VIDEO: Inside Multnomah County's Teen Jail
Meet Andre and Jose awaiting trial in Multnomah County Juvenile Detention Center
Helen Silvis of The Skanner News
December 01, 2010
Part1 of The Skanner News Investigation into the juvenile justice system and the impact of Measure 11 on teens. In Part 2, we look at How One Oregon Girl Became a Measure 11 Felon.
On the street it’s called “juvie.” Officially, it’s the Donald E. Long home, Multnomah County’s Juvenile Detention Center. Teens arrested in Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties come here in handcuffs. But who are the kids who end up here? And what happens behind the heavy, electronically locked doors?
Those questions have taken on a new poignancy, since news broke that 17-year-old Kyeron Fair, a Parkrose High School student with no prior criminal history, recently sustained serious internal injuries while in custody – although where and how is unclear. The Skanner visited the center, just off I-84 on NE 68th Ave., to see what goes on inside the walls of teen jail.
Tristan, (photo above) now 20 and building a successful career in the entertainment industry, courageously talked to The Skanner News about growing up around gangs. As a middle schooler, Tristan saw himself living the gang lifestyle, until he ended up in the detention center for several months. He spoke to The Skanner about the pressures on teens and how change is possible: The Skanner News Video: Tristan’s story
Craig Bachman, the longtime corrections staffer in charge of the detention center, says he wants you to know two things.
“I have a great staff who are really invested in changing these kids’ behavior and keeping them safe,” he says. “They come from very diverse backgrounds; they have strong relationships with the kids; they are extremely dedicated to providing opportunities for kids.”
That’s Bachman’s first message. His second throws down the gauntlet to the self-proclaimed ‘anti-crime’ crusaders who seem to be able to persuade Oregon’s voters that no sentence can be too harsh --even for teens.
“Just because a kid is in juvenile detention doesn’t mean they are a bad kid and they don’t have opportunities to change and become successful, contributing members of society,” Bachman says.
“We believe that by supplying a safe, caring environment along with a positive activities program, we can give youth opportunities to change their behaviors," Bachman says. "We hold kids accountable and help them change.”
Almost every teen in the center stands accused of a Measure 11 felony. Voted into Oregon law in 1994, Measure 11 set mandatory minimum sentences for 24 crimes ranging from assault, robbery and weapons charges, through sexual abuse, rape, manslaughter and, at worst, murder. You could be forgiven for wondering if these are just ‘bad kids.’
But Bachman’s philosophy is backed up by brain development research that shows teens are impulsive, reactive and less able to consider the consequences of their behaviors than adults. In fact, our brains may not fully mature until age 25 or so. Youth corrections staff—who monitor these girls and boys round the clock – understand that many teens who are taken into custody are driven by extreme emotions that stem from trauma, abuse, neglect or addiction. And studies suggest that with the right treatment most teens can and do change their behavior.
The majority of these young inmates are taking prescription psychiatric medications for depression, anxiety and other mental health problems, Bachman says. They’ve missed a lot of school and need intensive educational help. Some are completely abandoned by their families and get no visits.
‘That makes our job a lot harder,” he admits.
Measure 11 makes no allowances for youthful immaturity or a history of victimization. Every 15, 16 or 17 year old accused of a Measure 11 crime– even a first offender -- must be tried and sentenced as an adult.
“Any youth who is 15 to 17 and charged with a Measure 11 crime will always be held,” Bachman says.
That means living in the center for an average of five months as lawyers prepare their cases – even though more than 62 percent of the teens charged with Measure 11 crimes are never convicted of one. Yes you read that right: 62 percent.
On the day of our visit 62 youth are in detention, 56 boys and 6 girls. They include 19 Black and 12 Hispanic teens, 1 Asian, 1 teen whose race is marked unknown, and 29 White teens.
As for the curfew breakers, the runaways and the kids caught drinking, smoking or high on drugs: most are released within hours. The same goes for teens brought in for vandalism, shoplifting or other petty crimes. Some leave with a court date for the next morning, or -- for the least serious offenses -- many weeks away. And 89 percent of them show up in court and don’t commit new crimes.
Of the 792 boys and girls who entered detention last year, 67 percent were youth of color. In an attempt to reduce the well documented bias, which sends too many Black and Hispanic youth to jail, a points system called the Risk Assessment Instrument is now used to decide who must stay. The more serious the charges the more points assigned. Going to school regularly, having a safe home and having no prior offenses deducts points. A prior criminal record, truancy or a history of running away adds points.
“We always will make that decision to protect public safety,” Bachman says. “But we have very few youth here for technical violations of parole and that’s what we want. It’s a policy decision because we know when detention is used inappropriately it can be harmful.
“At the end of the day almost every kid who comes in to juvenile detention is going to be back out in the community,” Bachman said. “So it’s our job to help kids learn the skills they need to be successful so they don’t come back.”
What Multnomah County is doing seems to be working. The percentage of youth who commit more crimes has been dropping steadily: from 38.5 percent in 2001 to 31 percent in 2007. (the latest figure available)
You’re Inside Now
For the first 24 hours, new inmates are isolated. Later they will be allowed pictures and some possessions, but at first it’s bare walls and plenty of thinking time -- until detention staff finish explaining the consequences of Measure 11 charges and the rules they will now be expected to live by.
“For the first week I was really upset,” says Andre, a bright-eyed African American 17-year-old, in detention for 3 months awaiting his court appearance. “It was really strict. I didn’t know about the 24-hour orientation period and I thought it would be like that all the time.”
The Skanner News was allowed to talk to Andre and one other boy, Jose, on condition we didn’t discuss the criminal charges they face. To protect them, we have changed their names.
