15 Years. Jimmy Wu x Randall Park
A clean version of this Written Off episode is also available:
“Untitled.” Written by Jimmy Wu. Performed by Randall Park. Jimmy runs the organization that saved his life years ago when he was a youth who felt lost in the system: InsideOUT Writers. Today, he’s confronting the pain and effects of his incarceration while still managing to set an example for his IOW family.
“If I was never introduced to this outlet through writing, I wouldn’t be here.” – Jimmy Wu
Find Jimmy on Instagram at @unapologetically_justjimmywu.
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Walter Thompson-Hernandez, Jimmy Wu, Randall Park
Walter Thompson-Hernandez 00:41
15, 8, and 2. That’s it. That’s the sentence. No, really. That’s the sentence. Jimmy’s sentence. 15 years, 8 months and 2 strikes. You’ll hear those numbers again today. They’ll echo for you the way they once did for Jimmy when the judge first handed it down almost half his life ago. The way they echoed for me one Friday morning back in April, when he and I sat across from each other on a couple of couches in an office off of Vermont Avenue. I’m Walter Thompson Hernández and I’m a product of Los Angeles, or LA, as we call it here. I used to write for the New York Times. I wrote a book about a group of friends called the Compton Cowboys. I hosted a show called California Love. And I’m now directing my first film. I wrapped LA in everything that I do, our people, our stories, and the creativity we often find here and sometimes in the most unexpected places.
Walter Thompson-Hernandez 02:19
But most of all, I love how the city is a walking, breathing, juxtaposition, like here, after mountain sunset. At the InsideOUT Writers headquarters. Where, in the heart of Hollywood. You get a true mix of opposition, coexisting the continual wailing of sirens mixed with car sound systems, all blending together. And the rural sounds of roosters clucking from backyards, for real, roosters in Hollywood. InsideOUT Writers or IOW is a nonprofit organization known as the best secret to drastically reducing LA’s recidivism rate. On the surface, it teaches creative writing classes to currently incarcerated young people inside LA County’s juvenile halls. It continues have classes on the outs as they say, once they’re released. But it’s created something more than that. To some, it’s like a church for writers that keeps every student coming back.
And IOW executive director Jimmy Wu, couldn’t embody that more. He was part of its inaugural class of students more than 26 years ago. Since then, hundreds of young people with similar stories have passed through his halls. Their vibrant pictures plastered on the wall surrounding the couches that we’re sitting on creating a sense of love, and family that feels anyone the moment you walk in. I’ll talk to 13 of these writers over the course of this show, about their work, about how writing has impacted their lives. But this show for me, is also really personal. In some ways. I feel like a lot of the writers who I’ve spoken to. I was once a high school dropout, and spent time getting arrested for everything from graffiti to fighting. My best friend Danny used to call me from juvie every week, and I still remember the first time he called in hearing his voice on the other end of the phone.
Walter Thompson-Hernandez 04:21
He sounded distant, removed. Almost like he was calling from somewhere very far away from the streets we used to walk. Danny wrote in his free time; he wrote me letters. He wrote his older sister, his mom, his dad, he wrote the past time, and more importantly, as a way to cope. Writing is what gave him hope. You’ll hear similar stories throughout this show, stories of life, and pain, and joy, and redemption. I’m also really excited to surprise each of the writer’s with recordings of celebrities reading their pieces. I’m talking John legend, Issa Rae, J. Ellis, and many more. So let’s kick things off with actor Randall Park and our first guest, Jimmy Wu. This is WRITTEN OFF.
At the sound of the door opening to our holding tank, my conversation with three other inmates came to an abrupt end. Looking over my shoulder, I saw my lawyer walk into the room. “How are you doing?” He asked. “I’m doing pretty good”, I replied. We talked about nothing in particular for a few seconds until I finally popped the question. So, what’s going to happen today? He told me that I would be getting sentenced unless there was some good reason for me not to. We went over what he would present to the judge on my behalf. And when there were no more questions that I needed an answer to. He told me that he was going to find my co-defendants attorney. You’ll be coming out soon, he said. And with that, he left the room. 30 minutes later, the door to the holding tank open once more.
