By: Mark Dostert
On various college mornings, I awoke to bloodshed. My alarm clock radio was set to WMAQ—Chicago’s flagship news station, which announced (sometimes by name) those bludgeoned, stabbed, gunned at, or gunned through the previous day. Dressing myself to 670 A.M. instead of music or sports talk became compulsory during Chicago’s crack cocaine’s heyday when reported crime happened in more terrifying concentrations before the city began dozing subsidized highrises like Cabrini-Green, walking distance from my dormitory, and the Henry Horner Homes and row houses like the Ida Bees. As much as possible, I listened on, specifically for children: injuries suffered by the latest gang-beating kid victim, the number of youth police arrested during school hours at drug dens on Larabee Avenue or South Langley, and to which hospital an ambulance ferried a once-armed teen into whom a liquor store owner had buried bullets. Not being from Chicago or even Illinois, these facts evolved into matters of strange contemplation for me, as if an outsider keeping mental inventory and imagining the depressing details of all those young wasting lives somehow mitigated the waste. Four years later I wanted more than awareness. I wanted to meet such wasting lives and try to stop the waste, so I applied to be a Children’s Attendant at the city’s 500-cell juvenile detention center and eventually moved back to Chicago for a position that was actually: jail guard. So I had to process a lot more of the city’s bad news.
I still tuned in WMAQ on my off time though, yet the afternoon my car radio announced the murder of two boys at 50th and Paulina Streets near the Apostolic House of Prayer Church, I numbly dismissed such violence to thugs and cliché. I’d already met too many kids whom I fathomed easily playing either role: the killer or the killed. But when the Chicago Tribune published what looked to be school pictures of the victims, Delvon Harris, fourteen, and Robert Owens, fifteen, next to half-inch headlines, I pored over their story and their faces posing somewhere between laughs and smiles. They were no thugs and, embarrassed by my flippant assumption, I was no longer numb. Below them in a separate photo, Delvon’s older cousin, Angel, crouched over the muddy curb where the two had dropped and pressed her face with both hands. A yellow Police Do Not Cross ribbon lay rumpled in the gutter’s muck and trash. The feature offered no likeness of the suspect. Police had him nabbed dashing from the death site carting a .38-caliber snub-nosed pistol with five spent rounds and one live. Someone jogged up to the squad car and fingered Patrick, ten days from his thirteenth birthday, as the trigger puller. According to police, the boy confessed he had “wanted to go out and shoot somebody” as part of a gang initiation. The Tribune quoted Teddy, an admitted Latin Saint, explaining that Patrick, who lived with his father, disabled by a stabbing, and younger brother, had tried “to prove he is down. He wanted it for the longest time.” Administrators from Seward Academy, Patrick’s 94 % Hispanic public school, disclosed his five weeks of suspension for replicating gang symbols on his folders and raving about joining the Latin Saints. I’d pegged the killings more black gang-against-black gang bloodletting.
For me, raised in a Texas suburb, Chicago offered additional surprises. Patrick was a non-Hispanic white. Had he been thirteen, prosecutors could have petitioned the judge to transfer his case to criminal court and arraign him as an adult—a Presumptive Transfer. Caseworkers feared that knowledge of his charge would endanger him in our jail’s vastly black population, so Patrick began his detention in medical isolation where he stayed barely two weeks before being transferred to a real cellblock, 3F. The week of the shooting I was in scheduled training with my new-hire group, enjoying the quiet of our basement classroom but wanted to see Patrick. I wanted to see a twelve-year-old murder suspect. “Yeah, we got him,” an attendant regularly assigned to 3F soon told me outside the five-story steel and glass facility. Coincidentally, he then used vacation days, headed for Tennessee, and I filled his shifts. Despite being average 3F age and height, Patrick outweighed his cellblockmates. His buzzed head seemed round as a globe. With hair light and skin paled like someone growing up under the perpetually cold leaden skies of the former Eastern Bloc, Patrick hardly passed for a common Hispanic. I wondered if this had been why he might have killed someone—the Latin Saints wouldn’t trust him until he did something vicious and exhibited himself more than a mascot-like groupie. Inmates on 3F couldn’t intimidate Patrick, but integrating elsewhere was problematic. The boy’s mother then conferred with administration, which ordered us to hold Patrick out of school. With his peers in class, Patrick idled upstairs, lolling at a circular fiberglass table outside the TV Area. Weekdays when I arrived at 2:00 P.M., he was flipping through magazines or sketching. Often he laid his head down on the pages and papers waiting for the cellblock to return from the School Area. Later I overhead my coworker accepting movie requests from Patrick, offering to rent the boy videos to watch during his sedentary school days. This man, a black man who in my first month on the job warned me not to make Attending Children my career, knew of Patrick’s indictment. We all did. “Again?” he’d said when Patrick answered with Scream 2. Evidently, staged on-screen slaughter could not repulse Patrick. Perhaps witnessing real carnage neutered the mock gore of gratuitously staged carnage. At best, Patrick watched two boys take five slugs. At worst, he performed the slugging himself.
