It’s Christmas day. Like his younger brother “Cutthroat”*, 18 year-old David* is spending it locked up away from family.
We’re sitting in an office at the Naselle Youth Camp (NYC) in Naselle, Washington, a tiny little town in the southwest corner of the state. As Washington’s only medium-security facility for incarcerated youth, NYC works collaboratively with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to put the youths to work in the community — planting trees in winter, fighting fires in summer. An unfenced campus with a creek running through it, NYC is where many go after spending time in more heavily guarded places like the Maple Lane School in Centralia, Wash. It is one step closer to rejoining society, or as the kids put it, being on “the outs.”
On a day set aside for family and loved ones, in a place that holds 87 juvenile souls, my visit was one of only thirteen scheduled visits for the day.
I hadn’t planned to interview David. I was here to interview Patrick Otto, a 19 year-old Samoan American who had also spent time at Maple Lane. But when I learned that Otto was roommates with Cutthroat’s older brother, this coincidence was too hard to ignore.
And as young as they are, I couldn’t help but be cognizant of their rap sheet and victims: the security guard that Otto assaulted, and the homeowners David burglarized. David has thirteen felonies on his record and Otto is serving a juvenile life sentence for two assaults and one parole violation.
Roommates David and Otto appear very different. David has a close-cropped haircut, deadpan expression, and his voice slightly monotone. Patrick’s hair is long and wild, his face always smiling, an expression reflected in his voice. What they do share is life experiences, locked-up younger brothers, and most importantly, the same colors Otto’s old gang in Tacoma represent. Not red, not blue, but “The color of our skin.”
“You know me and [David] — everyday we try and look for some API,” Otto tells me. “It’s always a good experience when another one of us comes in here you know. I mean, it’s bad that they’re locked-up but at the same time it’s like, damn, you get to join the cause. We’re small but we want to share our experiences and put it out there you know — put our people out there.”
“Patrick Otto has been a leader in the API group at Maple Lane,” says Alvina Wong, with Gateways for Incarcerated Youth, a non-profit program run by the Evergreen State College that works to rehabilitate juvenile offenders. “He taught twelve guys how to do the haka (traditional Maori dance) and if you ever see the video, you can see how amazing it is. His energy is captivating too.”
She’s right – my smile mirrors Otto’s. And in him I see proof of Gateways’ belief that pride in one’s culture fosters pride in oneself.
“I grew up with that Samoan culture but I wasn’t really in touch with it until I got locked up,” Otto says. “That just helped me recognize who I was as a person. My culture influences who I am right now. That’s helped me to realize that I need to get out and go back to my community and help. That’s my mission right there.”
David and his younger brother, Cutthroat, who I interviewed in Part I of this series, are definitely brothers. They have a similar style of speech — unadorned, tough. But David’s words are more hopeful, his answers more committed.
“About to get my diploma pretty soon, so hopefully when I get out — community college,” David tells me. “I want to get a business degree, start my own business like a pho restaurant or something. I already got the name and everything. ‘Can We Pho’.”
While their ambitions and hopes are encouraging during their stay at Naselle, statistics show that there’s a possibility they’ll re-offend, according to the Washington State Sentencing Guideline Commission. The recidivism rate for API juvenile offenders is 65 percent, a number they already fall into, and roughly 15 percent of the adult prison population was once juvenile offenders.
But like Otto and David, I choose to look ahead, to see their potential rather than dwell on sobering statistics and past actions. I hear their words and believe them. I see the love, support and tools that people like NYC Counselor Faalaeo Poyer (a Samoan that Otto says is like an uncle), Alvina Wong and Maple Lane’s Shelly Darnell have given them. I think of the API leadership program I graduated from and how it gave me strength, just as the cultural groups have given these boys strength. I mean it when I tell Otto to apply to the leadership program when he’s released. And I’m definitely eating at ‘Can We Pho’.”
“What, you trying to scare our readers?” I ask as they pose for the camera, arms crossed, faces “mean-mugging”. We laugh as they shed old pretenses. We move to their room where David dons a straw hat and they pose with shampoo bottles like Barker’s Beauties. Their smiles and laughter fill up the tiny space.
Read the finale of this series, “Youth, Interrupted” part III in the following issue of the IE, Feb. 2, 2011.
* To read the story about “Cutthroat”, view Part I in the Jan. 5, 2011 issue on-line here.
* David’s last name will be withheld to protect the identity of his younger brother, “Cutthroat”.
This series is sponsored by www.Seabeez.com and the City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods Matching Fund.