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A teenager clad in orange prison clothes stares at the four beige walls that surround him and thinks about the choices that landed him in jail.
Though the situation sounds dire, it’s all part of a newly launched troubled youth program called Crossroads.
The educational initiative, unveiled earlier this fall by the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office, has already produced a handful of ‘graduates’ who’ve experienced what life could be like behind a cell door.
Just days before the latest session was held, Sheriff Barry Faile discussed the purpose and benefits of the program, which allows parents to enroll their children, between the ages of 12 and 16, for one night in jail.
Glancing at the schedule of speakers and activities planned for the session, Faile said there are multiple reasons a parent may decide to enroll their child.
“If the kids have been rebellious and are not listening to parents, that’s one reason. Some have already been in trouble and maybe they just need some extra help to get them back on the right track,” Faile said.
“A lot of kids I’ve seen go through it are good kids, but they make poor decisions and do things their parents are not proud of. The parents see an opportunity to enroll their kids and get some positive reinforcement.”
He said the program follows his own philosophy of education before incarceration.
“There are so many opportunities for them to mess up. For me, it’s not about putting ‘em in jail, but putting them on the right path,” he said. “The officers and speakers here talk about consequences and how their behavior will follow them through the rest of their lives.”
So far, the sheriff’s office has had a hand in helping seven young people find the right path, including four boys in the first session and three girls in the second.
“We’ve gotten positive feedback from some of the kids who have gone through it,” Faile said. “We’ve had a few who have completely turned their life around and we’ve actually got two boys who are speaking to other kids about staying out of trouble. It’s been really positive.”
Lancaster County Deputy Sheriff Rusty Duncan, crime prevention officer and Crossroads program coordinator, agreed that the program is already showing results.
“We have maybe a 90 percent success rate so far. It’s been good for these kids and the community,” Duncan said. “The goal is to help kids stay out of the system. We get phone calls all the time from parents who say ‘hey, can you help my children.’ And now we can help.”
Integral to the success of the program, Duncan said, is following up with the young people after they’ve returned to their normal lives.
“I go to school and check up on them and talk to their parents and they’ve got my phone number if there’s a problem. I’ll go to their home too. I don’t feel we can measure the success rate without checking up on them,” Duncan said.
Though most of the students are surprised to see Duncan, or one of his fellow deputies, at their school or home, most appreciate the interest.
“They almost don’t believe I will check up on them. Within the first week I like to do a followup,” he said. “You should see the look on their face when I come up there. We’ll sit down and I’ll have them tell me what they got out of the program.”
“What I hear most is they absolutely don’t want to go to jail,” he said.
‘The magic number’
Duncan said the program targets a specific age group for a reason.
“We want to get them before they get to 17 because that’s the magic number when they are adults. We give them that experience before they turn that age and then they go through the program and hear what’s right and wrong,” Duncan said. “We cover gangs, drugs. The coroner’s office comes in with pictures of the bad consequences of bad decisions. It’s a pretty powerful message.”
That theme of bad decisions runs through most of the program’s events.
“The first thing we do is we put ‘em in front of a ‘judge’ in robes and he reads what the parents wrote down about their bad behavior,” he said. “The judge then sentences them to one night in jail and then they know what it feels like to stand in front of a judge.”
They soon hear presentations from a wide variety of speakers, including Counseling Services, deputies and former inmates.
“One man who used to be in a gang and was in prison talks to them,” Duncan said. “He talks about the bad decisions he made and how he turned his life around.”
Following the speakers, and after eating a simple meal made up of a bologna sandwich and water, the ‘inmates’ are led to their cells for a very brief amount of sleep.
“We want them to experience what jail is like. At 2 a.m. we do a cell shakedown and toss the cell and throw everything around. We do PT (physical training) in the courthouse, where they have to run up and down the stairs,” he said. “They get about one and a half hours of sleep.”
The attendees are then tasked with a very memorable writing assignment.
“We tell them to write a letter from here and not from here,” Duncan said, pointing first to his heart and then to his head. “We tell them to write to whoever they need to apologize to.”
But there’s one moment that seems to stand out to most of the youth.
“One of the biggest parts that impacts the kids the most is they have to sit down and talk to their parents behind glass and over the air phone,” he said. “It’s a wake up call.”
The whole session teaches one specific lesson, Duncan said.
“We show them what they could lose- freedom, parents, food. And that’s if they’re lucky. They could even lose their life,” he said. “I even have a body bag I show them. I lay it down and it has a number hanging on it. I show them you no longer have a name, you have a number. I stand there and say ‘are you gonna be number 61?’”
Also important, Faile said, is educating parents.
“When dealing with kids, sometimes the response is based on the parents’ approach. So we try to bring folks in who can talk with the parents as well,” Faile said.
Duncan said the classes help parents redefine their relationship with their child.
“They help parents learn how to be a parent and not a buddy. The class teaches parents about warning signs and gives them tips on discipline,” Duncan said.
With three sessions already under their belt, and with word quickly spreading about Crossroads’ success, both Faile and Duncan are hoping to soon see sessions filled to capacity.
Faile lauds all the organizations involved with the program, including counseling services, the school district, the coroner’s office, local clergy and parents.
“They all have the goal of making sure kids travel down the right road,” Faile said.