Through Their Eyes

A youth in OYA custody asks the staff at his facility about why they chose this line of work.

Above: Matthew Payne talks with a youth in the New Bridge High School woodshop.

By H.P., youth at Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to work in a youth correctional facility? Or what doors may open up for you through that experience? Well here is some information to answer those questions, and what it’s like to be a staff through their eyes.

Nyleah Gabrielli, Gizelle Perez, and Matthew Payne are all group life coordinators (GLCs) at Oregon Youth Authority’s Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility, but they have all been working here for different amounts of time.

I interviewed Gabrielli first, and I asked her why she chose to work here. She told me, “I chose to work here because it was something to do with my degree, and I wanted to test myself in environment with at-risk youth.” Gabrielli has a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in criminal justice.

Gabrielli has her eyes set on being a Department of Human Services (DHS) worker, so I asked her what other experience she had prior to working for OYA. She told me she’s never had any jobs that correlate with OYA, just some classes in college about juvenile delinquency and criminal justice, which shaped why she wanted to work with at-risk youth.

A young woman with brown hair smiling and wearing blue OYA t-shirt
Nyleah Gabrielli

Gabrielli has worked at Rogue Valley for about seven months now. I asked her what she likes about working here, and what is a challenge. She replied, “The thing that I like is getting to know so many youth, knowing their stories, no matter how sad they may be, and just being there to hear it all and build that rapport. A challenge is dealing with conflict if a youth doesn’t listen — how to further approach the situation, and appropriately address it.” Although she hasn’t been at Rogue Valley for long, I think she is a great staff member and would succeed as a DHS worker.

I interviewed Gizelle Perez next. She told me, “The staff and youth here have a good thing going on, and the job isn’t as overwhelming as I thought it would be. I was expecting to be coming into a facility with youth treating staff bad, fights all the time, and just the worst, to be honest. I feel lucky, I haven’t had to deal with any of that due to having a good team on the staff side and most youth just wanting to do their time and not be getting into trouble that results in doing more time than they have to.”

My mind was blown as I listened to all the things she was saying because I have been here for three years and some staff who have been here for 10+ years wouldn’t answer with that much depth and thoughtfulness. However, Perez has only worked at Rogue Valley for a little more than two months.

Above: Gizelle Perez works on a report during a shift at New Bridge High School.

She continued, “This job is corrections, but we don’t treat the youth in OYA like other corrections. Yes, there (are) actions for behaviors and fights, but I like that it is more (about) mentoring and helping the youth understand and not just having them be in trouble and treated like they’re in a correctional facility 24/7. Yes, youth are in here for things that have been done, but it’s also a place where they’re still able to develop skills, learning, and techniques to help them on the outs.”

Perez said she has hopes of being a probation officer. For now, she said this a temporary job as she’s getting an understanding of this line of work. That said, the last thing she told me was, “But you never know — I could end up just wanting to stay here permanently.”

Matthew Payne has worked here for longer than I have been alive. He’s worked here 25 years, to be exact. I was curious about how his answers might differ from the newer staff I interviewed. Payne told me, “If I could give one piece of advice to staff just starting, it would be, ‘Don’t be afraid to ask questions. There (are) always things you don’t know.’ An ignorant man would argue with you for correcting him. A wise man would thank you for the newfound knowledge. Don’t be afraid to be wrong or not know. We all have struggles but asking for help and working on it can make it a strength.”

Payne said he chose to work at OYA because he wanted to change lives. First, he did work with adult corrections in California. Then, he worked at Kirkland Institute, a residential treatment facility for children in eastern Oregon. From there, he got into OYA, and he came to Rogue Valley, where he still works all these years later.

Payne told me he has helped incarcerated youth by “building relations, and rapport. Since I have been a coach and a mentor, I know how to work with young men. Whether they listen or not, I still try to help. I always remember, ‘You can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.’ I try to give you all tools to be successful and I hope you use them.”

A man in a blue OYA t-shirt talks with a youth
Matthew Payne talks with a youth in the New Bridge High School woodshop.

After I completed my interviews, I began thinking about what they all had said. Understanding why people choose to work here is an eye opener. Oftentimes we assume the worst, that “they’re just here for a paycheck,” or “they don’t really care.” But honestly, that is never really the case. Staff have families to provide for, and lives to live. While working here, they receive so much criticism and scrutiny for what they do and without much recognition. But my conversations with these staff helped me to recognize how hard they try to make this place different from other correctional facilities.

Now you’ve heard about what it’s like to work here through their eyes. Don’t be afraid to wonder and find out what it will be like through yours.

About the author: H.P. is a 15-year-old who lives at Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility in Grants Pass. He graduated from high school this month and is working on his associate degree at Rogue Community College.

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