Leslie Schwartz was a successful writer and novelist who had managed to maintain sobriety from alcohol for over a decade before falling back into 414 days of self-described “blackout drinking.” It was only after she was arrested for DUI and battery of an officer in 2014 that she managed to get sober again, only to find herself immersed in the harrowing experience of spending 37 days incarcerated in the brutal confines of the Los Angeles County Century Women’s Regional Center in Lynwood.
While inside the jail, Schwartz witnessed all manner of abusive behavior by guards and learned the stories of many impoverished women of color who were trapped in Lyndwood for longer sentences despite sometimes having committed lesser offenses. Through it all, Schwartz maintained her sanity and spirits by reading an assortment of books that gave her a renewed appreciation for the power of writing.
She is appearing at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Vroman’s Bookstore to discuss (with Father Greg Boyle of Homeboy Ministries) and sign her memoir, “The Lost Chapters: Finding Recovery & Renewal One Book at a Time.”
“I don’t give jail, the LAPD, or other law enforcement any credit for stopping my relapse,” says Schwartz. “I give credit to my family support system and the spiritual connection I was able to make with stopping. The jail made my life worse, but the experience I had inside was of a spiritual nature for me. It had to do with the books I read and other inmates that I met, vis a vis the books I read. It was a literary enlightenment, and the rest of change came by getting to know other inmates.”
Schwartz offers plenty of detailed criticism about how the female inmates are treated at Lynwood, noting that she saw guards having sex with inmates in exchange for giving the prisoners illicit drugs. The three-day intake process is “harrowing,” and she notes that the entire experience is nothing like the way women’s prisons are portrayed in the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black.”
“That show causes huge misconceptions of jail, because jail is hell, you don’t get to dance, and the girls aren’t off having sex everywhere,” says Schwartz. “There’s no freedom of movement, you’re always under guard and watch. There’s nothing for abuse of drugs or alcoholism, no 12-step meetings, even though 90 percent of everybody in that place was on drugs and alcohol but nobody talks about it. There was a life skills class I was in. I don’t know what it was about, but we talked about our vaginas a lot.”
Schwartz notes that black and brown women are disproportionately incarcerated, with people of color more likely to have jail sentences by a margin of 2 to 1, and for lesser crimes. She believes that many inmates are addicts or mentally ill, and could be productive members of society if helped with their issues.
“I recently connected with a woman in Denver who runs a group called Books Beyond Bars and we’re talking about me bringing books and book groups to inmates in Lynwood,” says Schwartz, who taught writing for several years at Homeboy Industries. “The other thing is that my book is an homage to literature. I just lament the fact that we don’t read anymore in our culture. I really did come from a loving place, and it’s not a diatribe against the system. It’s a love story toward literature. Hopefully it’ll inspire people to pick up a book as well as care more about prisoners.”
Leslie Schwartz will discuss and sign her memoir, “The Lost Chapters: Finding Recovery & Renewal One Book at a Time” at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd, Pasadena. Call (626) 449-5320 or visit vromansbookstore.com.