Behind Bars : Students Led on Grim Tour of Prison System

Times Staff Writer

They brought Jim to Inglewood High School recently to take the kids on a tour.

Before Jim got started, the students were acting the way any 1,800 American teen-agers will act if you put them in a gymnasium on a Friday afternoon. They were loud, boisterous and restless.

But then they quieted down. Because the tour Jim led them on was a grim journey through his life of alcoholism, drug addiction, family collapse and crime.

The grand finale was a slide show of his home: the state prison system.


Jim--he asked that his last name be withheld--is serving a six-year sentence for burglary at the California Institution for Men at Chino. He is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. He is also a former heroin addict, as he showed curious students afterward by rolling up his sleeves.

Stay-Out-of-Jail Message

A central part of his rehabilitation has been volunteer work for Prison Preventers, an organization of Chino inmates that brings an anti-drug, stay-out-of-jail message to schools, hospitals, military bases, juvenile institutions and civic groups.

“It keeps me sober,” said Jim, who gave his narrative in a restrained tone that heightened the impact of stories about drug smuggling, mayhem behind bars and desperate moments such as his sale of his son’s bicycle for drug money.


Founded 20 years ago, Prison Preventers differs from the well-known “Scared Straight” program in which inmates aggressively detail the horrors of jail life to young people. Prison Preventers does not employ the intimidating tactics that gave “Scared Straight” its name.

“We just tell our story,” Jim said. “We tell them about life in the penitentiary. The kids can do what they want with it.”

Inglewood High School has a mostly black and Latino student body that ranges from the college-bound children of affluent and working-class families to gunslinging gang members and high-rolling teen-age drug lords.

16-Year-Old Prisoners

“Statistics show that two out of three people in this room will have some contact with prison,” Jim told his audience. “Ladies and gentlemen, you can and will come to prison at 16 years of age.”

The inmate’s visit to Inglewood on Dec. 4 was arranged by Richard Kaufman, a local businessman who set up a similar presentation by prison inmates two years ago. Also speaking to the students were Inglewood Police Chief Raymond Johnson and members of the city’s Fire Department and paramedic unit.

Kaufman said his work was motivated in part by family misfortune; Kaufman’s son, a former Inglewood High student, is serving time in prison. Kaufman wants other young people to avoid such a fate.

Students Fred Ashley, Roger Chandler and Tyrell Wilson said hardened gang members would probably ignore Jim’s message. But the three students agreed that the presentation was powerful and reaffirmed their resolve to stay out of trouble.


“It was very educational,” Chandler said.

Different From TV

“It was down to earth,” said student Monty Crumble. “I never heard anything like that. You don’t hear about that kind of stuff on TV.”

During his slide show, Jim said: “This is the yard at San Quentin. This is where you will learn respect if you hadn’t learned it before. If you’re a fish, a youngster, and you bump into a man who’s in for life, remember that he has nothing to lose but his respect. And he’ll think nothing of putting steel into you.”

Describing the different prison gangs--Black Guerrilla Movement, Aryan Brotherhood, Mexican Mafia, Texas Syndicate, La Nuestra Familia and Asian Tong gangs--Jim said the motto of those organizations is “Blood in, blood out.”

Immediately, there were whoops of “Blood” from some sections of the bleachers; Inglewood is in a territory largely controlled by the Los Angeles-area gang faction known as Bloods.

But the inmate responded quietly.

“I think you guys up there have got your Bloods mixed up. ‘Blood-in, blood-out’ means you have to kill someone to get into a prison gang. And the only way you get out is when you die.”


A hearty cheer went up from the crowd.