Into the Light

MacLaren is not a dark place with nothing to offer, a youth at the facility writes — it’s a hub of opportunities for growth.

Story by T.W., youth at MacLaren

MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility. MacLaren is a place where, from the outside looking in, one might say things like, “Oh that is just a place where they send criminals who can’t get their act together and need to follow the guidelines the government has set in place. You don’t want to go there.”

Despite whatever truth that uninformed point of view may have, it does not even begin to uncover the truth of what is “hidden” behind these walls. I use the term “hidden” loosely, as some of the youth at MacLaren often express feelings of being “out of sight, out of mind.” I can concur as I have experienced those feelings on more than one occasion. Over seven years, I have met hundreds of youth who were able to use the consequences of their juvenile behavior as an opportunity to step back, reset, and realize their potential.

MacLaren is a hub of opportunities for self-improvement and personal growth. MacLaren offers many educational and vocational programs, starting with high school. A high school diploma or GED is a requirement to explore the rest of many opportunities for higher learning and vocational training. Throughout this article, I will be taking you on a journey through the stories of a few young men, including myself, who have used higher learning opportunities as a way to positively impact the lives of themselves and others, while creating opportunities for themselves to be successful once released. 

I think this system is important because it gives the younger generation of youth that are coming into MacLaren a chance to learn more about what the facility has to offer before committing to something just because it sounds cool (which I have seen backfire many times). It also gives them an opportunity to figure out what they really like and what they want to do and/or be in their life. It is also teaching that if you want to reach a goal, you must begin to work on and build for it. Nothing good or sustainable comes from rushed results.

I have seen some men who were labeled “criminals” strap in to earn associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees, barber certificates, food handler’s certifications, and welding certifications, just to name a few. Those same guys who could “not get their act together and follow guidelines” are accomplishing things in this facility that some people don’t accomplish in their entire lives. 

When you look at who some of these young men were when they began their journey in MacLaren to who they are one, three, or even five-plus years into their stay, you will almost certainly find that their current state is not indicative of what you would expect in a correctional facility.

One youth who exemplifies the transformation I’m describing is K.W. I recently sat down to talk with him about his journey at MacLaren, and I asked him, “What was the biggest thing that changed for you in order to get away from the behaviors that were unhealthy?”

“It started with changing the way I think,” he said. “When I got to a point where I was able to not talk and just listen, I was able to be way more successful.” 

That last statement is one that we are fully in agreement on. You can only learn when you listen, and that is a lot easier said than done.

K.W. has been a strong mentor and a constant role model for the young people coming into OYA. He has participated in multiple juvenile justice committees and continues to be a strong advocate for himself and other young men. K.W. is also a college student, currently working on obtaining his associate degree. 

K.W. works in the college lab on a recent Friday afternoon.

Another young man here who has gone through a transformation is A.P. He recently earned his barbering license at MacLaren’s Blended Barber College. The program has helped many young people to become certified as barbers, and A.P. is proud to be able to add his name to that list.

A.P. has also been involved with restorative justice efforts around MacLaren and has made a deliberate effort to affect change positively in the MacLaren community. I have known him since he was 17 years old, and I can honestly say I did not expect him to become the man he is today until he did. I am a person who makes a concerted effort not to judge a book by its cover. A.P. showed me that you should give people a chance to show you what they can do before you put them in a “box”.

A.P. is also a Certified Recovery Mentor (CRM), which is someone who supports people with drug and/or alcohol addiction through their recovery and helps prevent them from relapsing. A.P. says that his goal is to “learn as many skills as I can that I can take with me when I transition out that I can use to make money. … I want to help people, too, but I can’t help no one else if I can’t help myself.”

The Blended Barber Shop at MacLaren provides training for youth to earn their barbering license.

I think the drive and motivation necessary to want to help your community — along with the understanding that you have to get yourself right first — takes many years for most people to develop. The atmosphere that exists inside the MacLaren fence is one that gives young men the chance to develop those skills and that awareness at very early stages in their lives.

