“The Unfit.” Written by Olivia Carrasco. Performed by Dascha Polanco. Olivia is getting reaccustomed to her life “on the outs” and finding her voice amongst friends and family at InsideOUT Writers.
“Whether you’re heard or not, writing is getting out your thoughts without judgment – I find freedom in that.” – Olivia Carrasco
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Dascha Polanco, Walter Thompson-Hernandez, Olivia Carrasco
Dascha Polanco 00:37
My black and white Nike blazers hit the pavement in the parking lot of Men’s Central Jail. Immediately I felt the warm sun on my skin as I stepped off the LA County bus. The word probation was printed across the back of my shirt and down the side of my pants. A heavy silver chain had me bounds at the wrist and another one restraining my ankles. There is a long road ahead of me. This is only the beginning. Right now I am not sure that there is a light at the end of this tunnel. I’m only 17 and as a female, I was full of emotion, but had to learn the art of masking. I was scared of the unknown. On my way to court, surrounded me with all the women from Lynwood county dressed in all blue. The holding cells were packed with inmates on every side so much that corrections had nowhere to put me. Since I was a minor I had to be escorted. Today I was escorted to an old rusted filthy bathroom next to the holding cells.
The smell of urine was overpowering as I walked through the door I heard it securely locked behind me. All the noise from people yelling, singing, laughing and talking started to drown out. To make myself as comfortable as possible. That’s a casino on the […] I was standing up against the wall. I chains were tight on my wrist. They were chafing my skin. I couldn’t relax. We’ll get out of them. I looked at the walls covered in peanut butter and jelly behind the sink and toilet bowl flooded with trash as I sit. Inmates were starting to get called out for court. He got quieter and quieter as people are getting escorted to their bus. Where is my bus? Did they forget me? I pounded on the door each time I heard keys passing by I was ignored. I started to think about my mom. She’s probably wondering where I’m at. I was no stranger to trouble. But this time there was no way out. I was powerless. Then someone yelled, little baby, are you still in there? I barely replied.
Dascha Polanco 02:55
Yeah. I saw her tattooed hand stretched through the gap between the floor and bottom of the door with a baby blue pocket Bible. She said, read this. I struggle to reach for it in my chamber. When I grabbed it. It was open to a chapter called James. It said my brethren, console joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience, but let patients have it’s perfect work that you may be perfect and complete lacking nothing. Nothing changed. I was still in the same raggedy old field the bathroom […] of urine. Except I grabbed a hold of the idea that no struggle is forever. And I put my game face back on as soon as I heard a key answer that lock. When the sheriff opened the door. I thank the lady and threw her Bible back to her through the bars. My bus had finally come.
Walter Thompson-Hernandez 04:06
I’m Walter Thompson-Hernandez and this is WRITTEN OFF. You just heard from actress Dascha Polanco, one of the Latinx stars of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. She read The Unfit by IOW Alum Olivia Carrasco. Olivia is actually wearing Nike blazers during our conversation. Not the exact pair she mentioned at the beginning of her piece, but they still fit in with her all-black look. She’s also got these tiny diamonds on her white acrylic nails. The all black everything with a tiny bit of shine seems fitting even as one of the newest IOW Alum’s. Olivia was quick to show interest in taking part in this podcast. She’s got that confidence mixed in with humility that draws you to her when you meet. At first, she comes off quiet and timid, but the minute we start talking, she turns bright and confident. She’s self-assured. Even in her nerves. She definitely fits in here. What’s it feel like hearing someone read your story?
I feel like I just relived the whole thing. I was really blown away, by the way, she was able to, like capture my emotion in the piece of writing without even knowing. But I definitely felt like all emotions all over again. And I felt like I was there. So I think she did a good job of like, capturing what happened.
What kinds of motion did you feel?
All of them, like, I literally felt like I was in that bathroom again, and kind of being scared, because I didn’t know what was going to happen. But then at the same time, like, I was hopeless already. So I was just like, felt defeated, kind of.
Walter Thompson-Hernandez 06:10
And the actual, like, writing process. What was that like? Because it you know, it really feels like were there with you. Right? Whether it’s like the peanut butter and jelly reference, the Bible, the Nike blazers, the tattooed hand, reaching under that door, like how did you, how are you able to, to make that happen? How’d you do that?
