Mark Salzman spent four years in a tough US juvenile remand centre, where he led writing classes for teenage boys from Los Angeles gangs. His students faced charges of murder and other violent crimes. His account of his time at Central Juvenile Hall, True Notebooks, became a bestseller in the US, and is published in the UK this week. In this extract, he arrives for class to find the boys are still locked in their cells
Bad news," Mr Jenkins told me and the religious volunteers. "The whole unit's on lockdown this week. No activities tonight." He apologised for the inconvenience, then closed the door.
The volunteers groaned but did not look surprised. "It happens about once a month," one of them told me. "If a fight breaks out, the whole unit gets punished." They turned around as a group and headed back toward the key trailer.
I lingered at the door to the unit, hoping I might at least drop off the boys' work from the previous session. I hated the thought of making the drive to Central for nothing. As I searched through my bag for the pages, I heard the jingle of keys and the clank of a heavy bolt lock, and the door opened once again.
"How many kids you got in your class?" Mr Jenkins asked quietly.
"I doubt I can get four kids out, lockdown and all, but I might be able to bring up one or two. Hold on."
He disappeared into the staff room for a moment, then came out smiling. "Go on ahead into the library," he said. "I'll see what I can do."
He limped down the corridor and returned a few minutes later, with Kevin Jackson and Jimmy Wu on either side of him. "Just these two for tonight," he said. "They're never any trouble."
"I appreciate it."
Mr Jenkins shrugged. "I might ask you a favour one day, who knows."
As soon as he'd left us, the two boys asked how I'd managed to pull it off.
"We've been locked down for days! They wouldn't even let us out of our rooms to go to school. You must have juice around here, Mark."
"It was Mr Jenkins. He seems to be on our side."
"Yeah, he's into education an' all that." Kevin tilted his head back and breathed deeply. I thought he was going to complain about the smell of disinfectant in the library, which was almost overpowering, but instead he stretched out his arms and said: "Man, it feels good to be out in the open again."
"What happened this week?" I asked.
"Just some stupid racial bullshit," Jimmy Wu said, scowling. "It happens like this: there's a race war goin' on in the adult prisons between the blacks and the Latinos. Whatever happens there trickles down here. If a group of black guys jump a Latino guy up at Corcoran or Folsom, the Mexican mafia will say that Latino guys got to pick fights with blacks for payback.
And if they find out the juveniles didn't carry out the order, they'll be waiting for you when you get sent to the pen (adult prison).
"So as we were going out of the unit for church on Sunday, this one Latino fool threw his gang sign and jumped this black fool, and before you know it, fools are jumping on other fools, and the staff is goin' nuts and everybody's coughing from pepper spray. Since then we been locked down (it's now Wednesday)."
"But how do the people in adult prison keep track of what people here do?"
I asked. "How does the information go back and forth?"
"The hard-core people know everything," Kevin said. "Since we bein' tried as adults, we get put in the same holding tanks as the guys from the pen.
You're there all day, there's not much else to do but talk, and there's nowhere to hide if you wanna keep out of it."
"But the two of you kept out of it."
"I can't afford to get in trouble," Jimmy said. "There's still a chance the judge could send me to Youth Authority (institution for under-25s who have been convicted) or fire camp (a minimum-security alternative) to do some of my time instead of sending me to the pen. No more screwups for me. If I get called chickenshit, or if I get the shit kicked out of me for it, so be it."
"What about you, Kevin?"
"Me? Oh, I guess I'm just sick of the whole thing." He laid his arms flat on the table and tucked his chin in the crook of one elbow. "So what are we gonna write about today, Mark? I wanna write, but I can't think of anything. Gimme a topic."
"How about describing a time you helped someone? It would make a nice companion to your essay about the teacher who helped you."
He leaned his head over so that his cheek rested on his bicep. "Mm." He picked up one of the pencils I'd set out on the table. "I never did anything that nice for anybody."
"It can be a small thing."
"Mm." He took another deep breath, then straightened up and faced the page.
"It's gonna have to be real small, Mark."
"That's not a problem. How about you, Jimmy? Do you have something to work on?"
Jimmy stared out the window. "Not at the moment."
"He's stressin'," Kevin said. "Ain't that right, Wu?"
"He's stressin'," Kevin repeated, writing his name at the top of his notepad. "The thing is, his situation sounds pretty good to me. He's lookin' at 18 years with no L (no increase to life imprisonment). He could be out in 12 if he stays out of trouble. I'd take that deal in a second."
"It's not me that I'm stressing about," Jimmy said angrily. "It's my mother."
"Are you upset because she's worried about you?" I asked.
"That's part of it. She hired a lawyer for my trial, and he charged her sixty thousand dollars up front. She had to mortgage the house to pay him, and the guy didn't do shit. He probably spent an hour on it, total. I lost my case, and now he won't handle the sentencing hearing unless my mother pays him more." Jimmy's eyes welled up. "I'm the one who fucked up, so I know I have to pay the price. But he's ripping off my mother - she's gonna lose everything because of me - and I can't do shit about it."
He clenched his fists and swallowed, but would not let himself cry. He kept staring out the window, without blinking, as if trying to will the unscrupulous lawyer to appear before him.
"Maybe you could write a letter to your mom," Kevin suggested.
Jimmy shook his head. "Whenever I see her, I tell her I'm doing fine, that everything is gonna be all right. I have to stay strong for her. I'm gonna write about something else."
This time I offered to write with them, and the hour passed quickly. Just before eight o'clock, Mr Jenkins gave us a signal: five more minutes. The boys insisted that this time, I read aloud first.
