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20 Under 30: Jody Kent

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LAist's "20 Under 30" interview series with interesting Angelenos under 30 continues with Jody Kent, a passionate activist who works for the ACLU. She monitors the jails, advocates for inmates, and can tell you that if you get arrested, the last place you want to to end up is Men's Central Jail.

Age and Occupation:
26, Jails Project Coordinator for the ACLU of Southern California

How long have you lived in Los Angeles, and which neighborhood do you live in?
Since August 2002. Venice.

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Why do you live in Los Angeles?
I was placed out here for a one-year volunteer program after graduating from college and swore I would return to the East Coast afterwards. But the brokenness of LA drew me in so much that I wanted to stay and keep working on the issues here about which I've become really passionate.

How did you come to become the ACLU's Jails Project Coordinator?
I used to volunteer with juvenile offenders. Hearing their heart-wrenching life stories had a profound impact on me. Many of them had mothers who were addicted to drugs, fathers in prison, teachers who did not believe in them, and they looked to fellow gang members for love and respect. I realized that had most of us been in their shoes growing up, faced with terribly difficult choices, we would have likely made some of the same decisions that they had, and would be just as likely to end up in jail. It just made me realize how unjust our system is, and how many obstacles low-income, urban youth face. I wanted to advocate for this population that gets locked up and all-too-often forgotten. When I finished my volunteer program, there was this job opening at the ACLU, so I applied and the rest is history.

What do you like about your job?
I like the balance — I get to spend time in the jails and time doing advocacy to improve policies. It frustrates me to see how far removed our policymakers are from the issues about which they develop policies. I think it is really important to stay directly connected with the population for whom you are advocating and my job allows me to do that. The time I spend walking through the jails, talking to the inmates and to the staff brings me a lot of good information and, eventually, credibility. It also provides me with regular reality checks. I think I'm having a bad day, then I drive over to the jails and realize there are 20,000 people in LA who have it a hell of a lot worse.

What are some of the conditions that you are monitoring?
Eighty percent of the complaints we receive from inmates relate to medical and mental health services. On the streets, we take for granted how easy it is to take care of our health — if we have high blood pressure, we are careful not to eat a lot of salt; if we are diabetic, we give ourselves insulin shots as needed; if we feel depressed, we go to therapy; if we need to lose weight, we exercise; if we feel sick, we go to the doctor... these things become a lot more difficult when you are locked down 24 hours a day in a crowded jail cell. We help inmates access medical/mental health care in a timely manner. We help them get access to showers, weekly exercise, clean clothing, and food they can eat. Our monitoring also helps us to identify systemic problems in the jails, such as high levels of tension among the inmates, problems with classification or housing of particular inmates, and various policies that need to be improved.

If one must end up in jail in LA County, what do you think are the best and worst facilities to wind up in?
You DON'T want to end up at Men's Central Jail (MCJ). It is the largest jail in the country, housing 6000 inmates, and holds inmates of every security level and classification. It is filthy, outdated, and overcrowded. I visited Alcatraz last week and cells there are roomy compared to those at MCJ. I would not wish upon my worst enemy a night's stay in that place. The best place to go would be the Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood. That is where the women are housed. It is considered a "program jail" because inmates have the opportunity to participate in activities (classes, religious services, etc) during the day, which is a much-preferred alternative to the 24-hour lockdown that is in place at MCJ.

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What are the biggest complaints you deal with from the jail population in LA County?
Access to medical/mental health services, the mail is slow, conditions are filthy and overcrowded... sometimes we get complaints about staff misconduct as well.

What is the typical thing people say to you when they discover what you do for a living?
It varies, depending on the audience. I get a lot of questions like, "Are you safe in there?" "What is the worst thing you've ever seen?" "Is it true (fill in the blank with any scenario you've seen on Oz, Prison Break, or any other jail/prison-related show)?" "So, you're like Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs?!" "Are you f$#ing nuts?" and "Why do criminals have rights?"

What's your favorite movie(s) or TV show(s) that are based in LA?
Crash — predictable, I know. I did not find it to be shocking, but refreshingly straight forward. Hollywood needs to produce more films that put people in check like Crash did.

Best LA-themed book(s)?
White Oleander-- probably another predictable one. I think it does a good job telling the story of so many foster youth who struggle through the "system" and often end up in trouble.

What's your favorite beach in SoCal and why?
Depends on what I'm going for... for a quiet sunset: the Marina, for people-watching: Venice, for running: the boardwalk in Santa Monica, for cocktails on the water or hiking: Malibu

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What's the best place to walk in LA?
I love the Venice canals. I also really like San Vicente Blvd in Brentwood/Santa Monica.

What is the "center" of LA to you?
Sonny McClean's — the bar where all my fellow-Bostonians hang out to watch sporting events. Go Sox!

If you could live in any neighborhood or specific house in LA, where/which would you choose?
There's a house along the Venice canals that has large living room windows that can be opened completely so that you can just walk right outside through them to the water. I would love to live in that place! Either that, or any house on the beach.

People stereotype Los Angeles as a hard place to find personal connections and make friends. Do you agree with that assessment? Do find it challenging to make new friends here?
I think LA has a niche for everyone — you just have to find it. I like to get involved with activities in the community so that I can meet new people who have similar interests. I met a great group of people training with AIDS Marathon for the Honolulu Marathon last year, I am still really involved with the network of people from my volunteer program — we get together for "activist" events and cheap beers, I also get together with Boston College alumns to watch football/basketball games... LA is what you make of it. It's all here — you just have to seek out what interests you.

What is the city's greatest secret?
East LA. I lived for one year in East LA and absolutely loved it. It has a great sense of community and a lively vibe. Murals are painted on every wall, telling the history of the area through the eyes of those who have lived it. It is home to some terrific Mariachi bands, delicious Mexican food, and friendly dive bars.

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Where do you want to be when the Big One hits?
Visiting family/friends back on the East Coast!