One bad decision

By Catherine Hunter –

He had hopes of playing football, getting out of the inner city trap, making money and a name for himself, but a “friend” asked him to hold a purple bag. David (not his real name) is now on probation, is having to go to Community School and is no longer able to play football.

“It makes me feel like a criminal,” said David when he was not allowed to register at a Buncombe County high school.

The bag David’s “friend” asked him to hold contained marijuana. When David entered the office of his former school, a staff member smelled the pot and called the police.

Though the school resource officer told the judge he knew David was not selling and knew the pot belonged to another, the judge gave David a year’s probation.

“He said he had to make an example to other kids,” said David.

The Consequences

Sgt. Bert Alexander of the Buncombe County Sheriff Department said what happened to David is a very common occurrence.

“We are seeing more and more young people come in and become repeat offenders,” said. “I interview them and they say their friends got them in here.”

According to Captain William Salyers of the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department, the Detention Center receives 10 to 15 juveniles a month. Most are released into the custody of a parent or guardian, but many return to the system for increasingly worse offenses.

“Approximately 75 percent go on to bigger and worse crimes,” Salyers said. “There’s nothing for them to reach up to. By the time they’re 18 if the parents can’t control them, there’s not much we can do.”

He added that the earlier they can reach the young people the better their chances. “You never know what that young person could be if they just make the right decision,” he said.

Seeking ways to prevent rather than incarcerate

In an effort to reach the young people before it’s too late for them Alexander was inspired to start a new program in the Sheriff’s Department called Detention Prevention. He and five other deputies are touring the county to help educate young people about the consequences of poor choices.

“This is not the ‘Scared Straight’ program,” said Alexander and Salyers, who oversees the project.

Salyers, who worked the Scared Straight program for years said it was designed to show young people the horrors of being incarcerated. He said kids going through Scared Straight became more frightened of the officers than of the idea of being incarcerated.

“They [kids in the program] said, ‘That officer is mean. I don’t ever want to see him again,’” said Salyers. “What if that young person needs help?”

According to Alexander the Detention Prevention program is different because the officers talk to the kids with respect and friendliness.

“We don’t curse them and disrespect them. A lot of these kids are talked to that way at home.” he said. “I want to talk to the kids, not talk down to them.”

Alexander explained the program was designed to encourage young people to think before they act, use common sense and good judgment to make decisions and come to law enforcement if they need help.

Salyers credits Alexander with the idea of developing the program and converting an old trailer that had hardly been used for years, into a mock up of a jail cell.

“We were getting more and more groups wanting to tour the detention center,” said Alexander who explained that their 24 hour schedule made tours very difficult. He also said, because of security, there were many places they could not allow the groups to tour.

With the traveling mock cell, Detention Prevention now tours fairs, including the WNC State Fair, festivals, benefits, schools and other events. Alexander said the program is in high demand and they have already booked all of October.

As they walk through the trailer, people can get a feel of the size of a single jail cell which is normally eight feet by ten feet; the trailer is about a foot and a half narrower. The cell is equipped with a stainless steal toilet underneath a sink. On the sink is a wash rag, a thin towel, a small tooth brush, a small tube of toothpaste and a bar of soap. On the cot is a plastic food tray with a plastic spoon. Tucked under the edge of the bed are bright orange, plastic sandals and a box with three books, one of which is the Christian Bible.

Three jump suits hang in the corner next to a glaring fluorescent light. Alexander explained the orange suit is for inmates allowed out of their cells for work detail, the white suit is for inmates in the general population and the striped suit is for those allowed little time outside their cell.

“You don’t want the striped suit,” he said. “Those wearing striped suits are out of the cell only one hour a day or as little as ten minutes if they have infractions.”

“Who’d want to stay in there?”

Though the project is too new to show numbered results, Salyers and Alexander think is it already having a positive impact.

“The young people can’t believe somebody has to stay in this [cell] 23 hours a day,” said Alexander who added that one 15-year-old said, ‘I think you’re right. Who’d want to be in there? You don’t even have TV in there.’

In addition to allowing the young people to see the consequences of poor decisions, the Detention Prevention team relates stories of teenagers who have made poor judgment calls. Alexander talks about a 17-year-old who took part in drive by shootings in Washington D.C. ten years ago.

“He is now 27 and facing life in prison with no chance of parole,” said Alexander who added that the 17-year-old went along on the shooting spree with an older person who has since been executed.

Alexander said he saw a recent TV interview of the shooter was talking about the look in the eyes of a victim’s husband. “He [the shooter] said he felt lower than scum,” related Alexander.

Are the program costs worth it?

Salyers said as the program continues to grow, they hope to track some numbers and be able to show some positive impact. For now he and the team feel the small investment is paying off.

According to Salyers, thanks to some discounts given by local businesses, the work on the trailer cost less than $4,500 (not an official total) and the vehicle that pulls the trailer was seized in a drug raid, so cost tax payers nothing. The team members attend events on their off duty hours volunteering their time for no pay.

Is it too late?

If David had seen the Detention Prevention program would it have helped him make a better decision and kept his life on track? No one knows, but David is working hard to change his past and move forward into a brighter future. School officials are trying to get him back into a football program and David is working hard to keep up his grades and stay out of trouble.

He now feels he has a support network of teachers, principals, school resource officers and his mother which he can turn to if he needs help. David hopes his story will help inspire other young people to think first.

“Everybody makes mistakes. You’ll do better if you think before about what you do,” said David. “And don’t give up. Somebody always wants to help you.”

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