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Youth institutionalized: the view from inside

HAVING lived within Oregon's juvenile system for several years, I believe juvenile institutions in many ways just lead to more permanent incarceration. Juveniles who break the law become adults who cost society so much in crime and funding of state institutions. Low-risk offenders should be segregated from already hardened criminals. More family settings are needed for troubled youths. This may be costly to taxpayers, but it will come back a hundredfold. Use of money to deter youth from a criminal career is far preferable to spending millions to support our present-day institutional crime schools. Youths who are abused, neglected, or have trouble with the law are frequently placed in underfinanced group homes or overcrowded detention centers. The many problems that afflict institutionalized youth across America lurk inside.

In the last five of my 19 years I've resided in group homes, shelter homes, foster homes, different ``cottages'' at MacLaren State School, and juvenile detention facilities. Because of the experience of my lengthy incarcerations as a juvenile, I have followed the pattern into adulthood and am now in Oregon State Correctional Institution, a prison. I hope to shed light on these problems, so troubled youth can get help instead of depression and despair. I don't wish to excuse the behavior that got me here, but the state's way of dealing with me simply increased my confusion and negative attitudes. Many incarcerated youth will needlessly face the same destiny if the juvenile system is not changed. The Oregon system is among the better ones in the country, so young people in many other states face worse prospects.

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VIOLENCE is common in juvenile institutions. Weak youths are used as scapegoats by the stronger to release hostilities and frustrations with hitting, kicking, and shoving. The weak quickly learn that their peers will visit sure retribution on them for ``snitching'' to the staff. Those abused by the group often turn to solitude and won't make it in the program: They run away or are sent elsewhere until they can defend themselves.

Authorities are also responsible for abuse. A juvenile detention ``home'' (JDH) is a maximum security facility for youths out of control or awaiting a court hearing. Police, the usual escorts to a JDH, often treat a frightened or violent juvenile as a hardened criminal, when what he really needs is time to calm down. Police can shackle arms and legs in dangerous ways and fling verbal abuse to cause enduring resentment and rebelliousness.

On arrival at a JDH, the youth is strip-searched. ``Run your fingers through your hair,'' the intaker orders. ``Lift your feet, turn around, raise your arms, bend over.'' This kind of emotional brutality, even if necessary for security, leaves its mark on a child.

AT least half of the teen-agers I've known in institutions claim to have attempted suicide.

Juveniles who are institutionalized usually have an unstable background. This - along with their being torn away from friends - may thrust them into depression. They feel lost, as though in a maze, and see no solution. They lash out, only to get into deeper trouble, such as a solitary confinement.

Accumulated turmoil added to guilt feelings create unbearable stress most easily solved by ending a seemingly hopeless life.

DRUGS and alcohol are severe problems in state institutions.

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Teen-agers desperately seek acceptance; youths with drugs always seem to have friends. Shortly, the teen-ager becomes addicted, and all of their energy goes into obtaining drugs rather than learning to function positively in life. Few of the state treatment centers concentrate on this issue, and the private drug and alcohol centers are very expensive.

MOST group home staff try to help adolescents having problems in the community. It is tragic, though, that group homes are also used to store youths who have no place to live, because they're deserted, abused, or have problems with their family. Foster homes are more appropriate for such youths, who all too often learn criminal behavior in group homes.

In Oregon, the MacLaren State School is the last resort for boys in trouble. Its grounds are called a ``campus'' and its living quarters ``cottages.'' These terms should fool no one - it is just locked storage of troubled boys. Yet mostly they need help putting their lives together. Many wouldn't need to go to MacLaren if they were given the right counseling before things got out of hand. Or, maybe fewer would be returned if they received the right help while there. But until the importance of all of this country's youths is realized, the troubled ones will not get the help they need.

Lockups such as at MacLaren are needed for violent offenders, but are crime schools for others. Murderers, armed robbers, and arsonists are intermingled with shoplifters, joy-riders, and the emotionally disturbed, who often learn crime techniques from the experienced criminals. Juvenile lockups thus waste taxpayer money because they teach juveniles how to spend their lives in prison. This costs the community much more than it would to hire the best educated counselors and guards.

THE states need to recruit and maintain more foster homes and provide more individual counseling. Each troubled youth should have the care he needs for his problems. Most group homes are neither staffed nor equipped to deal with the many needs of individuals. More drug and alcohol facilities are needed.

I hope that society will come to see that more effort now will save money later and accordingly provide more community help. State agencies are overflowing with teen-agers but have too few foster families or funds to provide proper foster care. If you have love in your heart and an extra room in your home, you can help: contact your local Children's Services Division office.

John Trappe is a 19-year-old inmate at the Oregon State Correctional Institution and a freshman in the Chemeketa Community College program.

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