Randall Park 06:09
“Gentlemen step out”, a voice called. My co-defendant and I exited the tank, and the bailiff that was standing outside the room told us to turn around and put our hands behind our backs. As the cold steel of the handcuffs were snapped onto my wrists. My heart started to pound furiously. And I thought to myself, this is it. The Bailiff led us to the door of the courtroom, as I silently set a prayer for everything to go well. Opening the door he ushered us inside. And when I looked to see who occupied the seats for the public, I saw unfamiliar faces. Feeling depressed I asked myself, “where is everybody?” glancing at my lawyer, I noticed that he was nodding his head towards the door that led us to freedom. The Bailiff removed the handcuffs and told me to take a seat in the chair that was directly in front of the judge.
The sounds of a door opening filled my ears as the shuffling of several feet. I sneak to peek to see who had come in. And I was amazed by what I saw. Every chair in the courtroom contains someone that had come to the court to give me support. People were lined up against the wall smiling. Whenever I made eye contact with them. The whispering died and everyone settled down and my judgment began. The judge opened up by acknowledging me and my crime partners presence in the courtroom. She informed everyone that if there were no legitimate reason for us not to get sentenced that would be taking place today. My attorney stood up after we agreed that there didn’t seem to be a good excuse, and began pleading for the judge to allow me to be house in youth authority until I reached the age of 25.
For my viewpoint, he presented a strong statement that should have been taken under serious consideration. But every word that came out of my attorneys mouth seemed to go through one of the judges ears and out the other. She kept referring to the law book that stated how I would not be eligible to go to YA because of my age, because I would not be able to serve all my time by the age of 25. As my lawyer continued to argue that this law was passed well after my incarceration, every hope and dream that I had for my sentence to be reduced, for me to be housed in YA slowly vanished. The full realization of what was taking place hit me like a car ramming into a concrete wall at full speed.
Randall Park 08:29
In a few minutes, I would be a criminal for the rest of my life. In the book that I have to carry for the remainder of my existence, I will be labeled as a convict. A felon. While I was fighting my case, I still had a clean record despite being locked up. Now my record will forever contain this one mistake that I made when I was a young and naive adolescent. I thought about all the people that were sitting in the courtroom giving me their support and love and I lost complete control of my emotions. The tears that I had held in for so long stream down my face, as I cursed myself for letting these people down. Why couldn’t the judge see that the young man sitting before her was not the same person that had entered juvenile hall two years ago?
Why couldn’t she see that I had dreams of getting out and getting my life together to be somebody. After a long and hard battle of trying to get me housed and youth authority, my attorney finally realized that the judge’s mind had already been made up. She was like a tree stump that refused to be moved. Her final decision was to send me to state prison for 15 years, 8 months and 2 strikes. We asked if she could recommend fire or workcamp, which she did. But that doesn’t seem likely because of the fact that I don’t fit the criteria due to the number of years I have to serve.
A week or two ago. I thought of 15, 8 , 2 as numbers and nothing but numbers. Sitting in the court with My life in someone else’s hands made me open my eyes to the harsh reality of what these numbers really mean. Those numbers that at one point in my life meant nothing. Were now representing the number of years that I would be away from my loved ones. The worst of the worst had happened. And there was nothing I could do about it.
Randall Park 10:20
Through tear filled eyes, I looked at the judge and silently asked her, “why couldn’t you give me a chance? Why are you taking 15 years of my life for one mistake? I know that I have to pay a penalty for what I did two years ago. But why can’t you look at me and see that I’ve now changed. Thank you for that. Thank you for destroying my future, too.” Now a few hours later, I’m in some ways relieved that everything’s over with, there’s no more worrying about how much time I’ll get or where I’ll be sent. The decisions have been made. And I have to live with that. There’s only one more thing that I can do. And that is to stay strong. For my parents, for my brother, and most importantly, for myself, because I have to.
Jimmy, how are you feeling?
I’m really emotional right now. Haven’t heard someone else read that out loud before. Though it was so long ago, it just really feels like it happened just yesterday. So it’s just like, you know, reflecting on it right now.
Well, there’s something different about hearing someone else read your words.
