Paranoia & Heartbreak: Fifteen Years in a Juvenile Facility

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Paranoia & Heartbreak: Fifteen Years in a Juvenile Facility
Jerome Gold
Seven Stories Press
344 pages..

People often ask novelist and poet Jerome Gold, a publisher with his own literary press and a doctorate in anthropology, why he spent 15 years as a rehabilitation counselor in a juvenile prison.

“Because I want to know about people!” Gold replies in a heartbeat. Yet despite a lengthy commute from Seattle to remote Ash Meadow. Gold never moved closer to the facility because he didn’t intend to stay.

In this memoir, which excerpts his personal journal between 1991 and 2006 – changing names (including the facility’s) and disguising identities, Gold explores his motives and experience at Ash Meadow in vivid detail.

Built in the 1960s for at-risk youth, Ash Meadow looks like a summer camp. Its early residents went camping and skiing, but by the late ’80s, the rise of gangs and crack brought more convictions for felonies and less freedom at Ash Meadow for those who committed them. When Gold arrives in 1991, Ash Meadow is one of five Washington state facilities for juveniles convicted of crimes including assault, robbery, drug-dealing, rape and murder.

Introducing this seemingly idyllic retreat, Gold names its many trees and animals, from birds to bears. Some of its 13 cottages named for animals are designated for sex offenders and drug-and-alcohol addicts. Some cottages are coed. The campus also contains a school, gym, health center, administration and isolation buildings, and playing fields.

Gold begins on-the-job training as an “intermittent” moving from one cottage to another. His young charges include the facility’s first crack baby, now 13. It takes more than two years for him to receive a full-time assignment to Swan Cottage, where he counsels a caseload of as many as five boys; writes reports and treatment plans; runs special groups; supervises residents’ chores, meals and leisure; and aids fellow staff in handling crises when residents “go off” in rages, gang scuffles or suicide attempts.

Increasingly engaged with his young charges, Gold works with a group for male survivors of sexual abuse. He runs an Alternatives to Violence group, showing films and recommending books that offer new perspectives. He encourages members to craft plans to alter their behavior.

Gaining a reputation for being understanding, Gold becomes deeply attached to certain youths, including 14-year-old burglar Tommy, who only commits crimes when he’s doing drugs. Torn between his old self and the new person he wants to become, Tommy wants help with his addictions. Tommy’s parole lasts only two months before he’s back with a parole violation and is transferred to another institution.

Others take Tommy’s place. Does Gold’s counsel make a difference? All too often, the news is tragic. Gold’s journal demonstrates how exhausting it is to care for his “little soldiers.”

Every so often, Gold gets flashes of insight as to why he stays at Ash Meadow. His experience in the U.S. Army Special Forces during the war in Vietnam helps Gold understand gang members in environments where anyone might kill you – except your own “homies.” Ash Meadow urges these kids “to separate themselves from the only people who will help them stay alive,” Gold writes, tormented by the knowledge that he sends the youths back to that world.

Emerging from Ash Meadow for weekends at home is “like returning to the United States from Vietnam,” says Gold. Everyone has an opinion, but no one who hasn’t been there knows what it’s like.

One of the book’s themes is the classic disconnect between administrators and hands-on counselors. Such cluelessness – embodied in the superintendent who has no idea that maximum-security residents wear orange jumpsuits – leaves Gold with no desire to advance.

He wearies of staff members who don’t pull their own weight, leaving fellow counselors in dangerous situations with violent kids and no backup. Just when Gold is at his wit’s end with a supervisor who won’t correct a weak counselor, the manager of Whale Cottage for girls invites him to join her staff.

Incarcerated girls present new challenges, as does the staff at Whale. One female counselor sabotages Gold’s paperwork, takes credit for his achievements, and complains about him to the new manager. A trumped-up reprimand for alleged misconduct results in Gold’s transfer to the staff of maximum-security Wolf Cottage.

Gold channels his frustration into efforts to help 13-year-old Norah, whom he yearns to adopt. Norah was convicted of attempted murder for attacking her foster parents’ daughter, who had persecuted Norah for years. If her behavior is acceptable, Norah can leave maximum security after the standard 45 days. After making Norah – whose behavior has been flawless – wait two extra weeks, the administration announces that she must spend another five or six months in Wolf because of the severity of her crime. Such a long spell in maximum security is unprecedented.

Regarding his deep connection to youths such as Tommy and Norah, Gold realizes, “So this is why I’m here: to try to fix kids’ despair.” Does he always fail, or does he sometimes succeed without knowing?

Gold never loses his outrage at Ash Meadow’s handling of Norah’s case. She successfully completes her parole in September 2005 and moves out of state. Five months later, Gold leaves Ash Meadow. His book ends: “I had stayed years too long.”

Written in hindsight, Gold’s introduction assesses Ash Meadow: The middle-class staff members expect the kids to “learn to be like us, share our values, get respectable jobs, and avoid illegal drugs.” Those who don’t are expected to spend most of their lives in prison or die on the street.

“What we did best,” Gold concludes, “was simply to remove these kids from their environment and put them in a place where they had a chance to grow up without someone trying to kill them.”

Counselors who work with similar populations won’t be the only ones with whom his insights resonate. Revealing the gaps and connections between adult helpers and youth who need help, this memoir challenges all of us to ponder how our streets and juvenile facilities could offer more healing than harm. (800) 596-7437, www.sevenstories.com.