The last person that I decided to talk with is a young man named K.C. He is one of the newer young men on campus (he’s only been here about a year). Unlike A.P. and K.W., he was sentenced under Senate Bill 1008 (SB 1008). Essentially, this means that K.C. has more chances for release from MacLaren if he can show that he has been rehabilitated. K.W. and A.P., on the other hand, were both sentenced under Measure 11. This means they were charged as adults and must serve their entire mandatory sentence, regardless of maturation and growth (unless they are granted clemency by the governor or some other post-conviction relief).

K.C. is still in high school but has shown a propensity for hard work, learning, and restorative justice. Although he has only been here for a short time, he has thrown himself into every opportunity he has been provided to learn and grow as a young man. He is already part of multiple committees that work together to figure out ways to improve the juvenile justice system. The committees also come up with ideas for restorative justice opportunities. 

When I asked what made him want to be so involved, he responded, “When I go home, I don’t want to be the same person. I want to learn as much as I can so that I can be better and help others do the same. I don’t want to get out, go right back to the streets, and be doing the same things that got me here. That will only get me right back in jail, just a worse one.”

K.C. said that one important way staff can support these kinds of positive changes in youth is by approaching each case individually.

“Most people my age that are here don’t think or approach life the same way I do,” he said. “If you attempt to design everybody’s program the same instead of individualizing treatment for best fit, it will never be as effective. I know it would probably make the jobs of a lot of people harder, but the goal is to get us out and keep us out, not cutting corners for an easy check. I mean, we all know the saying, ‘What works for me may not work for you.’”

I am a firm believer that the earlier you address things and the earlier you learn something, the better. Yes, the young people at MacLaren did make decisions as children that were outside of the law. However, we are proving that the ill-advised decisions we made as children do not determine who we are as a person.

Earning a college degree or even a barber license is not a simple task by any metric. It takes a lot of hard work and dedication. I am currently working toward earning two associate degrees through Chemeketa Community College. It has been a long and steady grind with more than a few bumps in the road. COVID-19 slowed my progress toward that goal tremendously but, with perseverance, I stayed on the path and am within arm’s reach of the goal. 

T.W., author of this story, works in the college lab.

My experience has been that you are able to be as successful as you want to be while at MacLaren. There will be obstacles along your journey, but that is the beauty of going on a journey. Sometimes you plan a path and sometimes you don’t, but no matter what, there are always unexpected obstacles along the way. I think that is one of the best parts of life in general, to be honest. It is totally unpredictable and there is a beauty behind the madness.

There are so many stereotypes and misconceptions that we must deal with when living in a situation like the one we are in. We’re first tasked with finding out the type of person we are, and the type of person we want to be. Then, we have to determine a way and apply a strategy to become that person. I have witnessed some of the “kids” I have been housed with become impressive young men. I think the ability to be successful through all the aforementioned obstacles, along with having to manage life inside this fence, is a sign of resilience and commitment to self-betterment. These are traits that I believe to be integral to success in any environment. 

So, contrary to popular belief, the atmosphere behind the MacLaren fence is one that breeds success, and not one that continues to promote negative behaviors. I can see both points of view as someone who lives in this environment, because I have seen young men who were fully open to change and others whose trauma was too much for them to overcome.

I go back to what K.C. said about catering treatment to each young person’s specific needs. Anybody can change with the right support. We just need to continue to give each other opportunities to show who we are and who we can be, not continue to put each other down just because we made decisions others do not approve of. Nelson Mandela once said, “The greatest Glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” We should not be judged by our mistakes, but by the way we bounce back from our failures. I can speak from experience and say that my sentence saved my life. I have been able to really take this time to learn skills and grow into a man who I do not think I would be otherwise.

T.W. is a 23-year-old who has been living in MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in Woodburn for the past five years. He is currently enrolled in his last term at Chemeketa Community College and on track to earn two associate degrees.

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