Struggling to stay free

| published in Real Change on Mar. 27th, 2013
Heather Dew Oaksen

Local filmmaker Heather Dew Oaksen wondered what happens when young men leave juvenile prison. She spent 18 years finding out


Like this? Share it!




Matt never imagined he’d be the subject of a documentary, but then again, he never thought he’d get arrested.

The arrest took place in 1995. Back then, Matt, who asked that his last name not be used, committed robberies once or twice a week to support his alcohol and crack cocaine addiction. He never got caught.

One night during a drug deal in Redmond, Matt got in the backseat of a car with two men. One man handed Matt the dope, but instead of paying the man, Matt, who had been drinking, pulled out a .357. He pistol-whipped the man.

After getting in his own car, Matt proceeded to drive away. But the pistol-whipped man pursued Matt in a second car. The man’s girlfriend sat in the passenger seat.

During the chase, Matt maneuvered behind the pistol-whipped man’s hatchback. Matt fired the .357. Then he drove away. Matt returned moments later to the scene of the shooting, and the place was swarming with police. When the officers realized he was the suspect, “the cops all had this look of disbelief on their faces,” Matt remembered.

Matt hadn’t known it, but the bullet had struck the man’s girlfriend in the leg. The police arrested Matt.

He was 17.

The arrest led to three charges: second-degree assault, second-degree assault with a handgun, and display and possession of a handgun. Prosecutors wanted to try him as an adult, but because Matt was technically a minor, his lawyer was able to convince the court Matt should be tried as a juvenile. He pleaded guilty to the charges and was sentenced to a correctional facility until he turned 21.

“A juvenile life sentence,” Matt, now 36, said.

The court sent Matt to Green Hill School, then a maximum-security juvenile facility outside Chehalis. Operated by the Department of Social and Health Services, it housed close to 300 young men serving out their sentences. After Matt finished his GED there, he had a lot of downtime, so he took a class in screen printing. Someone at the facility asked if he wanted to participate in a video tech class. Matt said sure.

Filmmaker Heather Dew Oaksen taught video tech. Oaksen, then a professor at Cornish College of the Arts, wound up teaching at Green Hill because of another incident with a gun.

In March 1994, a year before Matt brandished his .357, a 16-year-old female student was killed by a stray bullet in a drive-by shooting outside Ballard High School.

“And the drug wars spilled over into the middle class,” Oaksen said recently.

The young girl’s murder troubled Oaksen and caused her to ponder how she could use art to improve the lives of young people. An answer came through a series of personal connections, when in 1995 she was offered the chance to teach at Green Hill.

At the facility, Oaksen overheard young men talk about their lives. When Green Hill’s superintendent discovered a S-VHS editing console in a closet, he gave her permission to create a film if she would teach video production to her students. Oaksen decided to make a documentary about some of the young men and to track their lives when they left Green Hill.

Oaksen filmed them sharing their stories. She marveled at how, even though their experiences differed from those of her then 16-year-old son, the students reminded her of own child. As the years went by, she generated hundreds of hours of footage of some of the young men. One of them was Matt.

Oaksen told him she planned to stay in touch once he left because she intended to turn the footage into a film. Matt didn’t expect anything to come of the project, but Heather reached out to him several times each year. “And the next thing you know,” Matt said, “18 years go by.”

Now, Matt’s story, along with those of four other young men who were at Green Hill, forms the narrative spine of “Minor Differences.” A low-budget documentary, it chronicles five troubled boys who attempt to change the course of their lives as they venture into adulthood. The Rainier Valley Cultural Center will present a screening Sat., April 6 at 3 p.m.

Oaksen, now 63, chose the title “Minor Differences” because she realized that one small event could alter the course of a child’s life.

“Once you got off the track, and you got into the system, you have a hell of time getting out of it,” she said.

She said in the early days of filming, she focused on as many as 15 young men. But she knew viewers would have a hard time following that many characters, so as the film evolved, she winnowed it down to five.

“I stuck with the ones that stuck with me,” she said.