Yeah. There was definitely something different because, you know, reading it myself, you know, it’s just like, something that I created. And I think that it takes some of the emotion out of it, because I’m more kind of like paying attention to whether or not it’s flowing correctly, if I’m presenting the message that I, you know, I want in my writings, but hearing it from somebody else, it was more for me to like, kind of put myself in readers or listeners, you know, type of seat, you know, where I can appreciate it a different way.
Walter Thompson-Hernandez 12:38
Is there something about reliving that moment? And hearing someone read your words that kind of took you to that moment, you know, in court, in the holding cell?
Yeah, absolutely. You know, I think that after having gone through that, and it being so long ago, I didn’t really think back to that moment, in quite some time. And, you know, I think it’s just like, you know, it was triggering in, in a way, you know, for me to go back to that moment, you know, when I was 18 years old. Yeah, not sure whether or not I was going to be able to make it on that, and, you know, was particularly difficult, was what I was talking about, like my brother, and, you know, unfortunately, he’s no longer with us, you know, he passed about two and a half years ago, so I was able to spend time with him, you know, after I did come home from prison, but it was hard to just think about him, you know, what happened to me the way that it, you know, kind of, like, impacted my entire family. So, it was like, a flood of all those memories coming in and yeah.
Walter Thompson-Hernandez 14:10
Because, like, there was a moment in your piece when you write about the sort of, like, surprise, and, and I think, maybe joy that you feel when you see people, you know, they’re to support you. And it’s that kind of what you thought about right now?
Absolutely, absolutely. And it’s just also reminds me of how fortunate you know, and privileged that I, I’ve been because I think about the number of individuals who go through that same thing. And you know, when I glanced at that courtroom when I first call that out, it was empty, but then obviously, you know, people did, you know, come in to show me their support to where it was filled to capacity. And I just think about how many people are sitting in that same seat being sentenced or being you know, judged. They absolutely have nobody, you know. So yeah, I thought about that as well.
Walter Thompson-Hernandez 16:56
When you wrote this piece, like I love to learn about that process, right, like tapping into memory, tapping into like a certain, like, a certain creative process.
I remember, you know, going back to my room, the day of my sentencing and then writing this piece in particular, because I for some reason felt that it was going to be important for me to capture what occurred that day because I knew that it was now going to be sending my life into a very different trajectory, where, you know, the hopes I had of coming home at a certain age, serving a certain amount of time had been completely obliterated, you know, and it was now you know, me trying to force myself to accept the fact that I was actually going to be going to a state prison at just 18 years old. And knowing that I was going to be growing up behind walls, not coming home until I was nearly 30 years old.
Jimmy Wu 18:02
And not knowing if I was going to survive that. Because of the horror stories. I’ve been told during my two years or so, awaiting the outcome of, you know, my case, right? And so that it was now all set-in stone. I wrote it just to be able to maybe have something to look back on one day. And you know, us even having this conversation, I think it really fulfilled its purpose. You know, for that moment in my life journey, that moment in time to have captured in the way that it was.
I think it’s even more amazing that, you know, I didn’t know that you wrote this that day. Right? And it’s even more incredible, I think, because like you were essentially writing this for a future version of yourself, without even knowing, you know, who that person would be. Where you would be in the future, would you be alive, essentially. Right. So like you were doing, I think, really important, archival work, but also, like really looking ahead, and I think that’s really incredible.
Yeah, thank you. And I think it was also for me to use kind of like, as a reminder of why I can’t ever give up, you know, because of everything that happened, you know, to me and to my family. You know, like I ended that writing by saying, this is why I have to keep going forward, no matter what, you know, because it was like, everything I put my family through. I felt like I had to, I had to redeem myself in a way. By no matter, you know, by just thinking about like, no matter whatever it is, that I am about to go through. And as difficult as things may get, as terrifying as it may get. That you have to keep I’m pushing for them. Because of what you’ve done to them, by they now having to suffer alongside you, because of your actions.
Walter Thompson-Hernandez 20:15
You know, and it seems like writing, I think, for a lot of people is like a very therapeutic experience, right? And I’m curious if writing was already something that you were practicing before this day? Or is it something like this happened? And you were like, I need to write this, but like, just talk me through like writing in your life that day? And also, before maybe?