There are certain parts of my life that I can remember every detail of it, of that memory. So I guess as a writer, I’m able to keep captured what I felt at the moment, when I saw whatever I saw, or I did whatever I did, or whatever situation I was in. As a writer. I feel like putting it down on paper and expressing how everything was detail by detail, emotion by emotion is almost like therapeutic to me. So, writing the piece, I guess I kind of relive it every time. Like I write something in order to get like the full story. But I actually wrote that when I was in isolation, right before I got out. So I was kind of replaying my whole journey. And that was kind of at the beginning of my journey. And I wrote it when I was at the end of it.
If you could walk me through actually writing it, like, sounds, smells, what you wrote it with, what that day was like?
It was cold. I remember. Even the bus was cold. And feeling the sun. Like the warmth, was like something that I craved because this like we never were, we’re out, I think and then all of those things, I think subconsciously, were affecting me and I didn’t realize is just kind of like the process of being incarcerated. But, the smells were so like, distinct, like, I can never forget them. They’re disgusting. But like, I wouldn’t just like seeing certain things. Certain memories just stuck in my head, I guess. And so that’s how I was able to just put it down on paper. But that was a really long day for me. And it turned out actually better than I expected in the end. Because at the end of that I felt more relieved. After I had captured that, like idea that this wasn’t gonna be forever, this wasn’t going to be my life forever. I wasn’t going to be stuck in that box forever. I had some kind of hope, I guess at the end of that day, but it was a hard day.
Has always been like a part of this, like creative practice for you?
No, I actually never wrote until I was in juvenile hall. And InsideOUT writers came. And my teacher, his name was Robert Fox, and he would come like faithfully every single weekend to teach us how to like, how to write and I never wanted to participate. I was so hard headed and like, especially if it had to like be anything that had to do with my emotions or whatever. Like I never want like I cannot put pen to paper and write anything down. So I remember like I didn’t want to participate. And he told me well write that down, write down that you don’t want to participate. And I was like, okay, and then he’s like, what else is on your mind? And I’m like, I don’t know, he’s like, write that down, write down, you don’t know what’s on your mind. And I’m like, so I was he pushed me to just throw my thoughts out there on paper. And once I did, I discovered that there was so much that I was holding in. And I was kind of I was scared to share, like, he was asking people to share, and he kept on pushing me because he knew I didn’t want to, I don’t know. But the more he pushed me like, I was just like, fine, I’ll just do it just to so that he won’t keep on asking me.
Olivia Carrasco 10:48
And then once I did it, I remember it was a really emotional day because I put my emotions down on paper. And one thing about being incarcerated is like sometimes that could be seen as like a form of weakness, or people will judge you. And I actually, when I read my piece, everybody in the room could relate, regardless of everybody’s differences, and neighborhoods or whatever, everybody was able to relate to the piece of writing and the emotions that we go through. Being in the situation that we were in. We were all considered unfit, which is the title of the piece. Because we weren’t not fit to be charged as juveniles, we were being charged as adults. So as minors going through that situation. I think that writing class brought a lot of healing to all of us, because we were able to connect on that level. And kind of it was a sense of like, we’re not alone in this. So kind of felt like family after a while. Because we would get to know each other on it on a different level. So then, that’s when writing became like an outlet for me. Whenever I would go through something, writing always helped. And I never forgot, like, what I was taught when I was there.
Walter Thompson-Hernandez 12:37
There’s a part like towards the end of your piece where you talk about putting on a game face. Like, I love to learn more about what that means.
Your game faces kind of like, projecting the idea that nothing’s facing you or that you’re okay. When you’re really not, I guess. It’s like a mask. It’s just liked a cover up, I guess. And it’s something that I was used to doing all the time. Whenever the doors open, it was like your mask goes on. And I don’t know if it’s like a form of protection, I guess, while you’re incarcerated, but like, that’s what I meant by that.
Was it also a moment when you realize that, that writing and sharing in that way, like wasn’t actually a form of weakness, where it was kind of the opposite? Where it was really empowering, and, you know, really a way to connect with others?
Yeah, first for myself, like, I think that kind of like helped me break that wall down of like pride, I guess. Kind of going back to like that game face everything just being real and honest with myself. writing about my true emotions and how I viewed things, was empowering to myself. So once it was empowering to myself, and I was able to share it, other people were empowered too and they also would do the same and it would inspire me to continue to write. So I think it was after that, like, stubbornness that I had, that I discovered that it was it was empowering and not weak to talk about real things.
I’m also curious if you consider yourself a spiritual person?
