The general public doesn’t often see the inside of juvenile detention facilities or hear from youth who are sent there to serve time for their crimes. Because they’re minors, their court paperwork is kept confidential, and those younger than 18 are not permitted to be interviewed. It’s to protect them and recognize the fact that, as minors, they are legally not their own guardians.
Three young men at Mountain View Youth Development Center in Charleston, however, who are able to be interviewed because they are 18, wanted to talk about their past and what they are doing to overcome it. Not one tried to deny their crimes or cast blame elsewhere. Each expressed how much they had grown and how much more they have to learn. Many people would not own up to lesser things.
But can people change? “All of it depends on the person. You’re not going to change if you don’t want to,” said Garrett Brown, 18, of Augusta, who said if he wasn’t in the facility he might be dead. That was the likely trajectory of his life, based on his previous choices and addictions to drugs and alcohol. The drugs aren’t an excuse for what he did, he said, but they are part of the story.
I interviewed him at Dexter Regional High School after he and nine others from the facility completed the third annual Amy, Coty, Monica Memorial 5K Race/Walk to End Domestic Violence on June 23.
Those who show good behavior over a set period of time are allowed to participate in events and community service off grounds. Learning accountability is part of their rehabilitation process and preparation for life after Charleston. It’s also part of what’s called restorative justice, where those who have committed crimes work to repair the harm they caused and, in the process, build empathy.
For Brown, the day in memory of Amy Bagley Lake and her two children, who were killed in Dexter in 2011 by Lake’s estranged husband, held particular meaning.
“I could have caused one of these days,” Brown said.
More than a year ago, when he was 17 and drunk, he tried to pick a fight with his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend, he said. When the two tried to flee the property in Augusta, he aimed his pistol and shot out the back window of their vehicle. No one was physically injured.
“Stupid is the only word,” he said.
When he’s released from the facility, will he stay out of trouble? He’s doing everything he can to prepare. While at Charleston, he took workplace safety training, got his construction certification, took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test on which he scored a 96 out of 100, and took the SAT for a second time, improving his score. He works in the facility’s kitchen six hours per day and has taken a host of classes.
He also has a plan: He will be studying at Penobscot Jobs Corps in Bangor when he’s released. And he’s one of the few people at the facility to request a community reintegration specialist to maintain regular contact with him after he leaves, said Anne Miller, a juvenile program worker at Mountain View.
“Just because you make bad decisions doesn’t mean you’re a bad person,” Brown said. Some people don’t believe in giving others another chance or in trying to educate or rehabilitate those who have committed crimes. But, “if you don’t prepare them for when they get out, you’re just hurting the community even more.”
Part of that preparation is seeing the other side of tragedy — the victim’s side, the community and grieving process, said Miller: “We’re trying to educate and rehabilitate, give them the skills they need to pursue their goals without re-offending.”
Matt Gagne, 18, of Caribou, has spent 18 months in the facility for assault. He’ll be released soon. A year and a half ago, he said, he thought he would just keep drinking. Now, he has work planned for when he gets out, and he’s been accepted to Northern Maine Community College for welding and metal fabrication. After doing community service and taking classes at Mountain View, he not only has a resume, he said, but something to put on it.
“I finally got school set up, a new job, so I’m pretty much starting my life over on a clean slate,” he said. “I never thought I’d go to college.”
Is he worried about how people will view him when he goes home? “I really don’t care what people think of me now. I used to. If people don’t accept me, they don’t accept me.” All that matters, he said, is that he’s trying to improve himself.
John Richards, 18, of Canaan, said he was scared when he was first committed about six months ago for stealing a vehicle, but since then he’s had “a lot of opportunities to change my life around.” Through Mountain View, he’s earning his GED and volunteers at a nearby food cupboard. He’s learning carpentry skills in a workshop program and so far has built a cribbage board and cabinet doors.
Participating in the 5K caused him to reflect on how one person can change an entire community, he said. Either for good or bad.
The people who walked or ran were present to build something positive and help prevent another tragedy. Each person at the event mattered, Richards said.
“If everyone had their mindset that ‘it’s just one person, why should I go?’ it would have been a lot less people who came,” he said. “ I just know it’s a good cause, and we came for a good thing.”
The three young men struck a balance between recognizing their crimes and appreciating that they are changing their lives. The challenge will be in maintaining momentum.