I had chosen to write about my only real-life experience which involved prisoners: while living in mainland China during the early 1980s, I found myself on a local train seated next to two young men who had just been released from a forced labour camp. They were drinking hard liquor and celebrating their freedom when one of them began daydreaming aloud about the scene at the railroad station when he and his mother would be reunited.
He was going on and on about how much his mother loved him when suddenly his companion struck him hard across the chest and told him to shut up.
Pointing at me, the quieter man said, "He's far away from home, he can't see his mother at all. He doesn't need to know how happy you are."
As soon as I began reading the story to the boys I wished I had written something else. Jimmy was upset over his mother's financial troubles and Kevin didn't have a mother; what was I thinking? To my relief, the two boys applauded when I finished and asked if I would make copies of it for them.
"When you're locked up, you think about your mother all the time," Jimmy said. "That's true of everybody here."
"It's like it's genetic," Kevin agreed, then he offered to read next.
"The only time I can remember helping a complete stranger was about a month ago. I was in here on my way to showers when I recognised a new guy coming out of the shower without any house shoes on. When I went back to my room I debated on if I should give this guy my extra pair. I would have given them to him if he was a dog, but he was from the other side of the unit so I felt I should just let him be. But then I thought about when I first got to jail. I had nothing for about a week until this enemy from a Compton gang gave me some shower shoes and some personals (toiletries). So I felt some compassion for the fellow and gave them to him after all.
"After I was in bed that night about to go to sleep I felt good that I helped somebody out, because I know that someone helped me back when I was struggling."
"Is that person still here?" I asked.
"Naw, he lost his case. He got 35 to life."
I asked if two people from enemy gangs could actually become friends in juvenile hall.
They glanced at each other, then both nodded. "It happens a lot, but you can't show it. You definitely have to keep it on the low-pro."
"Right," Jimmy said. "You're supposed to put the gang first, but the truth is, if you could listen to most of us when we're talking in our rooms, when it's just you and your roommate and not in front of everybody else, you'd find out that a lot of guys in here are sick of it. I mean - look where it got us, right?"
Kevin nodded solemnly.
Jimmy tilted his chair back, stopping just at the point of balance. "The problem is, it's hard to get out. It's like this: If you turn your back on the gang, who do you got left? By the time you're locked up, how many people you think still care about you? Your family, maybe, and that's it.
And they can't do the time with you. If you leave the gang, you're a buster, and everybody hates you."
Jimmy kicked his feet out and the chair dropped forward. "Bet you never thought you'd end up in a place like this, hanging out with guys like us in your spare time, huh?"
"I sure didn't."
When Mr Jenkins knocked on the window for us to clear out, Kevin smiled and asked, "So why do you come here, Mark?"
"How come you always ask me when it's time to go?"
"That way, you'll have to come back to answer it."
"I can tell you one thing - I enjoy the surprise of it. You guys aren't at all like what I expected."
"What did you expect?"
Even Jimmy smiled now. "Yeah, tell us."
I decided to act it out. I slumped back in my chair, crossed my arms over my chest, snarled at them both, then gave them the finger. The boys seemed to think this was hilarious, but the person who laughed hardest of all was Mr Jenkins, who had been standing just outside the library. He stuck his head in and asked me, "So - these clowns finally got on your nerves, huh? You want me to straighten 'em out for you?"
When I explained the context for the rude gesture, he said, "Oh, we don't see anything like that down here, do we Wu? Do we, Jackson?"
The boys shook their heads.
"No, we don't ever have back talk, or bad attitudes, or negativity of any kind," Mr Jenkins said. "Or minors throwing gang signs during lineup, or disrespecting the staff, or destroying property, or starting fights. It's just nice folks making the most of a bad situation, right?"
"I didn't hear you, Jackson - would you agree?"
"No doubt about it."
"So when I say, 'Take it down to your rooms', you're going to stand up, thank your teacher for coming, thank me for giving you this little break, stack the chairs, and file out of here without me having to say another word, right?"
"But I didn't get to read yet," Jimmy said. "Give us five more minutes.
"I already gave you five more minutes. That was 10 minutes ago. I'm in a good mood tonight - don't push your luck."
With the boys on the way to their rooms, Mr Jenkins unlocked the front door and stepped outside with me. Ribbons of orange and purple crossed the sky, and the scent of a barbecue had somehow drifted its way into the facility.
"Somebody's got the right idea," he said.
We debated the virtues of barbecued pork versus beef (pork won in the ribs category; off the bone, though, we agreed that nothing beats a steak), then he asked me how the class was going. I told him I thought it was going well; the boys were writing twice a week, which was more than I had done when I was 17. "It's more writing than I've ever done," he said, chuckling.
"But don't tell them that. I'd never hear the end of it."
Taken from True Notebooks by Mark Salzman, published by Bloomsbury this week, pound;15.99. Order for pound;13.99, including UK pamp;p, from Bookpost. Tel: 01624 836000; fax: 01624 837033; email: firstname.lastname@example.org (offer ends April 30). Novelist Mark Salzman is on the board of the InsideOUT Writers programme set up by the Alethos Foundation in Southern California (www.insideoutwriters.org) for young people who are incarcerated or at risk. He was a volunteer teacher for the programme at Central Juvenile Hall (two hour-long sessions a week) from 1997 to 2001. Jimmy Wu was sentenced to 15 years and eight months for armed home invasion robbery in autumn 1997, aged 17. Kevin Jackson, who earned enough academic credits for high school graduation while he was at Central, wrote in August 1998 that Mr Salzman's class had been "one of my most cherished experiences". Soon afterwards he was sentenced at 18 to 28 years and eight months for murder and attempted murder. Their work appears in an Alethos Foundation anthology, What We See