I definitely believe like, in good and evil. I would consider myself as spiritual person but not to like I’m not going to say like that I’m a good person or anything like that, because Like, I know, I have a bad side, I have a good side, I have bad side. But, um, as far as like, my spiritual beliefs go, I know it exists. I know it’s real. And I mean, there’s been a lot of moments like, like the one that I wrote about in the piece that have happened to me throughout my lifetime and throughout my time incarcerated where nobody knew what I was going through, and something like that would come in, come my way. And it’s like, how did that happen? And it was, a lot of times, it was like, maybe exactly what I needed to hear in order to move on or to keep on going. So I definitely believe that it’s there.
Is there like a version of your life today? Like, imagine your life without writing? What does that look like?
Like a trap. Like, I would feel trapped. Like your voice is gone. It’d be like lonely. I think. Whether you’re hurt or not. Writing is getting out. Like, your thoughts. It’s getting out. What you believe. And without judgment. So I find like freedom in that.
Walter Thompson-Hernandez 16:27
Are you still writing today?
Yeah. So, every week, I still meet up with InsideOUT writers every Thursday for the writing circles, like virtually. And every time a teacher gives us a prompt, and we all right, it’s the same thing. It’s like, I feel like I’m back in juvenile hall when we were all writing together and sharing together. It’s that same sense of family, that same sense of, like togetherness, I guess. So. Yeah. And these, like, Jimmy was like one of the first people that I contacted when I got out because I knew how important this was to me. And it impacted my life and in a way that it probably saved me out of a lot of situations.
When you were a kid, like 10 years old, what did you think a writer was? It’s been a minute. It’s been a minute for sure. 10-year-old Olivia. How is she? What does she like? And what does she think a writer is?
angry, I know I was definitely angry at that age. I’m rebellious. I’m really close minded about people and things and situations. easily influenced by my surroundings. And by 10 years old, I was already getting high and drinking so and you know, actually, there’s one person that I kind of grew up with, that was really well known in my neighborhood that had gone to juvenile hall before. really young, and he would write I remember, and I thought it was so weird. I’m like, what, like, you write like, I don’t know. And then he’s like, yeah, is that so shocking? And I’m like, well, yeah, kind of like, what do you I never knew exactly what he would write about, but I know that there would be times where he would like when he’s by himself, he would write and I thought that was interesting. And I guess, coming from someone like that, I was kind of open to it. But never did it myself. Just because at that age, I was just running around going crazy. But, I think, him being incarcerated. He kind of experienced that, like, isolation and, like, found like, it’s kind of like writing was therapeutic. So me not having experienced that yet. I hadn’t actually done it yet. But, I always remembered that so I wasn’t completely closed off to it. I just thought, like, for the most part, writers were people who wrote books authors. I don’t know it wasn’t of much like I didn’t think much about it. Until I actually started writing myself.
So at 10, you stood in a you wouldn’t know that you would one day also become a writer?
No. My dad has been incarcerated since I was three years old. He’s been on death row now for about 25 years. And he has always written me like letters, even when I was a kid. And when I was able to write even as a kid, I would write him back. And I remember hearing my mom say, like, they I was a good writer, like, the way I was able to, to word things. I remember hearing that, like, from her and like, my attitude, because they would read my letter sometimes before they would send them out. And I remember hearing that, but it just never occurred to me like that I would ever be a writer or anything. I just remember them saying like that, the way I write the way I word things, like you have a gift for writing.
Are you still writing into your dad?
Yeah, right now. He’s actually he’s getting older, and he’s kind of sick. So I don’t talk to him as much. So he developed Parkinson’s disease. So it’s hard for him to write because his hands shake a lot. So I don’t get nearly as many letters as I used to because of that. Since I’ve been out, I guess the Parkinson’s he’s had it for a few years now. And it just keeps getting worse and worse. So the more aggressive it gets, the less I hear from him. Because it’s harder for him to function. But I’m still definitely in contact with him. He’s been one of the very few people who have been like a major support to me throughout my time. And I’m really close with my dad. So yeah.
Walter Thompson-Hernandez 22:06
And when you were incarcerated, did you write to him?
He would write to me like faithfully every single week. So he wrote a lot more than I did. I appreciated all his letters, because whatever I was going through in there many times, like I would get a letter. And it was like, always what I needed to hear, like, right on time, he was able to, like, reach me in that way. And when I would write back, it was like the same thing. So through writing, we were actually able to, like connect on probably more intimate level than like people who actually have their dads right there. I’m so thankful for that.
What your dad write about in his letters?
