Her fingers wrapped around the battered black telephone, Elisa Finer launched into her weekly session of girl talk. Peering through a scratched Plexiglas window at Sybil Brand Institute for Women, she absently twisted and untwisted the phone cord as she talked.
"Thanks, it's my sister's sweater," said Finer, 21, smiling at the older woman on the other side of the partition who wore a red wristband identifying her as a serious security risk. "What did you eat today?" Finer asked. "Are they doing anything special for Christmas?"
As a recent student in a Valley College sociology class titled "The Jail and Juvenile Hall Visitation Project," Finer is trained to discuss drug-rehab programs, help find children sent to foster homes or simply chat about everyday life with female inmates in the gated, razor-wired confines of the overcrowded East Los Angeles jail.
Besides, she likes visiting her friends.
"I don't think there is that much of a difference between the women I visit and me," Finer said between conversations with inmates in the jail's pink-and-gray visiting room. "Any one of these women could be my sister, my mom, my aunt or me. . . . We've just grown up with different lives."
In the year since she began taking the class, Finer has developed empathy the hands-on way. She doesn't judge the inmates she sees, nor does she try to reform them.
Instead, she listens.
Her instructor, Michael Vivian, likes it that way.
An academic with a pragmatic streak, Vivian got a very personal taste of jails when a close friend--her judgment impaired by a brain tumor--shot her boyfriend to death.
From his friend's incarceration, Vivian was left with a clear impression of the harsh conditions of jail. Hooking up with the Pasadena chapter of Friends Outside--a nonprofit group that provides support for inmates, ex-inmates and their families--Vivian came up with a idea: "Let's train students to really learn about crime," he recalled. "Let's teach them what's really going on in their community."
Valley College bought it, and 8 1/2 years later, the class in which students visit Sybil Brand, Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles or Central Juvenile Hall in East Los Angeles still draws students--though sometimes not as many as Vivian would like.
Because his class requires updating a personal journal after every jail visit, it has acquired the deadly label of "a writing class." Vivian struggles to keep enrollment at 20 students, which he considers a bare minimum. With three weeks before the spring semester begins, enrollment stands at only about a dozen.
But he refuses to coddle students.
The flier he uses to advertise the class conveys his no-nonsense approach. "All students are subject to a background check," it reads. "No flakes, proselytizers or missionaries on a mission."
By professorial fiat, students visiting correctional facilities must leave their preconceptions, politics and surnames at the gate. For safety reasons, Friends Outside allows volunteers to identify themselves by first name only.
"The No. 1 thing to ask yourself is: 'What is my motivation?"' said Lori Schwartz, who took the Valley College class three years ago and now coordinates the Friends Outside Central Juvenile Hall project.
"It's so easy to say that they're in jail, so they must be criminals. . . . But don't assume you know why they're there. Don't assume you know the story."
Student Seth Coltan, 23, an aspiring social worker who dances on the TV program "Soul Train," admitted he first entered Juvenile Hall expecting to meet "bad kids."
Instead, he quickly met two naive youngsters, one a budding artist and the other an aspiring actor whose prospects are diminished by his inability to read scripts or any other printed material.
Another student, Penelope Addy of Sherman Oaks, also visiting Juvenile Hall, found boys with the eyes of old men.
"I see them as individuals, rather than gang members or monsters," Addy said. "They're kids. . . . All of the boys have a real sweetness to them. It's like there's a little flower in them, and when you visit them, it's like the hope peeks out."
Bringing gifts of books, stamps, envelopes, socks and underwear, Vivian's students must face the inmates, the criminal justice system and themselves.
"My biggest hesitation in taking this class was that I was afraid to make the commitment of every Saturday," Coltan said.
"Thus far in my life, I've shied away from every commitment possible, so I was deathly afraid that I would go maybe three or four times and then let these kids down. Now, not only can I keep my end of the bargain, but I look forward to going every single week."
And Finer, who kept visiting jails even after her semester ended last winter, finds herself following the newspapers more closely, looking for articles on the state's three strikes law and government budget cuts that overburden public defenders.
But she knows better than to become too personally involved.
"Some people you can help, and some you can't," Finer mused, ending her last visit of the day and blowing a goodbye kiss to an inmate. Following the blue line on a sidewalk that guides visitors back to the heavily guarded front gate, Finer revealed her only moment of doubt.
Her hand resting on the gate before the sheriff's deputy buzzes her out, Finer said, "This is the part that worries me--that I might not get out.
"When I go to bed, right before I go to sleep, I think, 'The women I visit are sleeping in their bunks right now,' " she said somberly.
"I'd be too scared to spend one night in here, in a room full of 80 or so women inside for crimes I don't even know about. But at least I'd have friends, right?"