Yeah, I think you absolutely nailed it, that there is a very therapeutic component to writing, right? There is so much that takes place, as you sit there with a blank piece of paper, and a pencil or a pad. And as you write something, you know, magical often happens, where you learn so much about yourself, you know, just really digging deep. Allowing yourself to come across, confront, and battle personal demons, being able to see what you’re really about what you’re made of allowing yourself to be vulnerable. Right. And so, this wasn’t the first time that I wrote because I had the incredible privilege of being, you know, introduced to what can happen through creative writing because of InsideOUT Writers, because the former Catholic chaplain of Central Juvenile Hall approached me one day and asked if I’ll be interested in participating in this innovative creative writing class.
And it wasn’t something that was, you know, appealing to me, to be honest, right? Because I was like, a 17-year-old wondering, what the hell am I going to be able to do in a creative writing class, when my entire life right now is in limbo, and I’m wondering if I’m ever going to come home, you know, and so, when she asked me, I was just like, you know, I’m not really interested, but she encouraged me to, like, you know, just give it a try. She’s like, you know, don’t have any expectations, just give her a try. And something great, may be able to come out of it. So then I took her up on that offer, and I figured, okay, if anything, I’ll be able to spend more time out my room. That’s it. Right. And so, I was housed in […], at Central Juvenile Hall, you know, one of the housing units where they housed all the high-risk offenders, you know, the so called “super predators”, you know, kids who were, you know, having their cases heard in adult courts.
And inside that housing unit is like, you know, a small library. And so, you know, the first time I participate in this class was, you know, walking into that small library with two other kids being introduced to a man by the name of Mark Salzman, who seem to be far more intimidated and terrified by us, you know, that we were on him, right? And I think that, you know, what was really, really effective in his way to get us to really be able to eventually learn to trust him and open up and talk about things that we had never talked about with anybody was rather than asking us a ton of questions, because unfortunately, by that we had learned not to trust most adults, you know, that we encountered, you know, in in that type of setting.
Jimmy Wu 24:08
Because we’re just like someone’s client, or they were just asking us a ton of questions, right? And Mark didn’t do that, you know, he began his relationship with each of us by talking more about himself, you know, helping us get to see him for who he was, you know, and then by seeing an adult being comfortable enough to do that with us as strangers. I think that is really what helped us then be able to, like, you know, return that favor, right? And I think there’s something there, you know, because even all these years later, our writing classes are more or less, you know, facilitated in that same way where we have incredible teachers, volunteer. And are, you know, really there for kids.
I’m wondering if you can expand more on how it sort of allows you to learn more about yourself?
Yeah, I think that, you know, most of my writing has been more, you know, just like, recollections of memories, right. And I think that, first and foremost, it shows me how incredible you know, the human mind is when it’s, you know, able to retain memories that sometimes we think are long forgotten, but when there’s nothing left, you know, we can explore our mind, and it takes us back to our earliest childhood memories. And through writing, you know, about those experiences, you know, while I was incarcerated was just a means of finding mental freedom, you know, from my physical confinement. And in doing so, I think I was able to really learn more about who I was as a person, you know, who I really was, you know, not the person that was walking the halls in juvenile hall walk in the yard later on in prison, you know, this facade that I had created for myself, you know, for survival purposes, but who I really was, you know, and to really start becoming, you know, like, hopeful and ambitious.
Jimmy Wu 26:32
One of the things I remember I wrote to Mark Salzman in when some of my letters while I was incarcerated, was, you know, just about how I really consider myself an ambitious fool without direction, and I say that because I always felt that there had to be a reason for me to have been sentenced for all those years, for my first and only offense, with my crime not resulting in any physical injury to the victims of my crime, but it was based off of previous mandatory minimum sentencing laws here in California, having to grow up in prison, I always felt that there had to be a reason for that. And so I was ambitious, you know, and trying to figure out at some point, whenever it was, right, what that reason was, right?
And I think that I was able to start thinking about those things, while still having several years to serve, because of what I was able to discover, you know, through writing, right? And, at the same time using writing as an instrument as a tool, you know, for me to remain hopeful, you know, that, despite how difficult current circumstances were for me back then that it was all temporary, although it may have felt rather permanent, because it was just like, day after day, after month, after a year out, you know, it was a lot. I think it was really just like, you know, me being able to hold on to that, you know, light of hope, you know, the writing
Walter Thompson-Hernandez 28:22
What is it about like writing on a piece of paper, or even writing in general, that feels like such a personal experience, like such a vulnerable experience, like tender even, as opposed to, you know, sharing these like vulnerabilities and fears and anxieties and like a public way? Like, why is it that you felt like you were safer to express yourself in that way on a piece of paper?