But the film’s subjects didn’t just stick with Oaksen. Sometimes they stuck to one another, with one’s story mirroring the next. On some level, this may explain the friendship that developed between Matt, the former armed robber from the Eastside, and another former robber from the Central District, a young man named Joe.


Life in ‘juvie’

By the time Joe was 13, he was selling drugs, learning the street life from men who were 18, 19, 20. But he didn’t have much patience for standing on street corners, so Joe, who doesn’t want his last name used, decided to strong arm people for cash.

One day in 1994, while Joe was hanging out with some older guys, they decided to make money by stealing cash from someone at an ATM. One of Joe’s buddies had a gun. Joe told the man at the ATM to withdraw the cash — “something like $40 or $50,” Joe remembered — and then told him to get in his car. Not long after Joe was arrested. He was 16.

Joe was charged with first-degree robbery. He also received a charge of first-degree kidnapping, for making the victim leave the ATM and get into his car. (In Washington state, to intentionally or forcibly move another person without that person’s consent is considered kidnapping.)

Much the same as Matt, Joe faced the possibility of being tried as an adult. And much like Matt, Joe’s legal counsel argued that Joe, 16 years old, should be tried as a juvenile.

“When you start having hearings about what system you deserve to be in,” Joe said, “you realize it’s serious.”

In the end the court decreed Joe a juvenile. He was found guilty of both charges and, like Matt, given a juvenile life sentence. He was sent to Green Hill.

Joe thought the conviction would lead to the end of his criminal career. At Green Hill, he enrolled in a cosmetology program and received a certificate. He met other young men, including Matt, whose life stories surprised Joe.

After all, Joe thought that only young black men like him went to jail. But when he talked to Matt, who is white, and other men, he learned that people of different races can still suffer similar trials and tribulations.

“It was a whole new understanding,” Joe, now 35, said.

He received another form of education in the video tech class, the same one Matt took with Oaksen. There, while being filmed, he had an opportunity to reflect on his life, which he’d never done before.

“It was a blessing in disguise,” he said.

But he still didn’t like being at Green Hill. Fortunately, he was involved in a job corps program, which allowed him to leave the facility several days a week to participate in work release in Olympia.

While out on work release, Joe met a woman. Soon after, she became pregnant. The pressure of knowing that he’d soon become a father while being held at Green Hill wore on him. He wanted to leave.

“And one day I went to work and didn’t come back,” Joe said.

Now he was an escapee.


The getaway

Joe travelled from Olympia to Seattle to be with his pregnant girlfriend. But he was young and his affections were fickle, and within a couple months, he met another woman. Joe decided he wanted to be with this new woman, and they planned to move to Tennessee.

So Joe boarded a Greyhound to Olympia, where he’d escaped from work release, and he was set to meet his new girlfriend at the station. Then they’d head out east.

When the bus pulled into the Olympia station, the driver told passengers that due to mechanical problems everyone had to get off the bus. That seemed strange to Joe: Couldn’t someone do repairs while people stayed in their seats? Other passengers agreed and complained to the driver.

The driver stepped off the bus, came back moments later and, for a brief moment, locked eyes with Joe. Then the driver repeated his directive: Everyone needs to get off the bus. Passengers filed down the aisle. Everyone but Joe. “I tried to leave through the window,” he said.

Outside the cops were waiting for him. Some held back police dogs. Above him he heard the whirr of a helicopter. Officers drew their guns. Due to his first-degree robbery and first-degree kidnapping charges, the police viewed Joe as a violent escapee. “And they took me back to Green Hill,” Joe said.

Joe was 19 by this time, so his escape led to an adult charge of willful failure to return. That meant after he served his juvenile sentence, he’d have to serve time in an adult facility. To ensure he didn’t escape again, Green Hill authorities placed him on escape status: For nine months, Joe stayed in his cell 23 hours a day. It stopped his work on the film with Oaksen and ended his interactions with other young men like Matt.

Matt, meanwhile, continued on with the video tech class. Deemed a good resident during his first 22 months, Green Hill offered him the opportunity to participate in a job corps program similar to Joe’s, this one in Moses Lake. The freedom tempted him. And just like Joe, one day, while at work, Matt slipped away.

