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“To the great Chief in the Sky…We are the Maple Lane nation, from many nations…,” begins Roy Wilson, Spiritual Leader of the Cowlitz tribe. We’re standing on the stage of the Maple Lane School, a medium/maximum security facility for incarcerated youth. Thirty odd adults and juvenile offenders, holding hands or touching fists, we give blessing for the meal we are about to receive. And for the youth in attendance, members of the API, Chicano, Native American and African American cultural groups, a special thanks for the break from their reality that the next four hours will provide.

Located in Centralia, Washington, Maple Lane looks like any other high school: old brick buildings, open grass fields and rusty basketball hoops. Only this one is surrounded by a twenty foot high barbed wire fence. Administered by the Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration (JRA), a division of the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), and a member of the Rochester School District, it houses some of the state’s most serious juvenile offenders.

According to DSHS, since 2005, Washington state has averaged 29,000 juvenile admissions to detention centers per year, approximately 2.8 – 3 percent of which identify as API. Of that 29,000, roughly 1000 of this population, the most serious offenders are committed to JRA facilities like Maple Lane, where that 2.8 – 3 percent API population holds true. Considering that Washington state is 7.5 percent API, APIs are underrepresented in the juvenile detention population.

The lone API currently incarcerated at Maple Lane, known on the outside as “Cutthroat,” is why I’m here. A fresh-faced sixteen year-old Vietnamese boy from South Seattle, roughly 5’6” with a wispy mustache, his appearance belies his nickname. He has been convicted on five counts of burglary and two firearms charges, now a year into his 2 1/2 – 3 year sentence. Including prior stays in detention, this past Christmas was his third away from home. Maybe his nickname is well-deserved.

“A lot of people think they’re all bad. I believe in the kids. There’s good in there, we just have to help them find that,” says Shelly Darnell, Maple Lane Counselor and Cultural Group Leader. “And when they’re given opportunities they really step up and do good things.” For the holidays, while earning only $1.20 an hour doing landscaping and working in the school kitchen, Cutthroat and other cultural group members sponsored a family in Olympia and a gift program for an orphanage in Mexico. They stopped giving only when Shelly told them to save some money for when they got out. “They remember what it was like when their families had nothing and they really wanted to help them.”

We’ve just watched the film “Freedom Writers”, based on the true story of a teacher who changed the lives of her inner city students. It’s difficult to not feel something surrounded by the very types of kids that the film is about; people of color, gang members, children of broken homes and poverty. Though troubled they’re still just kids, which makes it harder to hear of dreams to design video games or play in the NFL, contrasted with stories of foster care and being mindful to only shoot people in the foot to avoid life in prison.

I ask Cutthroat what he thought of the movie. He shrugs and tells me he’s seen it before. As the rest of the youth play cards, decorate cookies, and sing karaoke, our conversation continues much like this. His answers to my questions are both matter of fact and non-committal, often started with an “I dunno.” He has a tough exterior and I don’t know what lies beneath.

“We’re close,” he says of his mother. Regarding his step-father, “We talk here and there. I let him be to himself. I don’t get into his business or nothing.” As for the father he hasn’t seen in years, he is, “Somewhere.” He says his mother is sad he’s incarcerated, and I ask how that makes him feel. “Like I messed up,” he answers. Does he truly feel that way? “In some ways,” he answers.

On the difficulties he’ll face when he’s released: “Staying away from the same people, like my old friends. Old homies.” I ask if he wants to stay away from them. He hesitates and I prompt him to be honest. “Sorta. I might change. I might not. I don’t know what’s waiting for me when I get out. I might just wait and see how it goes.”

My heart sinks when I hear this. I realize that I wished for a redemptive story, a modern day Christmas Carol, yet I’m as uncertain of Cutthroat’s future as he is. I speak to some of the adults in attendance and their hopes help nourish mine.

“He’s in our challenge program working on his high school work and writing,” says Alvina Wong, Challenge Program Coordinator for Gateway for Incarcerated Youth, a non-profit based out of The Evergreen State College that works to empower these young men. “He’s very self-motivated in his work and takes advantage of all sorts of opportunity. He is definitely one of our brightest participants…is really trying to better himself in way he knows will be good for him and his family.”

It’s 4 p.m. and time for the kids to go back to their rooms. I get in my car, attach my audio recorder to my stereo and listen to Cutthroat’s voice as I drive the seventy-nine miles home. He’s not so different than I was at sixteen. Angry, confused, powerless, law-breaking. Except I grew up with both parents and a grandma that would set me straight if I messed up. I lived in the burbs and “get money” wasn’t as big a concern as it is for Cutthroat. I used to sell weed to buy textbooks — Cutthroat sold crack and slid bills into his mom’s purse. There is always personal choice, but we are also the products of where we come from and what we’ve been through.

There but for the grace of the Big Chief in the Sky go I…

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