“Sister Janet has a preferential love for the marginal, and one of her most powerful qualities is her yearning for justice, for the right things to happen,” says Javier Stauring. He has seen firsthand how fiercely Sister Janet defends her charges. He was present one day when she pleaded with the hall's superintendent not to send a certain boy to the adult county jail. The superintendent, papers in hand, refused to change his mind. “She grabbed for the papers and tore them up: 'You're not sending him anywhere!'” For a moment, the superintendent was stunned. Then he started to laugh, Stauring recalls, “and the kid stayed there.”
In 2003 Human Rights Watch determined that the plight of incarcerated youth in the Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail was among the worst in the world and honored Stauring with their Human Rights Watch Award for his work. Speaking in Berlin before a group of international human rights activists, Stauring told them that the United States had more than 2,225 teenagers sentenced as adults to life in prison without parole. The participants removed their earpieces, thinking that they must have misheard or that the translator had made a mistake; at the time, the rest of the world had only 12 such cases. To compound the irony, according to a study Stauring sent me done by the nonprofit Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, juvenile arrests in California's eight major cities in 2005 were at a 30-year low.
After lunch, Stauring, Sister Janet, Ian Graham—the young lawyer formerly with Latham & Watkins who is still working on Mario's case—and Mario took a walk on the beach. The sun was shining and dolphins frolicked not far from shore. “Being near the ocean was a poetic moment, an image of freedom,” Sister Janet told me later. “That's a sacred image.” Back at the house, while Mario hosed the sand off his feet, I asked him how he felt. “I'm ecstatic,” he said.
That night I drove past the glittering lights of downtown Los Angeles to the grim Eastlake Juvenile Hall to observe two of the approximately 30 weekly writing classes taught by the InsideOut volunteers. Each week these classes reach out to about 300 youths in several juvenile facilities. I saw teenagers who were awaiting court dates and sentences that may lock them up for decades reading George Rodriguez and Maya Angelou—boys who were gang members, girls who cut themselves—and I alternately winced at their pain and marveled at what flowed from their pencils, at their pride in reading out loud the raw details of their sorrows, the flashes of insight, the dark realities so many of us never have to contemplate.
Sister Janet told me of her deep belief in the sacredness of every person, no matter how lost: “I approach every person looking for that.” How does she manage to do what she does? “I don't believe in hierarchies,” she said, “I believe in circles. The metaphor for what I do is jazz. I find good people and let them play their instruments.” But doesn't she get discouraged? I remembered what she said the morning we met. “I'm not sure whether I believe in voices or not,” she told me, “but I was driving down the freeway one day and I was having such a bad day I just cried out, 'Oh Mother of God!' Then, you know what? A very calm voice came inside me and said, 'Janet, keep your eye on the road.'”