Read the Complete “Youth Interrupted” Series

As I pull away from a friend’s house in South Seattle, I realize that one of the homes on this block is where “Cutthroat” and “David”* grew up. Which one is it? Where was David when a rival broke in and held a gun to his head? Which window looks into the bedroom where Cutthroat was arrested in bed? My mind wanders to the next young man I’d be interviewing later that day.

Justin Trent is a former resident of Maple Lane School, a maximum security juvenile detention center in Centralia, Washington, and Naselle Youth Camp, a minimum security juvenile detention center, in Naselle, Washington. Twenty years-old, with mixed White, Black and Filipino ancestry, he is good-looking and confident. He grew up in Bothell, Washington, only a few blocks from where I did. We both attended Juanita High, and now, on the “outs”, or outside of detention, he’s a freshman at my alma mater, Evergreen State College. It turns out we even had the exact same freshman dorm room. But while I spent my late teens finishing high school and starting college, Trent spent it locked up on charges of domestic violence and assaulting an officer, stemming from a fight with his brother and the fallout when police arrived. What I want to know is, how did someone who started and ended in the same place as me veer so far off the course?

Trent’s story mirrors those of other delinquent youths. His father was not around and his mother recently overcame a drug addiction. And despite living in the suburbs, poverty was no stranger.

“I grew up in a house that I did not want to be in, and that’s why I turned to trouble,” he explains matter-of-factly. Trent thought to himself: “’Man I don’t want to go home because we don’t have heat. My mom and my little brothers are struggling. They’re in the house with blankets drinking the last soda, eating the last top ramen.’ You don’t want to go home and see your family struggle like that. Ever.”

Beyond the external factors that helped shape Trent’s delinquency, there is a key internal one. While in juvenile detention, Trent was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which causes unusual shifts in mood and energy. His thoughts would race, he lacked self-control and suffered from delusions of grandeur. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, this disorder often manifests itself around age fifteen, the age Trent started getting into trouble.

Sitting in the home of his grandmother, Jane Rose, the two of them relay a particularly manic episode from when Trent was a teenager. One night Trent hopped a barbed wire fence into a car dealership, broke into the office and stuffed his pockets with car keys. In the lot, he ran into the manager, calmly engaged him in casual conversation and eluded suspicion. Once out of the manger’s sight, he wandered around “beeping” the cars with the keys until he found one he liked. He hopped into a Mercedes and tore down the road. He didn’t know how to drive. Later that night he shoplifted while wearing a sweatshirt he’d stolen earlier. Authorities apprehended him by store security and the cops were finally called. Meanwhile, the stolen car sat in the parking lot, a little dog in the backseat, picked up at some point during his manic night.

When Rose told Trent they had his fingerprints, he said they didn’t have his “new ones.” “We finally had to acknowledge, yup, the boy is sick, he needs help,” Rose says.

In detention, Trent found the help he needed. Doctors prescribed medication to regulate his disorder and he joined cultural groups at Maple Lane School, where Patrick Otto (introduced in Part II of this series), taught him the haka dance (which he proudly performs for me on the spot). He got involved with Gateways for Incarcerated Youth, a program run by the Evergreen State College that works to rehabilitate juvenile offenders. While involved in Gateways, Trent enrolled in classes for college credits. As with Cutthroat (introduced in Part I), Gateways taught Trent self-empowerment, cultural identification, and the power of an education.

“I was at an all-time low,” says Trent. “Sometimes I was thinking suicidal thoughts. I was thinking I just want to end this. I don’t want to look at these brick walls. I don’t want to do another push up, shed another tear. Definitely give it up to the state workers. If you’re there to change, they’re going to help you change. They helped me stick through it.”

On the day Trent was released after four years of incarceration, he was driven straight to the Evergreen campus to begin his new life as a college student. He is now involved in the Black Student Union and will try out for the basketball team next season, reclaiming something lost long ago. He can’t say enough about his professors, the friends he’s made, and the simple pleasure of wearing his own clothes and shoes.

“I freaked out, I was so happy,” Trent says, awed by how far he’s come.

I wrote this series during the holidays. Just before Christmas, I wondered how the other subject of this series, “Cutthroat”, would turn out, as some had wondered of me. On Christmas day, I heard of how Patrick Otto and “David” (from part II) were reconnecting with their heritage, something I am now experiencing. And on New Year’s Day I met Justin Trent: from where I am from, going to where I have been. Thanks to this week, my hopes for the New Year extend beyond myself. My greatest hope is that as these kids navigate their journeys and become the men I know they can be.

“Wow, this is life. This is a beautiful life,” says Trent.

Read the Complete “Youth Interrupted” Series

This series is sponsored by and the City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods Matching Fund.

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