Andre seems younger than his 17 years and shockingly vulnerable, in spite of his cheerful demeanour.
“I never thought I would be here,” he says. “But I’m doing great. It’s better than being in any other facility I’ve heard about. I expected it to be like: everyone locked down all the time -- and bad food. But the food is actually good.”
His words make you wonder about his home life. How many teens do you know who would appreciate institutional food of any kind?
After the first 24-hours, each youth is assigned a room on one of the units. The rooms all have a bed, a toilet and a writing surface –fixed so they can’t be moved. And, of course, they have locks on the outside. Staff don’t call them cells, but the difference seems to be in name only.
Each unit holds 16 rooms on two-levels that open in a semi-circle onto a communal living area, shared by two units.
Being here is helping him a lot, Andre says. The staff can be tough, because they want you to get strong enough to make good choices by yourself. But they care.
“Some of them have been through some of the same things we’ve been through," he explains. "So they understand where we’re coming from”
Andre admits that at first he had trouble staying out of fights. It was hard to be locked up 24/7 with other boys he didn’t get along with, he said. But he says he has learned to walk away.
“I learn from my mistakes,” he says.
The teens follow a busy activity schedule that includes 5 1/2 hours of formal school, at least an hour a day of exercise, and groups on everything from alcohol and drug abuse prevention to behavior change. Art and writing projects, a vegetable garden, board games and sports all have a place in the program. What you won’t see are video games, unrestricted television or unsupervised computer surfing.
A chronic truant, Andre has missed a lot of school. Now he seems proud to be learning.
"I can focus now and learn new stuff that I wasn’t learning on the outs," he says. “I’ve read a lot of books. I read a lot more," he says repeating with emphasis, “A lot more. And I started to draw again.
“I’ve started to learn more about my culture, because here we have groups about our culture.”
He spends as much time as he’s permitted on one of the two basketball courts.
“I used to play basketball and then when I came back here I realized how much I wanted to play basketball again. If it wasn’t for basketball when I was younger, I’d probably be dead.”
This throwaway line is the only hint of a despair that may have triggered his spiral into trouble. Andre doesn’t volunteer anything about his home life, but it’s telling when he describes this locked facility -- as “not bad, it’s like a getaway, a camp.
“We have rules and regulations but it’s better than going to the penitentiary,” he says, “it’s better to learn and to be active and healthy.”
Andre’s ambition is to become a barber. “I’m hoping to graduate school,” he says. “When I get out of here I want to keep on doing what I’m doing here – reading, writing and going back to school.”
Jose: Headed for court the next morning
The second teen we meet is 17-year-old Jose, a quiet, serious boy, who has been in the detention center for about five months. Although he comes from a Hispanic family and grew up in California, his first language is English.
Jose’s in Oregon, he says, because his father and aunt are here, and to get a fresh start. Like Andre, he has nothing but good things to say about the juvenile detention center and its staff.
“This is a good place – not like where I was in California,” he says.
“Staff here are helping me. They’ve helped me raise my grades. I’m just really focused on what I’m going to do with my life – I am not going to go back into being around the bad influences that I was around before.
“I’m going to try my best not to come back.”
Jose is reading now and studying geometry, he says. In the detention center he has earned four of the 25 credits he needs to graduate. Before, he had given up on school, a decision he regrets.
“I didn’t want to do school,” he says. “I’d go to school only for talking to people, meeting people and doing bad things.”
So is learning difficult?
“It’s easy and hard at the same time,” he says. “I can read better now and that’s important. It is difficult to learn new things, but I have improved a lot. ”
It turns out that Jose thrives on learning, now he has all the time in the world to read and nothing to distract him. Recent book choices include the Black Panther classic, Soul on Ice; Monster, an intense teen novel by Walter Dean Myers; Dead is a State of Mind, a fantasy mystery by Marlene Perez. He’s also reading Shakespeare, writing poetry, drawing, and making collages.
“They’re about life and about friends,” he says. “I did a collage about my friend that died.”
Education could be his ticket to a better life, he realizes.
“I see myself getting out of the system,” he says. “I’m not going to come back here. I’m going to keep on studying and do something good with my life.”
Right now, what he wants to do is help kids like himself. “I do want to help kids out. I might try to be a probation officer or something like that. I just love kids.”
Jose talks a little about the pressures and the decisions that brought him to this point. He grew up with grandparents he loves in a neighborhood where many of the youth were in gangs. For a long time he was determined to stay out of the gang life. But some older boys who he admired were gang members.
One boy in particular was his friend and mentor. He was a gang member, but he always told Jose to stay out of gangs. And then he was killed. Hurt and angry, Jose turned to the gang.
When this boy looks at you, his sad brown eyes seem to hold volumes of secret sorrow.
“The staff here have opened my eyes in so many ways,” he says. “I’m a Christian and I believe you should love your neighbor like you love yourself. So even though someone does something to you, you have to turn the other cheek.”
We’re not allowed to talk about Jose’s crime, but putting the pieces together it seems likely he’s here because he did not turn the other cheek, when his friend died. Instead he committed some act of retaliation. Now he’s due in court the next morning where he plans to enter a guilty plea and be sentenced for his crime. He looks at peace with his decision -- or at least resigned to taking his medicine.
The next morning, at the courthouse Jose is sentenced to 24 months jail time. He won’t be in ‘juvie’ now, but a long-term Oregon Youth Authority jail. His lawyer, public defender Phil Bertoni, says he’ll serve about 18 months because of the time he already has spent in custody.
“He’s not a bad kid,” Bertoni says of Jose. “I just hope he manages to keep out of trouble now.”