Strictly speaking, the graduation exercise that took place on the fourth floor of Men's Central Jail last week wasn't much of a rite of passage since the graduates weren't going anywhere any time soon.
Nonetheless, the hourlong celebration in honor of 15 gay male inmates who had earned high school diplomas or GEDs, or completed 10-week courses in drug rehabilitation, anger management and life skills moistened as many eyes per capita as any traditional school commencement.
"I am the most free I've ever been," a tall young man who had completed the drug education course said from the podium as emotion caught at his words. "I am finally able to like me. Today, everything is so bright, even when I close my eyes. I died years ago, and now I'm alive."
Men's Central, a somber, echoing fortress, is a monument to personal failure, but the Social Mentoring Academic and Rehabilitative Training, or SMART, program, available to the 350 inmates in its three gay-only dormitories, has been a remarkable success.
In the 4 1/2 years of its existence, fewer than a third of the 157 inmates who have completed the 10-week life skills course have returned to jail, said Deputy Randy Bell, a former teacher who co-founded and co-directs the program. Before SMART, he said, nearly 95% of gay inmates found their way back to county jail, a rate that dwarfs estimates for general-population inmates.
Because of a federal court order issued in 1985, Los Angeles County's is believed by correctional professionals to be the only penal system in the United States where gay inmates are automatically segregated. No programs aimed at gays existed, however, until Bell and Deputy Bart Lanni put together SMART with little more than duct tape and tirelessness.
Having no access to Sheriff's Department funds, the pair equipped their operation by haunting yard sales and twisting the arms of friends and neighbors for donations of cash and old computers.
They tapped into L.A.'s gay community for support, and invited into the jail such outside agencies as the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District, which conducts high school, GED and computer classes; the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, which tests prisoners for sexually transmitted diseases; and the Tarzana Treatment Center, which provides treatment help to inmates with HIV or AIDS.
The center of the enterprise, and the site of last week's graduation, is the newly christened Greenfield Learning Center, named after Barry Greenfield, a member of the West Hollywood Public Safety Commission and an ardent SMART supporter.
Originally a large storage area that Bell talked superiors into giving him, it is today a carpeted, brightly painted and lighted space whose walls bear colorful exhortative posters ("You are valuable," one says. "Don't let anyone make you believe differently"). More than two dozen new computers rest on $30,000 worth of new office furniture donated by Silver Lake nightclub owner and gay activist Michaeljohn Horn.
The success of Bell and Lanni, who are straight, derives in part from their being veteran deputies who know how to navigate through the traditionally macho and bureaucratic Sheriff's Department culture. Bell, a tall, beefy, effusive man of 50, has been a deputy for 19 years. The 46-year-old Lanni, a trim, precise man, is a transplanted New Yorker who's been in uniform for 21 years.
Dealing with the inmates, Lanni said, is often easier than dealing with "some of our peers." Homophobia exists everywhere, including among other deputies, Bell said, but Sheriff Lee Baca has taken a stand against it in the department's mission statement.
What the two deputies have accomplished "is something that would be impossible for someone outside the culture who doesn't have good relationships within the department," said Mary Sylla, a former jail monitor for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California who is president of CorrectHELP, an agency that distributes condoms to county inmates.
Bell, Lanni and the other deputies who work the gay dorms are accustomed to what they call the "greater neediness" and "the flamboyance" of some of their inmates. Impromptu weddings -- "complete with bridal gowns," Bell said -- and New Year's Eve fashion shows don't faze them.
The two deputies' commitment to their charges is widely attested to by the inmates. Many say the deputies have more than once rousted them from their bunks and into the showers so they could make it to their life skills class by 7:30 a.m. The deputies also try to stay in touch with inmates after they've been released.
"They're almost father figures or good older brothers to some of the guys," Sylla said. "I've spoken at their graduation ceremonies a couple of times, and I get the feeling that for some of the guys, it's the first time somebody has ever patted them on the back for making healthy choices."
Much of Bell and Lanni's time is spent screening incoming inmates who claim to be gay. In other penal systems, the last thing a straight inmate would want to be thought of is as gay, because homosexuals are such easy prey.
But in Men's Central, many straights try to pass as gay. They want to be in the gay-only dorms, Bell said, because they regard them as places where sex is readily available and they'll be safe from violence or, in some cases, where they can gain access to SMART programs.
Accordingly, the deputies check the backgrounds of new inmates, and question them on matters likely to be familiar to active participants in local gay culture. To keep abreast of trends, Bell and Lanni regularly consult with owners of gay bars and read gay publications.
The deputies are reluctant to reveal their current tricks, but in the past, for example, they questioned applicants about the former practice of gay men exhibiting different colored handkerchiefs from pants pockets to signal specific sexual desires.
"We'd ask a guy, 'If you wore the color red in your right pocket, what would that mean?' " Lanni said. "And if he didn't know, we'd say, 'OK, what would blue mean?' What happens is, they can't sustain the lie."
As a result of such care, the population of the so-called K-11 dorms (K-11 is the official jail classification for a gay inmate) is now about half of what it was 15 years ago, when controls were minimal.
"I'm sure we still get fooled, but we're pretty successful," Bell said. "You could count on one hand the ones that get past us."
Many of the K-11s represent what Bell sometimes calls "the dregs of the gay community," largely invisible even to other gays. The offenses for which they're incarcerated differ little from those of the general jail population, Bell said, although homelessness and, especially, methamphetamine use tend to be more common among gay inmates.
West Hollywood Mayor Jeffery Prang, an early SMART backer who attended the program's recent graduation, said reducing the incidence of drug use and lawlessness among gay inmates has to do with more than righting individual lives that are out of kilter. It's also vital to checking the spread of HIV among all gays.
"Drugs are extremely pervasive in the male gay community," he said, "and most everybody here is involved in drugs and prostitution. In the world of drugs and HIV, this is ground zero."