Patrick’s mother further requested that her son not mingle with the general population during Recreation or Church, claiming that other inmates plotted to hurt him. When Patrick’s twenty-something cellblockmates marched off to the chapel with one of us, he remained on block. If Recreation scheduled 3F for basketball or softball, Patrick couldn’t participate but rather watched more television, drew, or cleaned. I complimented him at least once for maintaining one of 3F’s more spotless cells. Intellectually, I should have hated Patrick for what he likely did to Robert and Delvon, for heaping up more white/black animosity in America, and for how differently every black inmate at that jail must have viewed me. Patrick had reminded them that whites continued to kill blacks, right there and right then in Chicago—not just a million years ago in grainy lynching stills of the Jim Crow South. Black inmates would link me to this contemporary racial assassin and to those cinching nooses around the necks of their ancestors. Yet no fiery rage at Patrick welled inside me. I didn’t see him shoot Robert and Delvon. I didn’t step around their blood on the sidewalk. I shared no wake room weeping space with their families. So far Patrick hadn’t rendered my job difficult. He never called me “Opie” or “white bitch” like some black inmates had. Racist as it seemed, not hating Patrick was effortless.
“His mom requested it because she feared for his safety. But if you look at all the reports, it was Patrick doing all the fighting,” 3F’s regular 8-4 shift Children’s Attendant told me. “He’s been written up at least eight times and he’s only been here two weeks—all for fighting and gang-banging,” another said. According to one caseworker, Patrick also instigated “a gang fight” in the gym one Saturday afternoon about a month after his arrival.
“Yeah, he’s a Saint,” Father Kelly, the detention center’s Catholic chaplain, explained to me after one of his sessions with the double-murder suspect when I mentioned media reports of Patrick’s gang membership.
Off the cellblock, he counseled Patrick in a rare group of one. Maybe Father Kelly thought the boy needed confidentiality in case he decided to talk about that .38-caliber pistol in his jacket. Attendants on 3F then mentioned Patrick bragging to other juveniles that he did kill Delvon and Robert. No lethal needles threatened Patrick but Father Kelly, a white man from Ohio with a taut brown mustache, who unlike me didn’t shelter himself in the suburbs where everyone looked like him and spoke like him, but rather lived “in the community,” still objected to the death penalty. Even if Patrick had been seventeen, much less thirteen, that day racing away from 50th and Paulina, our jailhouse priest wouldn’t have demanded that he surrender his life if guilty. I learned this in Father Kelly’s newsletter, Making Choices, which he passed out during chapel services and delivered in stacks to the cellblocks. Along with juvenile-penned essays and poems, one edition recounted his trip to a suburban penitentiary to protest the approaching executions of Durlynn Eddmonds and Walter Stewart. Eddmonds was convicted of molesting and murdering a boy of nine whose body authorities recovered from a dumpster. Stewart was judged liable in two slayings while robbing a jewelry store. Father Kelly finished his editorial: “Pray that the people of Illinois and the people of the United States demand that the government quit killing. It makes no sense to kill in order to teach that killing is wrong.” As a child and teen in Texas and then a younger adult becoming a Bible college student at an institution founded by a Great Awakening tent revival preacher, I believed capital punishment to be good, holy, and just. Grownups had forever told me that the Bible said it should be so—a living body for a once-living body. Back then the idea that the death penalty contradicted itself had yet to jar my cerebrum. Twenty-seven years into my own life, Father Kelly had my sympathy. We didn’t pin down a rapist and ram a broomstick into his rectal cavity or pummel bloody those guilty of assault and battery. Poisoning to death Walter Stewart or Timothy McVeigh or Joe Blow nudged us no more human. Every human life, vile killers impossible to rehabilitate included, deserved more dignity than syringes of sodium pentothal, pancuronium bromide, and potassium chloride.