For me, you know, it was really because I knew that I was in a rather unforgiving and hostile type of environment, right? Where, for the most part, the only emotion, the only emotion that was acceptable in you know, my surroundings then was anger. And I didn’t feel like I was able to openly talk about, you know, how terrified you know, the thought of going to prison was at that time, you know, and I wanted to talk to the other kids that I was with about that. But I just didn’t feel like I was able to, for fear of judgment from them, for fear of being, you know, thought of as a person that was weak, right, and it’s not easy to be vulnerable. You know, in those types of settings, and that’s why, you know, I turn to that blank piece of paper, just to give myself that space that I knew that I needed to be able to I process at all, to let things out.
Walter Thompson-Hernandez 30:20
And so like that piece of paper, you kept that piece of paper through the years?
I absolutely did, I, you know, was able to utilize one of the copy printers, you know, in the school, you know, inside central juvenile hall, to make some copies in case that original draft, you know, somehow got lost, or, you know, something happened to it. But yeah, I was able to hold on to that particular piece, you know, throughout my entire time that I was, you know, incarcerated.
Did you write any other pieces?
Yeah, I did. You know, writing was basically a tool that I was able to use just to survive prison, you know, just to be able to get through […] half years altogether, you know, the way that I was, it was a tool for me to be able to really remain true to myself, to not lose myself, to everything I had to undergo, you know, during my time growing up, you know, behind walls. So, yeah, I did write quite often, quite frequently, you know, throughout the years of my incarceration.
And what’s your process, like, now? Like, are you still writing? Is it still important exercise for you? Is it still therapeutic for you?
Absolutely, I don’t write as much now, just because of where my life now is. But a lot of times, like, you know, when major life changing events in particular, you know, happen, I do take the time to just sit there and then be able to, like, reflect it on it, and be able to, like, you know, just go back to, you know, that coping mechanism, I guess, you know, for me, where, you know, like as an example, when I lost my brother. That was a moment where, you know, I did a lot of writing, just to be able to, like, you know, try to find some sort of peace in that type of devastating loss. So, yeah, I still write it is still something I turn to, in particular, when I’m going through something, you know, pretty, pretty difficult.
Walter Thompson-Hernandez 32:36
Do you remember the piece you wrote when your brother passed away?
There were several, I mean, I don’t recall, you know, those exact writings, because it was just again, you know, a really difficult dark moment in my life and I couldn’t even form thoughts, you know, on most days, right. And it was just me sitting behind my laptop and just letting out whatever it was, but there were some pieces, and it was mostly like social media, you know, Facebook, right, where I write something, and I hope that there is a message that can be received by people that read, you know, what it is that I’m posting. So, you know, the writings I do remember, when it came to my brother passing was really just trying to number one kind of like, come to terms with his death for myself, but then later on, as I was going through the various stages of grief and having certain moments that, you know, were rather spiritual, I guess, you know, that I felt like there was something that I was going through that could be helpful for someone else who may have gone through, was going through, or was about to go through something similar to just try to provide, you know, some form of reassurance for them.
Walter Thompson-Hernandez 34:19
What would your life kind of look like? What would it feel like, had you not picked up writing? Had you not written that story? Or had you not, you know, continued this practice of writing today?
Honestly, I don’t think I’d be here today, you know, and I mean that in every, every sense, you know, that I literally would not be here today, I think that I would have given up, I think that I would have possibly became increasingly violent. Because I did, I wouldn’t have any way to cope with, you know, all those years of being in prison, being perfectly comfortable, you know, just being in such a violent, hostile place, you know, at some point, right? Because I did become institutionalized, I may have very likely become dependent on some form of substance. You know, that’s why there’s a, you know, huge number of individuals incarcerated that are on drugs, you know, methamphetamine or heroin in particular. So, yeah, I think that if I was never introduced to this outlet, right? Through writing, I wouldn’t be here.
