Bedtime stories in Calif. juvenile lockup calm anxious, distressed inmates

January 28, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

MARTINEZ, Calif. -- It is lights-out time at Juvenile Hall, but the boys are in no mood to rest. Locked up in the dark in their small rooms, the streetwise teen-agers are anxious -- stewing about the future, perhaps, or about why their parents have not come to see them in weeks.

One distressed youth pounds his head on a wall and wails. Another curses the world, and everyone in it. Then all at once a new voice pours forth, descending through speakers into the bare institutional rooms. It is a woman's voice, melodic and warm.

She begins by greeting each boy by name, offering a special salutation to "Chuck, who had a bad day," and others feeling unusually blue. Next comes a poem, then an excerpt from a book on a sailor's adventures at sea. As the words flow, the din in the corridors ebbs and silence descends, a rare visitor in "the hall."

It's "The Late Show," a regular reading of bedtime stories at the Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall. Run by volunteers and believed to be unique, the program has a simple aim: to soften the edges of institutional life, comforting the hall's 140 youthful offenders as they settle in for the night with their anxieties and longings for home.

Its long-term benefits are hard to gauge, but counselors and teen-agers alike pile praise on the 18-month-old program. The adults say it calms their volatile charges at the hour when they feel most vulnerable and alone.

The kids say the readings provide a bright spot in the day and a refuge from the grimness of life in a locked-up world.

"The thing about it is, it makes you forget where you are for awhile," says Nick, 17.

"At night, with all the screaming and stuff, it's really hard being here," says Nick. "But the reading, it kinda takes me away."

The hall's inmates -- including 17 girls -- range in age from 8 to 18, and most have been physically or emotionally abused. They have committed nearly every offense from drug possession and arson to rape and murder, which is why at least one veteran counselor, Michael Major, was dubious at first.

"We've got some sophisticated, experienced guys in here," Mr. Major says, "and I just couldn't see them getting into Winnie the Pooh."

But a woman named Betty Frandsen had a hunch, and convinced the hall's superintendent it was worth a try. Ms. Frandsen, a San Francisco advertising executive who volunteered at the hall, remembered how a story or two had soothed her own sons before bed.

Since the readings began, volunteers have treated their young listeners to the novels of John Steinbeck and Louis L'Amour and an autobiography of Muhammed Ali. Winnie the Pooh, incidentally, is a perennial favorite, as are the works of poet Maya Angelou, who last week read at President Clinton's inauguration.

Only one rule governs what volunteers may read: The selection must have a calming effect and end on an upbeat note. After the story sessions, the books are left behind for the inmates.

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