168 Goes to Prison

Here’s a review of my trip to the Pitchess Detention Center, to encourage the inmates by presenting a writing class. This new program is a joint effort with Gary and Cyndi Hall’s Hollywood Impact Studios, which teaches media literacy to those in prison.

Photo-Gary Hall addresses L.A. inmates

Gary is Sr. VP of Post Production for 20th Century Fox TV, a policeman and a jury member for the 168 Film Project. The writing class was taught by indie writer/producer, Derrick Warfel.

According to Founder Gary Hall, "The goal of Hollywood Impact Studios is to bring new hope and a brighter future to those individuals who have been dealt a tough hand in life; to use the art of television and film changing lives and to provide a training ground where Hollywood professionals mentor these individuals in order to identify and develop their individual talent for a career in Hollywood." For more, see www.hollywoodimpactstudios.com.

Driving into the prison, I passed the idyllic landscape of agrarian beauty. The landscape soon gave way to white picket fences and then chain link fences topped with concertina wire to prevent escape.

As I watched, the prisoners were exiting from one of the buildings. Man after man after man was dressed in prison denim uniforms, all with the words “LA COUNTY JAIL” on the back and the pants.

As they jumped up and down for warmth, I wondered why were they there, what had they done? That I don’t know, but they are all in the facility for one year or less. And they will get a second chance.

In the classroom, I had the privilege of introducing the 168 Film Project and the Write of Passage – Prison Edition.

We started the two hour session by relating to them a verse that had come to my attention as I read my Bible that morning at 5:30am. Perhaps against my better judgment, I read Acts 12, the account of Peter’s escape from prison.

It tells how the angel of the Lord came and woke Peter to bust him out of the joint. The shackles fell off and the doors opened by themselves. Later the narrative tells us that Herod executed all of the guards when he heard of the escape. They liked this.

“If God did that for Peter, what will he do for you?” I asked them. More importantly, what will he ask you to do?

To start, I asked who amongst them would enter the upcoming contest and write a script for the Write of Passage – Prison Edition. Less than half of them raised their hands. They’ve had some hard knocks and they didn’t believe in themselves.

I told them how awards are the lifeblood of a young writer, and really (I said to myself) “just trying” to conquer a daunting new task is the lifeblood of building confidence for a new start. We were there to lift their spirits.

Luke 4:18-19: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”

At the prison, the main focus is teaching the basics of writing a screenplay. In future classes, they also will learn short story, stage play and even news writing.

Finally, these men will write a short film based on a theme ("Hearing God") and a verse in a week. The top screenplay will win a prize. Actors will be used to perform some of these scripts for the men. I can’t wait to see their faces on that day.

Derrick Warfel gave the basics of story and gave a fascinating deconstruction of several scenes from the movie “Rocky.” After he showed them basic structure, examples and ways writers manipulate emotions, it was time to conclude.

We gave them a homework assignment to write a short scene. This is a confidence builder. They have two weeks and we will be seeing them again. Next time, we will bring professional actors, who will perform their work.

I asked if there was any bad language in prison. “Duh.” Then I requested that they humor me and write as if they were going to show it to mom. Maybe then they can show it to mom. I told them that bad language is most often a way to artificially heighten the drama in a scene and an excuse for lack of creativity.

I was a little nervous as to how they would react to the purist at the head of the class (me). But, they got it and they were ok with it. They understood that no one is going to turn off a good story just because there’s not enough “f-bombs” in it. Tell all the stories. Just leave out the bad language.

They liked the fact that we are trying to do something new and fresh that creates art that tells real stories, yet does not drag people through the mud of gratuity to get there. There was a sense of mission in this, really. There were smiles.

I asked again, who would be entering a script in the contest. Well over half of the hands went up!

What a great feeling to be able to pump up a group of men and turn them back into a population where hopelessness is a constant; where fear of the unknown lurks around every corner and where getting out may be the most scary of all because of what will or will not be waiting for them.

Please pray that we would be of great encouragement to them.

We talked with some of the men after. They were so very excited to jump in and write.

One told me that as I read the story of the jailbreak from the Bible, he looked at his compadres in shock. He had the same verse written down on his notes from days before. They are working on a skit on that very verse!

He works in mysterious ways.