My dad has always been kind of like a guide to me. He never judged like what I did, so I was able to freely tell him anything that I was doing, or what was going on without feeling like I was gonna be punished or anything, all for one. Like he was incarcerated. So that wasn’t really that but what I mean is like, I felt like I had a friend in him, as well as like a father figure. But, most of his letters were just guidance like he would share with me his experiences at my age, and what he went through at my age, that kind of like, made me more open to what he was saying, I guess he wasn’t like ever telling me No, don’t do this or don’t do that. Like he just shared with me what happened when he did it. Left the decision up to me whether I wanted to do that or not. And I was stupid and made dumb decisions anyways, but throughout my whole incarceration, he always like encouraged me to never give up. And to always like, stay positive. He was always his letters were always positive. And just, they were always really short. Like just one page. But his words were always enough to get me, to get me through.
Walter Thompson-Hernandez 24:41
If you can tell me like who you are today, what you’re interested in, what you read, what you write.
My values have changed over time. Now I value like family. My real Like my true friends, I value a different kind of respect. And my freedom. I am trying, I’m also transitioning into like adulthood out here. So I’m learning like, how, how to handle, um, just like adult things, and also aligning them with my values. So I just spend my free time like in a positive way, a productive way. I try to put like effort into seeing my family more, everything was so broken when I got out. And I feel like everything that I lost, now I just I want to gain back. So I think today, I care a lot more. I never had these values before. So I would say that today. My eyes are open, and I’m a lot more grateful to what’s around me and what I have every day. Even if it’s not a lot, it’s a whole lot more than what I had. So I like spending time with friends. I like spending time with family, I like going out I like going to the beach. I like going, I like driving my car, sometimes I like getting away sometimes. And just being in my thoughts and thinking about my life. My goals, what I want to do. I look forward to the writing circles, I look forward to my job, even the job that I have. So I’m just getting the hang of things like that. And daily, I think I just see myself changing more and more because I’m not even trying to it’s just the more I realize, like how much I have, the more I don’t want to lose it. And so that I think affects like all the decisions that I make. So I don’t know, I think today I’m just a lot more caring.
Is there anything that like, you’d like to share that I haven’t asked you so far?
Yeah. When I got out. I didn’t realize how hard it was going to be for me to get a job. I thought I would be able to get a job like that. And I was in San Diego for a while. And I got I was working at like Vons. And it was so easy for me to get hired over there. And when I pulled out here, nobody was hiring me like I was getting, I would pass the interviews, and they would want to hire me. But soon as they ran my background check, it was like an automatic no. And I would get letters in the mail saying why they denied me. And every letter was because of my background. And I was like, dang, I didn’t know that was a real thing, I thought I would be able to get it like it’s LA, there’s jobs everywhere. And I was just getting shut down everywhere. And the more I thought about I was like, well, I know there’s purpose and everything like, but I want a job where I’m doing something that I’m actually like passionate about. And I was trying to tap more into that.
Olivia Carrasco 28:02
And this opportunity came up that Jimmy offered to me with an organization called California justice leaders and what they do is they help young adults with resources for when they get out. And they also they just point them in the right direction. And also like if they were interested in getting their record sealed, like we walk them through the process of getting, getting their felonies, like they’ll be discharged. But then they can use that as evidence as like rehabilitation. So that if they wanted to get their record sealed, they can use that as evidence of rehabilitation, so and that would open up more opportunities for them to pursue whatever career they want, instead of being hopeless, and just thinking this is it, I’m never gonna go anywhere. Or, like, my background is like, a barrier to everything I want to do I know how that feels like, dang, I couldn’t even get a job at the market.
Like there shouldn’t be down for everything. So there’s a lot of like careers that even my friends that I have friends that they would want to be like in the medical field and they can’t because they’re felonies or there’s a lot of things that there’s a lot of benefits to getting their record cleared. So from for me to be able to have the opportunity to be a part of that and helping them with that. I feel is like really purposeful and meaningful. So it’s kind of like paying it forward to I’m not eligible for that. But if I can help somebody else, like move forward then I thought that was like a perfect opportunity and it came my way so I was really grateful for that and appreciate life.
Walter Thompson-Hernandez 30:03
Appreciate it. Thank you so much. Thanks again to Olivia Carrasco for joining us. Moved by what you heard today? Want to do more? Follow and 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, Lionel Tate
You know, like it made me relive it pretty much you know, it made me feel like damn, like I’m just writing like my thoughts. So to hear my thoughts being read to me, was like another low. This a piece of power. So a piece of some power that installed in me. I liked it.
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.