“And I was on the run,” he said.


Catch and release

First stop, Alaska, where Matt worked in canneries in Petersburg, Ketchikan and Sitka. He lived in a tent by a river. Next stop, Portland, where he landed in the ER after smoking too much crack.

After that, he ventured south to Sacramento, where he boarded a light rail thinking he could pay the fare on the train. A fare supervisor stopped him and radioed police. Six cops met Matt on the platform and, when they searched him, discovered a knife. They took him to jail. “I thought it was over with,” he said.

Matt admitted he’d escaped from Green Hill, but the police computer system only turned up his juvenile convictions. It didn’t list an arrest warrant. Matt made his bond, completed a counseling course, and the case was dismissed. He went to Reno, where he worked as a screen printer, using a skill he’d picked up at Green Hill.

One day Matt contacted his mother, and she told him that Green Hill officials had mailed him a letter: If he turned himself in, authorities wouldn’t pursue adult charges for his escape. He talked to his lawyer, who told him it was a good deal. After being on the lam for 14 months, Matt returned.

“It was the one and only time I beat the system,” he said.

By the time Matt returned, he had seven months left to his sentence. Joe had completed his nine months of lockdown. Now all they had to do was continue with the video tech class — and wait for their release.

Matt’s release came first in 1998, the day he turned 21. With few job skills, he had a hard time supporting himself. Again, he headed to Reno, where, after an incident in 2001, he pleaded guilty to a domestic violence charge. The house where he’d been found contained more than 20 firearms, so Matt agreed to leave Reno and the guns behind. But in 2003 one of the guns was found in Bothell. Federal authorities traced it to Matt.

He was indicted on a felony weapons possessions charge. That led to prison time in Sheridan, Ore., where, due to disciplinary issues, Matt was shipped to a maximum security penitentiary in Beaumont, Texas. He was released in 2009, after serving 6 years.

Joe was released from Green Hill in 1999, two months before his 21st birthday. He went straight to Olympia, where he served three months in an adult facility for his earlier escape. He returned to Seattle, with hopes of putting his cosmetology training to use. But since he’d mostly cut men’s hair at Green Hill, he didn’t have the confidence to style women’s hair.

He worked as a telemarketer, but child support payments ate up half of his paycheck. Some weeks that left Joe with $100. So he started selling drugs again.

“And that landed me back in prison,” Joe said. He served two and a half years.

After his release, he tried to restart his life again, just like he’d done before.


The struggle to stay free

Through it all, Oaksen continued to track down Matt, Joe and the other men she’d begun filming. She contacted their parents. She mailed letters to the young men as they grew into adults, and they sent letters in return. Oftentimes, she found them in prison, with their lives in shambles.

“I knew they were capable of so much more,” she said.

Today, both Matt and Joe agree. Matt said after his release from the Texas penitentiary, he was on parole for three years. It ended last July. He hasn’t been arrested since and said he doesn’t plan on it happening again. Instead, he said he’s focused on jumpstarting a career as a mural artist.

“If I can figure out a way to do what I do and get paid for it, and have a social impact in other people’s lives, that’s the goal,” he said.

Joe said between 2003 and 2010, he went to prison two more times. Like Matt, he doesn’t plan on a return visit. And like Matt, Joe looks to find a way to support himself — and his four children. He finished a vocational accounting course and wants to see if he can transfer credits to a college and perhaps study social work. But right now, he’s unemployed.

“I struggle, struggle, struggle,” he said. “Just been struggling to stay free.”

Oaksen, Matt and Joe will all attend the screening at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center to talk about the documentary.

Matt said the film was hard to watch at first, but repeated viewings have left him with a sense of humility, as he’s learned to accept his past. “And I didn’t foresee the enduring friendships that have come out of this,” he said.

Joe said he, too, cherishes his friendships with Oaksen and Matt, and he also loves the film. Watching it gives him a chance to consider his own mistakes, and he hopes the film will open viewers’ eyes to the struggles many young people face: “This stuff can happen in anybody’s life.”


page 1 of 1 pages