Walter Thompson-Hernandez 36:15
And if you could, like, talk me through it, walk me through Jimmy of today. What’s he like? His interests. What he likes to read, what he likes to watch, like, paint me a picture.
The Jimmy of today is continuously trying to become a better person, you know, now really trying to live my best life, you know, thinking of those I’ve lost, what they would want for me, learning to forgive myself. Never forgetting how privileged I am to be where I am now. You know, to have so much support, you know, from family, from friends, to be able to, you know, work at a place that has saved my life has transformed it. That I’ve been able to grow with, you know, that’s the Jimmy of today. And oftentimes, you know, the materials I read, or watch, often deal with, like, you know, just like where things are with the world of social justice.
Is there anything that like, you’d like to share? Like anything you’d like to just like, speak about that I haven’t asked you so far?
Jimmy Wu 38:09
Well, I think like, you know, when it comes to, like, you know, me, being where I am now, and who I am today, I think it’s important for, you know, everyone to really be able to think of how they can really impact growth and change in someone’s life. You know, I am a product of, you know, the work of incredible volunteers, people who just showed up for me, complete strangers at one point, who never judged me, who were able to see me for who I really was to believe in me, when I didn’t believe in myself. To see my own potential, you know, that I didn’t recognize back then. I think it’s important, right? When we talk about, like, what we can do, just as, you know, people that are living this life in this world. And, you know, there’s so much that’s going on now, in 2021. When it comes to like, you know, the justice system with so many various issues, social issues that are taking place, and I think that, you know, we can all do better. And there’s so many of us who have benefited from people that simply want to do a better by, you know, really caring for us and loving us.
I also wonder if there’s a part of you, that continues to show up for people today. Like those people showed up for you in that courtroom?
Absolutely. I mean, I tried to you know, To the best of my ability and just being able to work here at InsideOUT Writers, you know, I’m granted those opportunities, you know, quite often, right? Where it’s something as simple as responding to a text message at times, answering a phone call, because oftentimes, you know, people just want to be heard, you know, if there was something, they just want to be able to talk to someone that they have learned to trust in, right? And the work we do at InsideOUT Writers, you know, it’s just that, you know, showing up, you know, for incarcerated youth, you know, at adults, right? Providing our services, you know, during each person’s re-entry, and reintegration process, you know, meeting them where they are. Listening more than we speak, you know, just like, give them that space. So, yeah, you know, I’m very fortunate to be able to do that.
Walter Thompson-Hernandez 41:05
Thanks a lot, Jimmy. Appreciate it. Thank you.
Thank you, Walter.
Thanks again to Jimmy Wu, who you can follow on Instagram at @unapologetically_justjimmywu. He’s also manning IOW social accounts, which are at @insideoutwriters on Instagram. InsideOUT Writers on Facebook. And at @iowriters on Twitter. Moved by what you heard today, want to do more, following support InsideOUT Writers Workshop at insideoutwriters.org and click on ways to give to get involved personally in the work to end mass incarceration in California. Check out the work of ARC, the Anti-Recidivism Coalition at antirecidiviesm.com. Next week on WRITTEN OFF, writer Candice Price.
Candice Price 42:04
the way she read it was just like, it felt like it was passionate. Like to be the one, like the one that wrote it, but to be the one to sit back and just listen to like this. Voice echo like off my words.
WRITTEN OFF is a co-production of Lemonada Media and Black Bar Mitzvah. Our producer is Claire Jones. supervising producers are Xorje Olivares and Kryssy Pease. Executive producers are Aaron Bergman, Jay Ellis, Jessica Cordova Kramer and Stephanie Wittels Wachs. Music and sound design by Xander Singh. Mix and scoring by Matthew Simonson. Special thanks to all of our contributors, and InsideOUT Writers, you can learn more about them at insideoutwriters.org. If you like what you heard, help others find us by rating the show and writing a review. Follow us at @LemonadaMedia across all social platforms. To support WRITTEN OFF and gain access to exclusive bonus material. Like additional conversations with the writers and producers of this show. Subscribe to Lemonada Premium, only on Apple podcasts. And for more of my work, visit my website wthdz.com. I’m Walter Thompson Hernandez. Thanks for listening.