, former Los Angeles Times journalist, Duane Noriyuki and several other professional writers who volunteered to teach creative writing to youth incarcerated in Los Angeles County’s Central Juvenile Hall.”

It was projected through a county audit that it costs nearly $230,000 in the Los Angeles County to incarcerate just one person.

“It would be more than enough funding for this organization to hire two full-time staff, and to offer up to 40 kids re-entry services annually,” said Jimmy Wu, the executive director of InsideOUT Writers.

The Power of the Pen

“When we’re in the halls, it’s like it doesn’t matter what you say to staff, it’s like ‘Ok, yeah, whatever, you’re just locked up.’ You know?” said Balk. “IOW gives us a voice. It gives us a way to express ourselves in ways that we truly can’t on other days in here.”

The mission of IOW has since grown outside of the walls of the penitentiaries with the creation of the IOW alumni program. The alumni program was founded in 2009 to tackle the growing problem of youth recidivism.

“We have a nationwide average of around 65 percent of people returning to incarceration,” said Wu. “But if we are able to support a young person through our alumni program, that number is reduced to less than 10 percent.”

Writing Their Next Sentence

IOW has helped numerous alumni go on to create meaningful careers once they’ve served their time. Since leaving prison, Balk has worked on film and music video sets, creating a meaningful career for himself with the tools he learned in IOW.

“The company I work for is called Unlabeled Digital Media,” said Balk. “Basically, it’s to help tell the stories and remove this label everybody puts on us.”

Very few can speak to the success of IOW as much as Wu — aside from serving as executive director, Wu is also an alumnus of the program. After serving nearly 13 and a half years incarcerated, Wu was one of the first IOW graduates.

“We are so much more than the worst mistakes we made in our lives,” he said.

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