Life sentences

If you've never visited a prison, everything you've heard about the experience is true. As you walk past the armed guards, deposit your valuables in a bucket and enter the harshly lit halls -- the full-length metal detector growing ever smaller behind you -- you're grateful you're one of the few who can leave whenever they want to.

I had one comfort when I checked in to the Orange County Corrections Department's Vision Boulevard holding facility Thursday night: A 6-foot-3-inch man accompanied me. It was Owl Goingback, the local horror novelist, who had invited me along to witness his stint as a guest lecturer in OCCD's Literature-N-Living program -- a remedial-reading and character-building course for teen-age offenders awaiting trial on adult charges.

Goingback's 1996 potboiler, "Crota," was the group's latest selection, and the student inmates looked forward to meeting the author whose work had so entertained and inspired them. So did John Richter, the program's bespectacled director, who welcomed us in the main hallway.

Despite his librarian's looks, Richter admitted that he wasn't much of a bookworm himself ("I read to go to bed," he shrugged). But he hadn't hesitated to put "Crota" into his curriculum. As a winner of the horror field's Bram Stoker Award, the book came with an imprimatur of quality. It contained plenty of positive messages about family and respect for the land, most of them informed by Goingback's own Choctaw/Cherokee heritage. And it was at its heart a page-turning monster tale that could easily captivate a cadre of developing readers.

An invitation from the Corrections Department, however, was not something Goingback ever expected to receive.

"'What did my kids do this time?'" he remembered wondering as he collected his mail.

Central booking

We were led into a reading room whose walls were lined with reference volumes, and five youths soon shuffled in. Dressed in standard-issue jumpsuits, they were of varying races and body sizes. None was older than 17. They were all male; the girls had been prevented from taking part due to "a little bit of a problem" upstairs -- a fracas in which one had jumped another.

The guys looked in no mood to fight, instead sitting rapt as Goingback delved into his Native-American background and his career as a writer. In return, he was met with a constant, enthusiastic barrage of questions.

"When you were growing up," one probed, "did you believe what the books said about the history of America?"

"No," the tribesman said, going on to tell tales of Indian subjugation at the hands of the white man. Those stories were well received by an audience that knew a thing or two about having its own freedom taken away.

On and on the queries came, the pupils needing no prompting from Richter to eat up the 60 minutes available to them. "What advice would you give to someone who wanted to be a spiritual person?" another asked. Goingback's answer: "A church is just a building. You've got to look inside to see out."

Not all of the conversation was as high-minded. Some of it centered on the possible translation of "Crota" into a movie, which Goingback said was still in the talking stages.

Firm convictions

"You guys got more out of this book than anybody," the author lauded as the hour ended, and he was right: their level of emotional involvement easily outstripped that which most writers encounter on bookstore tours. One juvenile fan was so conversant with the novel that he even pointed out one of its apparent narrative inconsistencies. Everyone's a critic these days.

After the participants returned to their cells, I asked Richter what their crimes had been. Three were in for armed robbery, the other two for murder. I was glad I hadn't asked while they were still in the room.

One of the homicide cases -- a kid who was on the edge of his seat during the entire session -- was among the reading program's biggest success stories, said Richter. In just 14 months, he had made the transition from an antisocial "punk" into a dependable teacher's aide and frequent counselor of his fellow inmates. That's a lot to accomplish in just over a year, but when you're a teen-ager, 14 months is a long time. I wonder if any of it will be taken into account when he goes to trial.

"A lot of people say, 'Lock them up and throw away the key,'" said Paula Hoisington, a tall, slender woman who became the facility's program supervisor after 16 and a half years working within the penal system. "The public doesn't want to see that you're educating them. But you can't keep them locked up forever. They're coming back to our communities."

And until then? They'll have plenty of time to catch up on their reading.