Yesterday I visited Homeboy Industries in Chinatown Los Angeles to meet Gregory Boyle, aka Father G, author of the book ‘Barking to the Choir: Radical Kinship’ who gave me a signed copy for the inmates at HMP Featherstone Prison where I work as Songwriter in Residence. Los Angeles is the gang capital of America with an estimated 120,000 gang members and home to 1,350 gangs. Many of the men I work with at Featherstone prison are serving long or life sentences for gang related crimes. Homeboy Industries serves high-risk formerly gang involved men and women with free services from mental health to employment training, parenting skills to emotional education, daily healthy meals, therapy, counselling and free tattoo removal.
Gregory’s book ‘Tattoos on the Heart’: The power of boundless compassion’ shares his philosophy that the only way to reach lives destroyed by shame, poverty and violence is to love them. This book is tough and tender, harrowing and heartfelt, and the stories of Father G and his homies are at times truly hilarious.
This is Lapaul Lane, my tour guide for the day, a reformed prisoner talking about his role at HomeBoy. He was shot in the face by a rival gang member who now works together with him in a bakery. ‘Blessings and Burdens are cousins’ he says. ‘In the grief, we learn to relate.’
While I was there I witnessed a woman having a tattoo removed. The laser surgeon told me they remove 150 tattoos a day, prioritising women who are victims of sex trafficking, who have been branded by their captors as a mark of ownership. Men who have tattoos on their faces allying them to a certain gang, are also a priority to help increase their chances of work back in society. “It can take up to 100 treatments per tattoo, “ he said. “It’s an excruciatingly painful process.” But not as painful as the psychological damage of a woman carrying the burden of the name of a pimp all over their bodies.”
Gregory Boyle has agreed to visit HMP Featherstone, Wolverhampton next year on his UK tour.