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Juvenile Detention and Girls 'On the Outs'

ED GORDON, host:

A new film opens tomorrow. "On the Outs" follows three girls living in and out of a juvenile detention facility. Paola Mendoza stars as one of the girls. She plays Marisol, a 17-year-old drug-addicted mother who was incarcerated and risked losing custody of her young daughter.

(Soundbite of "On the Outs")

Ms. PAOLA MENDOZA (Actress): (As Marisol) Yeah, when am I going home?

Unidentified Woman #1: Marisol, I have some bad news.

Unidentified Woman #2: We've taken Autumn into temporary placement.

Unidentified Woman #1: Look, when you get out, you know, maybe they'll consider other options other than permanent foster care.

Ms. MENDOZA: (As Marisol) What the (censored) you talking about, permanent foster care?

Unidentified Woman #3: Watch your language, Ms. Pagong.

Ms. MENDOZA: (As Marisol) They be touching little girls in permanent foster care. You're (censored). That's what you're doing.

Unidentified Woman #4: Watch your mouth.

Ms. MENDOZA: (As Marisol) My baby ain't going into no permanent foster care. What the (censored) you...

That ain't right!

(Soundbite of scuffle)

Ms. MENDOZA: (As Marisol) Let me go! That's my baby! I want my baby!

GORDON: "On the Outs" is based on the stories of several girls caught in the juvenile justice system. Mendoza, now an award-winning actress, found a kinship to the women portrayed in the film.

Ms. MENDOZA: I was born in South America, in Colombia, but I grew up in Los Angeles, poor, and in the hood, and when I turned about 12 years old, I started gang-banging in Los Angeles, and for two years my mother was going crazy. She didn't know what to do with a little girl that was getting in trouble, getting into fights, ditching school, breaking into cars, breaking into homes. And it was getting to the point where it was a very serious situation and I was very soon going to be locked up, and my mother made the decision to send me back home to Colombia, and I was there for two years. And in the two years it completely changed my life. I had family, extended family, for the first time in my life. I had a society that demanded me to succeed. So that is why this story is so personal for me because I was one of these girls and I could have been where they were, and I know that they easily, any one of these girls that are locked up, could have easily been where I was if they were just given the opportunity, and they hadn't been.

GORDON: Michael, the film has been critically acclaimed. Talk to me about why you decided to draw from a number of stories. Was it poetic license that just made it more intriguing?

Mr. MICHAEL SKOLNIK: Well, I think, you know, for myself and my co-director, Lori Silverbush, who's also the screenwriter on the film--myself, Paola and Lori, we all went into this juvenile detention center in Secaucus, New Jersey, and spent three months, three hours a day, three days a week working with young women who are incarcerated. What we found was that the women, their lives are so rich with love and hate and anger and sadness and happiness, we just felt that out of respect to them, let's tell the complete story of young women in this country. Judy Marte plays Oz, who's sort of the tough tomboyish girl who's selling drugs, and Anny Mariano, who plays Suzette, is the runaway who falls in love with the wrong guy.

(Soundbite of "On the Outs")

Unidentified Woman #5: Now how long has this been going on? Suzette, please, do not test me right now.

Ms. ANNY MARIANO: (As Suzette) I don't know.

Unidentified Woman #5: You don't know? Well, who did this to you?

Ms. MARIANO: (As Suzette) Nobody did this to me.

Unidentified Woman #5: Who is this boy, Suzette? What grade is he in?

Ms. MARIANO: (As Suzette) He doesn't have a grade. He's grown.

Unidentified Woman #5: Look here, Suzette, you need to get one thing straight. No child of mine is going to go running around having babies with any ghetto sewer rat fool from the street.

Ms. MARIANO: (As Suzette) How can you judge him if you don't even know him?

Unidentified Woman #5: Look, I know what I need to know.

Mr. SKOLNIK: Look, I come from a documentary background, and I spend a lot of times in communities like this, you know, filming these stories and talking to young people who've never had a chance to tell their own story. And, you know, I think a lot of what we don't understand as a society here--if Marisol gets in trouble or Oz gets in trouble or Suzette gets in trouble, there is no safety net for them. And the only safety net that's there for them is the detention centers. So we spent five days shooting in the detention center and many of the young people who were locked up at that time participated in the production, participated with us during that--those five days and many of those who have gotten out participated with us during the production on the streets.

GORDON: Paola, we should note that one of the interesting points of making this film is it's also given you a vehicle to open doors and eyes to filmmaking for these young ladies and the other aspects that surround it on the peripheral of making a film.

Yes, when we went in and we told them, `Look, this is what we want to do. We want to make a film about our lives, and we want you involved; that's the most important thing,' so we told them that when they got out of jail, that the only rule was was that they had to remain in school and they could come and work with us. One of the girls that we worked with in the juvenile detention center, she's actually in the film as an actress, and it's the character who Oz is based off of and when she saw herself on the big screen, finally, a year later, she was so amazed and felt very much empowered that her image was up there as a character but also her story of Oz and that she was able to then speak after the film to a group of 100, 200 people and tell them her story and why this is important and how it helped her. And we've also started an educational initiative with this film and we're going to be bringing a thousand kids to come see the film, completely for free, and once they have--see the film, we created a workshop for them, as well. It just deals with the issues in the film such as pregnancy, drug addiction, teen-age sex, etc., etc. So we are constantly going back to the community because we know that we owe it to them.

Mr. SKOLNIK: ...(Unintelligible).

GORDON: Michael, the one thing that I think about when I read this was, of course, years ago the impact that "Scared Straight" had on so many young people at the time. Is that your hope that this film will also reach out and heighten awareness?

Mr. SKOLNIK: I think our hope--you know, Lori, myself and Paola's hope here, and the people involved, is just to create a dialogue, so we hope here that people will have a dialogue and listen to young people. If we can stop that cycle, that vicious cycle of imprisonment, of violence amongst young women, I think we can solve a lot of the problems amongst young people.

GORDON: Michael Skolnik, co-director of the film, and Paola Mendoza, actress and co-creator, of "On the Outs," and it opens in theaters on January 13th. We thank you for joining us today.

Mr. SKOLNIK: Thank you, Ed.

Ms. MENDOZA: Thank you.

GORDON: Thanks for joining us. That's our program today. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS & NOTES. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.