Patrick’s misbehavior persisted and 3F staff cell-isolated him over and over. The often six hundred-inmate facility employed two mental health professionals—one was part-time—and I never saw any inmate scheduled for regular therapy or counseling. Meetings with Father Kelly never converted Patrick to a 3F Saint. Days and weeks of detainment soon warped Patrick’s story into him only “holding the gun.” The Tribune then reported two teenage female witnesses. One claimed that a twenty-one-year-old male had ripped off the shots. The other echoed the man being with Patrick, but said she didn’t see the shooter. The accused adult confirmed accompanying Patrick to the scene and providing him the gun, while claiming to have departed before rounds rang out. The state’s attorney refused comment. Patrick’s public defender alleged a set up because both girls provided her a different tale—the man fired the shots, shoved the pistol into Patrick’s hands, and fled in a car.
Curious if the boy would corroborate his own life story from the Tribune, I approached Patrick on a day he wasn’t in trouble but rather doodling at a table because all his cellblockmates were in class. I meandered over from the guard desk.
“So where’d you go to school before you came here?”
“Seward,” Patrick replied as he looked up, and without prompting, named the school that had expelled him before he attended Seward.
Nothing on why the previous school kicked him out. I didn’t ask.
“You goin’ back to Seward when you get outta here?”
“They probly gonna keep me ‘til I’m twenny-one. I wish I could beat the case but they got too much evidence on me.”
Patrick was correct that guilty Illinois murder defendants younger than thirteen during their crime could not be incarcerated beyond birthday twenty-one. Right then I could have queried this particular murder defendant about who had fired the murderous gun. I didn’t. Our interactions were amiable. No point risking Patrick not shutting up at my next order, merely because I’d harassed him with everyone else’s question. I’d felt indulged by that foray to 3F after recent assignments on a far more challenging cellblock with bigger and older inmates. The longer I worked at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, the higher priority smooth and simple shifts became. My Children’s Attendant existence had morphed into saving myself, instead of, as I’d once idealized, saving the kids.
“Hey, make sure you guys clean this off,” I said to three juveniles instructed to swab 3F’s Bathroom Area floor and sinks. I figured someone had inadvertently brushed soap or toothpaste against a steel divider anchored to the tile floor between two toilets, creating a white splotch. I moved closer to the chest-high steel fence. Instead of any abstract art, a capital S and N flanked a cross. Each letter hovered below the rung. I summoned a cleaning designee and pointed.
“That’s Patrick’s. That’s how he makes his set,” the slender boy answered.
S for Saints. N for Nation. Evidently excused to the Bathroom Area by himself, Patrick had soap bar scrawled his Nation onto the toilet partition, the way unincarcerated gang-bangers all across Chicago inscribed tenement breezeways, alley walls, El train girders, and the sides of parked eighteen-wheelers. Patrick just hadn’t wielded a magic marker or can of spray paint.
“Patrick, who told you to come over here?” I asked the next evening while monitoring inmates stacking extra mattresses in vacant cell number three during 3F’s weekly cell-straightening time. My coworker and I couldn’t assign that cell to anyone because a jagged piece of metal protruded from a back corner where a steel beam and brick column met.
“No one,” Patrick looked away, knowing that he broke a rule. “I just wanted to see if my writing was still there.” Cell three was near the Bathroom Area. Patrick’s behavior had improved enough to merit him a cell closer to the TV Area where he could see the screen from his bed.
