GANGS - Kids behind bars

'Once they leave here, they get back to it. I've seen very few kids leave a gang.'


An early morning meeting at the Walla Walla County Juvenile Justice Center brought together three of the facility's administrators to discuss local gangs, albeit with some hesitation.

"My fear is any time you put stuff out, these guys love it," explained Norrie Gregoire as he shifted in his seat.

However, it was attention focused on the Walla Walla gang problem in the 1990s that "built this building," recalled Mike Bates, director of the center on Rose Street.

Attention that is much needed again, this team believes.

Bates, Gregoire, who oversees detention, and Assistant Director George Weise see the results of criminal behaviors every day.

Gang members and other kids from ages 12-17 land in JJC after being arrested for things like stealing a car, serious assault, robbery and sex offenses. Even when a child has never been in trouble before, such crimes will get him or her lodged for the night and an appointment with a judge the next morning.

Depending on the level of the crime, past history and judicial decisions, a kid can end up spending 30 days per offense in detention, although the average stay is 11 days.

Those days are filled with complete structure, Gregoire said. From rising before 6 a.m. to lights out, detained youths will attend school and P.E. sessions, clean their cells and divide into appropriate help groups, including smoking cessation, mentoring, drug and alcohol counseling, yoga, chapel and planned parenthood education. Families can visit three times a week.

Youths who commit the most crimes go to other facilities in the state, based in cities such as Centralia, Connell and Snoqualmie.

"And not just the serious crimes," Gregoire said. "Sometimes we have a kid who's been on probation five or six times and it just hasn't worked. They need more structure, more intervention than we can provide locally."

Many of those children will lose the rest of their teen and young adult years to incarceration. From there, about a third of troubled teens will go on to adult crimes and incarceration, Weise said.

About 30 to 50 percent of the detention center's 18-person capacity may be gang affiliated at any one time. Inside the walls, however, any sign of gang allegiance is forbidden, Gregoire explained. "It's a one-pod detention unit, we can't segregate kids. We have a zero tolerance policy for any kind of gang expression."

It works, he added. "We have very few problems, for the most part. We have to room kids together ... They know we want every kid to be safe. And, really, the kids want that, too."

Even what he terms the "hard-core kids," Bates agreed. "But once they leave here, they get back to it. I've seen very few kids leave a gang."

Indeed, the "courting out" process is even more brutal than the "jumping in," he said, adding that those who have left that life behind are chronically harassed by their former peers. And, in a gang or not, the code remains the same -- "Don't rat on someone, don't rollover."

So far, youth officials say, there's no magic bullet for the gang problem here, a problem that is beginning ever earlier for children.

"You've got gang signs being thrown in first and second grade," Gregoire said. "In my mind, mom and dad need to be called in then."

Often, however, there is no father in the picture at all, he said, or dad is abusive. "The kids have seen mom get knocked around."

A child who has seen gang life as an example to live by is lost by "fourth, fifth, sixth grade," Gregoire added. "They're not in sports or band or getting good grades. We're losing them. And where are mom and dad in that? You can't put this all on the school."

Unfortunately, parents can become bit players in the drama of gang kids for a number of reasons. One, if a parent is in the United States illegally, he or she may be scared to ask for help with an out-of-control child, Bates said.

Two, there are those who can't see what's in front of their eyes, Gregoire said. "We can have surreal moments when parents say, 'My kid is not in a gang,' but the kid says, 'Yeah, I've been jumped in. I'm in.'"

It's not as obvious to outsiders as one might think, Bates pointed out. "You watch the kids and the way they dress, it's very subtle. One (gang) wears black with blue, the other is brown with blue. The average person wouldn't notice, but to another gang member, it's like a peacock."

Kids are getting better at staying under the radar, the three administrators said. But they still manage to show disrespect at JJC and juvenile court, through a lack of cooperation and "slouching" body language, Gregoire said.

It happens in the home, as well. "You have a gang house ... they might be good parents but the boy is calling all the shots," he said. "Age 15, 16, that's when the parents start calling us and asking for help."

It can get more complicated. Some families have kids in rival gangs, and some gang members are inheriting a legacy from mom and dad. "The more difficult situation for us are the multigenerational gang members," Gregoire said. "That's a big rock to push uphill."

Then there are the parents who "dummy up" when their child has been involved with a serious crime, turning uncooperative and retaining attorneys, Gregoire said. "They are so overwhelmed and freaked out."

Adults, in general, are losing ground in this battle, Weise believes. "It used to be adults could tell teens to take fights out of the public setting. That's changed."

The juvenile professionals understand the attraction of gangs for unanchored kids, especially those who have already had a brush with the law.

"Where do they fit in?" Bates asked. "They can't go to parties, they can't go hang out with the soccer or football team. There's no youth center except for three days a week."

Gang life offers an alternative -- and intoxicating -- mix of companionship, pleasure and identity, Gregoire said. "They go because that's where their needs are being met. Kids want to have worth, they want to belong, have a sense of self."

Yet there are some who would trade it all in if the clock could be reversed, he emphasized. "I hear kids in detention say, 'I'm really tired of this,' or they tell the judge, 'I want to change my life.' They are sincere at the time, but when they get out it's a different story."

While lodged at detention, many kids see the possibilities offered through structure, regular meals and bedtimes, educational support and exercise. Once they leave, only gang life offers rules and consequences.

"Kids crave that," Gregoire said. "Even though it's jail, it's a pro-social situation."

It helps explain the circle of gang life, Weise added. "It's repetition and recycling of these kids. We see them over and over."

At this point, Walla Walla youth officials are not armed with any gang-specific curriculum to present to kids in detention. The right program -- and the budget to fund it -- geared for parents could go a long way, Bates said.

Something that says gang life is not OK, then offers prescriptions for the symptoms, addressing addiction, education, counseling and employment, Gregoire said. "Something that says you sit down and eat the meal, we'll set the table for you."

Although there is no immediate panacea for the gang situation, that's not to say there are no answers, JJC staff said. Years of experience have shown that involved parents are, by far, the best medicine, they said.

"Kids want to be what they see," Gregoire said. "If (the family) is going to go to church, going for walks, going to do sports. Or, 'we're going to sit around and drink every day.'"

What youth experts are seeing is that homes with an emphasis on family and community involvement such as sports, music, drama and public service are not producing children who end up at JJC.

Help can come from other adults, as well.

"Think back," Bates advised. "All of us have someone in our lives that changed our lives."

If that kind of intervention can help a kid make better choices, the community wins, he said. "It's not rocket science. We, as a society, need to acknowledge it and head it off where we can."

There are courses of action Walla Walla can take as a whole. Make sure sports scholarships are available, support education for parents, volunteer for the youth-oriented organizations and events, encourage a child's faith, the group said.

The city does not want to become known as a place not suitable for raising families, Bates summarized. "It behooves this community to really not be complacent. Under the sidewalk, there's this dark side of Walla Walla. This community really needs to step up.


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