Great Read

For writers in juvenile hall, sentences can be liberating

Eminem's "The Monster" ricocheted off the cinder-block walls and worn linoleum floor at Sylmar's Juvenile Hall.

I'm friends with the monster that's under my bed

Get along with the voices inside of my head

You're trying to save me, stop holding your breath

And you think I'm crazy, yeah, you think I'm crazy

Ten teenagers, some of them awaiting trial on charges of murder, attempted rape or armed robbery, sat around a makeshift table in a hallway near the guard station, eyes closed, heads nodding to the beat.

In the middle of the group, appearing scarcely older than the inmates and wearing a dark hoodie and canvas sneakers, Scott Budnick asked the young men to write about the lyrics that spoke to them. One had caught his eye.

"I think it refers to you guys sometimes — 'Save me from myself and all this conflict / 'Cause the very thing that I love's killing me and I can't conquer it.'"

Magic, then 17, smiling broadly, told Budnick that was the very passage he underlined.

"I'd like to rap, I'd like to be an artist when I get out of here," the Compton native said. "Whenever I get out of here."

For Budnick, it was a long way from the other world he inhabits — walking red carpets as a Hollywood executive with celebrities such as Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis and Robert Downey Jr.

The executive producer of "The Hangover" series spent 15 years climbing the Hollywood ladder, starting with grunt work — "getting people coffee, answering phones, scheduling, carrying bags for people" — and ending in a plush office on the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank.

But Budnick, 38, began to feel empty.

"You can be going to the same bars and clubs and restaurants and sitting with people talking about 'this director's available' and 'that writer's available' and 'Oh my God, it would great to get this actor or this actress into a project,'" Budnick said. "After a while, you just want to shoot yourself."

Through a friend, he heard about InsideOut Writers, a volunteer creative-writing program in the county's juvenile halls. He attended a class in 2003 and was hooked by the young men, their backgrounds and their stories.

When Budnick was a teenager, he went to a private school in an affluent Atlanta suburb, where a fistfight never led to knives or guns or arrests. So many of these young men had been victimized as children, he said, yet were now viewed only as victimizers.

"Interacting with the kids themselves, it's what gives me life," he said. "It's what inspires me."

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Inspirational posters of President Obama stared down at the 10 young inmates — all African American and Latino — gathered in the cramped makeshift classroom at the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall. After they discussed "The Monster," Budnick and other volunteers turned to the recent hunger strikes protesting solitary confinement in the state's prisons.

Budnick and his fellow volunteers led a discussion on the fairness of the policies and then read an article in The Times about Steven Czifra, who spent eight years in solitary confinement and is now a student at UC Berkeley. The teens were asked to write poetry inspired by a quote from Czifra: "I have a gift."

After 20 minutes, they read their poems aloud, raw words tumbling out like raps.

A 17-year-old named Andres who dreams about being an architect spoke about his inner conflict.

"My life is a gift but also a curse / My life has a lot of truths and a lot of lies / I like this gift but I don't because sometimes I see no light / I know my life is a gift but also a curse," he read.

Budnick tries to keep the teens' spirits up. Changes in sentencing and the treatment of juvenile offenders over the last decade have made the system "a little more fair," he counsels.

"I know you guys might not feel that way, but just let everything play out and definitely hope for the best, because really good things have been happening," he said. "No matter what happens, we'll always be there."

Some of the teens were initially skeptical of Budnick.

"I thought he was going to be some big-shot showoff moviemaker," said Antonio, a slight 16-year-old who was in the facility more than a year awaiting trial but has since been released. "But I met him and he humbled me. He's a very humble person."

He said the class has been a crucial release valve.

"I'll be stressed out — I'll write about it," Antonio said. "It's a good outlet. I don't have to fight somebody and dig a deeper hole."

The Times is not identifying the inmates by their last names or naming the specific charge each faces because of conditions imposed by the Juvenile Division of the Los Angeles County Superior Court.

In the fall, Budnick persuaded the county probation department to allow the teens to plant container gardens outside their brick dorms. The concrete setting is grim — the only visible green grass is on the other side of a two-story-tall fence topped with coils of barbed wire.

"I think the process of caring for anything — a human being, plant or animal — is great in teaching empathy. Most of them weren't cared for, or they wouldn't be here," Budnick said. "The analogy of what they do to the land here is what they do to the kids — they just wither up and die because there's no love."

Under the watchful eye of guards, the prisoners poured soil into the beds and planted peppers, onions, lettuce, strawberries and herbs. Crude tattoos of Hello Kitty, the Dodgers' logo and girlfriends' names peeked out from the sleeves of their baggy gray T-shirts.

Budnick is part father figure, part smart-aleck older brother.

He told them that after a trip to Las Vegas, he hoped to visit a nursery to add citrus trees to the garden. "If we win, we're going to go crazy at that place," he said.

One boy yelled, "Bail me out!"

Another boy planting lemon balm agreed: "Bail all of us out."

"With your guys' bail, I gotta win big!" Budnick replied.

County probation chief Jerry Powers tells the teens that Budnick persuaded him to take a chance on the garden.

"He's relentless. Relentless. That's finally what happens, you just have to say yes because he's not going away," Powers said. "He's like a pest until you make him go away."

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Though the work in juvenile halls has been fulfilling, Budnick was still troubled by what he views as the systemic unfairness of juvenile-justice law.

He began taking formerly incarcerated young people to Sacramento to lobby legislators. They've had a string of successes, including the 2012 passage of a bill granting a parole board review to prisoners who had been sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed when they were juveniles.

In 2013, Budnick founded the nonprofit Anti-Recidivism Coalition, which provides services for the recently released, including support groups and yoga classes at its Pershing Square headquarters and help filling out college forms. Major donors include the California Endowment, the California Wellness Foundation and the Hilton Foundation.

This fall, 24 former prisoners will live in dorm-style housing while attending L.A. Mission College, a new housing-community college pilot program created by a $500,000 grant from county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

All of these efforts have led to recognition of Budnick, who lives with his girlfriend and her child in the Hollywood Hills. In 2012, Gov. Jerry Brown named him California's Volunteer of the Year. Last year, then-Assembly Speaker John Pérez appointed him to the Board of State and Community Corrections, and in June, the White House honored him as a "champion of change."

All through Budnick's journey, he has kept in touch with the young men he met who have moved on to state prisons across California, with their details logged into a spreadsheet on his computer and a composition book in his car. He visits about 10 state prisons annually to see them.

While shooting a scene for "The Hangover 3" near Tehachapi, he took Galifianakis and Ed Helms with him as he visited a former student in solitary confinement at a nearby prison.

"There are guys immediately when you walk into the door showering. This guy looks at us, stops and literally points at Ed Helms, naked, and says, 'Ed Helms! I loved you in The Office!'" Budnick said. "Then I look to my right, and Zach is in a full-blown conversation with a guy with a swastika on his forehead.... It was surreal."

At the end of last year, Budnick left his longtime production company to form a new entertainment business that will focus on social justice.

He said he woke up one morning thinking, "I need to be moving the needle on these issues. Nonprofits can do incredible work. You make a film, it can touch tens of millions of people.

"I love telling stories and I'm going to love, even more, telling stories that can have a social impact."

seema.mehta@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATSeema

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