“Go back to your room and keep cleaning,” I said. Patrick meandered off down the cell row with no guff. A boasting potential double-murderer accepting my directive like rain on a parched lawn surprised me. I swung back and forth on whether if in a dissimilar environment, Patrick might also follow different command—a command to shoot two people. I waited for the mattresses to be organized and stepped into Patrick’s former cell. High on the wall above the steel toilet and sink almost to the ceiling, etched in four lines of white chalk, was his “writing.” Patrick must have pilfered his chalk stick from a classroom before Mom put the kibosh on him going to school, or he’d traded a dollar bill or twin-pack of chocolate chip cookies for it at dinner without us noticing. That night he mounted his sink and scripted away. Each written line ran four or five consecutive bricks and contained: Almighty Saints—the gang’s trademark halo symbols, more S’s and N’s, Joe-Joe (Patrick’s nickname cited in a Tribune article), and inverted Gangster Disciples pitchforks. To blaspheme other gangs, kids drafted their symbol upside down.
A year later, Patrick, his left eye bruised, attended his verdict hearing. By mom’s account, other juveniles had beaten him. Patrick was guilty in both killings and a judge sentenced him to five years at the Illinois Youth Department of Corrections. Patrick wasn’t as bad off as he feared—just wrong about being held until he was twenty-one. In my closet I found the Tribune front-page section with Delvon and Robert’s pictures. I’d saved it. I held up the unfolded paper and studied the two soft faces and four curious eyes, Robert’s angling off to the left away from the camera as if discomforted by even the most basic attention. Their faces inches from mine, I tried to conjecture what force had intersected their lives with Patrick’s. At Patrick’s age, I played backup linebacker for the Harwood Junior High Blackhawks and counted months until Christmas in San Diego where my cousin and I would execute our annual blockbuster baseball card trades. Anticipating my aunt’s peanut fudge shortened the drive through cardboard bland west Texas and southern New Mexico. My parents were together. No one had knifed my father. I never stressed about impressing gang members. Food filled our fridge. Mom’s scratch bran rolls graced the dinner table. Now the minutiae of Patrick, Delvon, and Robert translated meaningless. If Patrick did it? Why Patrick did it? Two guiltless kids were still dead. And a boy whom I’d known, a boy who always did what I told him to, would be warehoused away for five years. By then the death count might be three.
HFR: Who has had the greatest influence on your writing?
MD: I was finishing the first draft of Up in Here: Jailing Kids on Chicago’s Other Side about the time that Anthony Swofford published Jarhead, his marine sniper’s account of the Persian Gulf War. In revising my manuscript and starting various adapted personal essays like “The Saint of 3F,” an interview comment of Swofford’s proved instructive. He spoke of a breakthrough when realizing that his task with this genre of nonfiction was to “turn the pen on myself.” From then on with each chapter of my book and any excerpt, I strove to expose and thus examine, for better or worse, some part of me—something that a reader might relate to despite never having worked in a jail. In turning the pen on myself, perhaps I could even turn the pen on a reader. A writer I admire this way is Andre Dubus who, while an icon of American short fiction, was a marvelously engaging essayist in his two collections: Broken Vessels and Meditations from a Moveable Chair. [Norman] “Mailer at the Algonquin” is Dubus’s chance encounter with the famed post-war writer at a New York restaurant where the young Dubus and his first wife were meeting the editor of his first book. His resistance to his editor’s proposal for a major setting change while yet using his editor to meet Mailer and then stay the night at his place rather than back at the hotel with his wife becomes Dubus’s seduction of the reader—married or not, figuratively adulterous or not, divorced or not—into his own guilt and struggle for spousal integrity.
Mark Dostert is the author of Up in Here: Jailing Kids on Chicago’s Other Side, forthcoming from University of Iowa Press in September 2014. He holds a Master of Arts in History from University of North Texas. His narrative essays have appeared in Ascent, Cimarron Review, Houston Chronicle, Southern Indiana Review, and The Summerset Review, and been cited/listed as Notable in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011, The Best American Essays 2011, andThe Best American Essays 2013. He holds 33 hours of graduate English credit at University of Houston and has studied creative writing at Inprint in Houston and the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop in Portland, OR.
You can find Mark's new book, Up in Here, from Brazos, University of Iowa Press, Barnes and Nobles, or Powell's.