Here’s a preview of what’s in the works:
The Francisco Homes are five neatly kept and well maintained houses in South LA, each with a yard, each offering the first step back to freedom for a total of about 60 formerly incarcerated men. These houses are the only transitional housing specifically intended for men who received life sentences but after decades behind bars were released on parole after the board of prison terms and the governor were convinced they had turned their lives around and posed no threat.
Transitional housing is a stepping-stone. One man told me, “If you go to prison at 15 and come out at 50, in some ways, you’re still 15.” Having never lived free as an adult, there’s a lot to learn – and decades of technology to catch up on. Still, the men are anxious to move on once they’ve regained their footing. They look forward to the privacy of a bedroom that doesn’t have to be shared, an end to squabbles about whose turn it is to clean the toilet. In short, they want to live, at last, like adults.
For the time being, they attend house meetings and classes as well as regular meetings with their parole officers. They pay a low monthly rent, share household chores, grocery shopping and cooking. One man told me how much he loves going to the grocery store because he smiles and greets everyone – neighbors and strangers – in the aisles and at checkout, and these simple human interactions fill him with joy.
In July and August 2013, it was my privilege to offer a series of writing workshops for residents. Everyone was invited at any level of experience, from men who’d been published to men who didn’t think they could write at all. We usually began with some conversation on a topic that might spark ideas. We looked at published poems, essays, and stories. Sometimes we incorporated drawing or improvisation to open up creativity in different ways.
When I first showed up, I had some preconceived ideas. First, I expected the South LA neighborhood to be rough. And yes, it can be. But men sit on porches, talking quietly; children play; people work in their gardens; the ice cream truck passes playing “Turkey in the Straw.” One Francisco Home resident said, with evident delight, “I live on a tree-lined block!”
I figured that just to get out on parole, these men had probably spent many years keeping their heads down and their mouths shut and so I wanted to give them the chance to express themselves freely.
You can meet some of the participants and read some of their work at the Turning the Page website. Or if you live in the Los Angeles area, please join us on Saturday, September 21, 2013 from 3:30-5:00 PM in the Exposition Park/Mary McLeod Bethune Regional Library Community Room, 3900 S. Western Avenue (enter the parking lot from 39th Street) LA 90062. We’ll be giving out free copies of the book we’ve published and there will be a Q&A and discussion.