Education Lab

Locked in juvenile hall, Fresno teenager earns diploma and, maybe, a second chance

Chance, incarcerated at the Juvenile Justice Campus, is graduating from high school on May 29. The 16-year-old has a lot of dreams even though he’s made mistakes along the way. He hopes to become a writer someday.
Chance, incarcerated at the Juvenile Justice Campus, is graduating from high school on May 29. The 16-year-old has a lot of dreams even though he’s made mistakes along the way. He hopes to become a writer someday. THE FRESNO BEE

The teenager with a thin frame awakens in a small room, just his bed, a built-in desk and toilet filling out the space. His cellmate sleeps a few feet away. There have been many of those, a turnstile of other teen offenders flitting in and then out of his young imprisoned life.

His belongings are few. A deck of cards, four books, poems he’s written. Letters penned by his father, himself behind bars on drug charges.

He’ll spend his 17th birthday here. It’s not the first time he’s turned the calendar on a new year of life locked up. The 16-year-old is here at Fresno’s Juvenile Justice Campus for the seventh time. He was just 11 his first time around.

“It’s bad to say, but it seems like a second home,” he says. “I feel like there’s nothing wrong with being locked up.”

But even his name, Chance, hints at a sense of aspiration, belief that change is just within reach. He was supposed to have another name — Garth — after one of his mom’s favorite country singers. But he was born too many months early, in June instead of October. Just 2 or 3 pounds, and “They told my mom I didn’t have a chance of living in life,” Chance says.

He defied the odds and lived anyway, a life checkered by the loss of his mother when he was 6 years old, by boredom with school and his neighborhood, by early run-ins with the law.

A life fragmented by months, sometimes years in confinement.

A life of chaos on the outside.

A life to turn around, say his teachers at the JJC.

It was a turnaround that would come with too many failures and too few triumphs. But the moments worth celebrating are stacking up this go around at the JJC. His “last time” here, Chance all but promises.

He’s celebrating a big one in about a week: his high school graduation, more than a year before most his age will earn diplomas. It’s one that speaks to the brightest side of Chance. His wisdom beyond his years. His quiet but inquisitive and determined sensibilities. His talents as a writer.

He’ll be one of the first on his dad’s side of his family to complete high school.

“If everybody else can’t do it and I did it, I see I can break the cycle,” he says. “Graduating? It’s going to help me move on.”

The JJC may feel like Chance’s second home, but there are few comforts here.

Barbed wire coils around high fences. Guards and administrators hold up ID cards to ever-watching cameras as they pass through heavy doors. An outdoor courtyard is marked by a stark white pavilion at its center, emblazoned with one-word reminders for the incarcerated youth: responsibility, fairness, citizenship.

Chance wakes up early each morning to exercise and eat breakfast, then heads to classes with his pod mates. His favorite is welding, he says. After the school day, he writes letters, plays games, eats dinner, showers, and repeats the next day. He loves to read and is working his way through a book, “The Last Spymaster,” a thriller about a rogue CIA agent who escapes a maximum-security prison.

The youth aren’t allowed to keep pencils in their rooms, but Chance says he has time to write on the JJC computers.

He’s been writing for a long time. Since at least kindergarten, around the time his mother died from cirrhosis, a liver condition.

He pushes his square-framed glasses to the bridge of his nose when he talks about his early pieces. Mostly poems about his mom and his older sister who cared for him for several years but died from cancer a few years ago.

“I will try to express myself as if they were going to read it,” he says.

At the JJC, his writing has become eloquent and cerebral.

Some of his poems are bleak, like one that is untitled and tells about a life of failure, one determined by bad decisions more than a historically determined destiny.

Others shimmer with hope and a longing for something better.

In one titled “A Name that Held Power,” Chance writes, “Now my name is caterpillar, morphed into a butterfly, letting time heal me so my inner strength and beauty can shed my old skin and fly away.”

Chance is the son of many. His deceased mother, his father, who has been in prison for 16 years on his third strike. A tangle of older sisters and brothers, taking him in for months or years-long periods.

For a short time he lived with an aunt in the small Bay Area town of Benicia.

“She lives on top of a little hill. All the neighbors are quiet. It was perfect for me,” Chance remembers.

He was mostly raised in Fresno, went to elementary school on the east-central side of town and ran cross country for several years. Growing up, he always felt more mature than the other kids his age and so he started hanging out with an older crew. A group of troublemakers who seemed to never get caught.

Chance did, though.

When he was just 11 he got caught stealing. His juvenile rap sheet quickly became more lengthy, and more serious. All non-violent offenses, but ones that come with severe consequences, including his latest one-year stint at the JJC for burglary.

His older sister Debra, who took care of him the last time he was out, says Chance has “just been around the wrong kids, but he’s smart.”

Debra says she’s felt disappointed in Chance at times. Everyone in the family tries to be a part of his life, but he keeps acting out, she says.

Yet he shows such promise.

Chance doesn’t “even have to study to get A’s,” she says.

Chance knows the booking procedure by heart.

“When you get arrested you get booked in. They take your fingerprints and your height. They write down a description of you and take a picture of you. You go to a pod and you have to wait a minimum of three days to go to court.”

He got used to that part, but never the anxiety that comes with waiting for trial and sentencing.

Chance says he only spent three months on the outside between his last year-long sentence and his current one. He’s among a small minority of juveniles who spend more than six months at the JJC. Campus data shows only 9.5% are there for six months to two years.

The first few times, Chance hardly cared when he got caught.

“I really didn’t have any goals. I was just doing my days and waiting to get out,” he says.

He never intentionally did a crime to get back to the JJC. But he admits he’s better here than when he’s free.

“As soon as I get out there’s no structure,” he says. “I didn’t know what to do, I just went wild.”

It took awhile to realize that while he may be hurting himself, he was hurting others, too.

In an untitled essay Chance wrote about his college aspirations, he said his sister Alma asked him once if he wanted her to start saving for his college fund.

“I responded to her by saying, ‘No, I want you to save money for my bail,’” he wrote. “The tears that flowed from her eyes were full of disappointment, full of a sense of failure, and devoid of hope.”

His realization has been punctuated by the deaths of loved ones in recent years, Debra says.

“Every time he gets locked up, every time he has a loss,” Debra says, including the April death of the siblings’ brother who lived in Modesto. Debra tells him, “You’re losing a lot of time by going in there because we know you can do better.”

Chance is something of an All-Star at the JJC. Once behind in school, he’s made up enough credits to graduate more than a year ahead of schedule. He almost aced the English portion of California’s high school exit exam. He’s had more opportunity here than on the outside, he says. He likely would have skipped school, never graduated.

Teacher Mike Lepore, a longtime educator and one of the most beloved at the JJC, finalized Chance’s graduation paperwork a few weeks ago. Chance is one of three at the JJC who will earn their high school diplomas on May 29.

At the JJC, Chance gets noticed for all the positives. Even so, Lepore doesn’t want Chance “to get used to this life.”

“Chance educationally has no limits,” he says. “I want him to think much better, much higher. Set the bar extremely high.”

Something other than a fast food worker, or unemployed or locked up in prison as an adult.

One time, Lepore says, he pulled Chance into his classroom and told him so.

“‘Hey, you are not a thug, you’re never going to be a thug, so just get over that and use that God-given talent you have to be anything you want to be,’” he remembers telling Chance.

With encouragement from Lepore and others, Chance recently took the placement test for Fresno City College. He’s planning to enroll there once he gets out this summer.

He’d like to study computer programming and journalism.

To write a new future for himself, one without so many smudges as chapters past.