The kid leans his chair back, shakes his head and says under his breath, "Life's been hell."
The kid leans his chair back, shakes his head and says under his breath, "Life's been hell."
Nathan Ramirez, 17, is just shy of 6 feet tall. He has dark, closely shaven hair. An oversized, gray T-shirt hangs off of his broad shoulders. A "541" tattoo is barely visible above his shirt collar, and his last name is tattooed down his right arm. He is wearing khaki Dickies and white Reebok shoes with the laces undone. Nate is a resident in Jackson County's 90-day juvenile shelter facility called Assessment and Evaluation. He has been living here for almost three months as he tries to gain a foothold on life.
On the night of April 6, Nate's 17th birthday, he pointed an "old-school musket" at a police officer who had stopped him on Niantic Street in Medford. Nate had been drinking whiskey with his "homies" and was walking to his dad's home in Ashland. He found the gun lying in someone's yard. The officer threw aside his Taser gun and pulled out his .40-caliber Glock 22. Within 10 minutes, more police cars began arriving at the scene.
"I started thinking about my mom, my homies, my niece, my nephews, started thinking about my hood," says Nate. "It ain't worth it to die on my f——- 17th birthday."
Nate was arrested, taken to the Jackson County Juvenile Detention Center and held in detention for three weeks before he was transferred to A-and-E. While his neighbors in detention are clad in blue and gray and assigned to cells, Nate and the other 12 boys wear civilian clothes and follow strict behavioral rules within the A-and-E facility which includes a classroom, seven bedrooms, a living area, a laundry room and a recreation gym.
Most of the youth have been brought to A-and-E for probation violations, drug-and alcohol-related crimes or sex offenses.
"I think I'm in here with the most serious stuff," Nate boasts.
The night of Nate's arrest he was charged with a probation violation, drinking underage, possessing cigarettes, providing false identification, possessing an unauthorized pistol, breaking curfew and "another one for pullin' the gun out," he says.
Born in Coos Bay in 1992, Nate moved to Medford about two years later.
"My dad didn't think I was his, so he gave my mom a whole bunch of money to get an abortion, but my mom went and bought a whole bunch of girl clothes," Nate says. "She thought I was going to be a girl."
When he was 4, his father would drop him off at his babysitter's house. One day when his babysitter went outside to smoke, Nate says a man living in the house molested Nate and his mom's friend's two daughters.
"I remember he was real big. He turned the music up real loud and grabbed me. I was the first one to go," Nate recalls.
He attended Howard Elementary, but he didn't like school because he was always being teased and beaten up by his older brother, Josh, and his friends.
As Nate got older, his brother's teasing became more severe.
When Nate was 7 years old, he caught his brother and his friends drinking alcohol. They beat him up and forced him to take about 12 shots of whiskey. Nate says he cried and threw up.
At 10, Nate tried marijuana for the first time. Over the years he would also experiment with cocaine, hallucinogenic mushrooms, acid and ecstasy, but nothing stuck like alcohol.
"I don't normally deal with my emotions; I drink them," he says.
One night, when he was 13, Nate's best friend Jeffery stabbed him three times when Nate's drinking got out of control.
"It's the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me," Nate says. "He was being a good friend. I could have very well got alcohol poisoning and died."
Nate remembers drinking whiskey before school and drinking a pint throughout the day and a fifth after school at Medford parks. He paid for his whiskey addiction by stealing CD players and amplifiers from cars and things like TVs from homes. Nate estimates he has robbed close to 200 cars and 70 houses in his lifetime.
"As long as I was getting money for that alcohol," he says. "I was 14 years old and I was a functional drunk."
Prior to junior high, Nate moved out of his mom's house and into his dad's house in Ashland.
"My mom's been there for me sometimes, but not always," he says.
Tammy, Nate's mother, lives on her disability pension and abuses her back medication, Nate says.
"Sometimes I would come home and she wouldn't even recognize me," he says.
Nate attended Ashland Middle School for about three months. While there, he was accused of lifting up a girl's skirt. In the principal's office, Nate's behavior got aggressive, and the principal threatened to call the police. Nate says the principal made a statement about "his kind," referring to Nate as part Mexican, and Nate tried to punch him but was stopped by a "teacher-type guy."
AMS expelled Nate, and he didn't return to school until he began high school more than a year later.
"I wasn't used to hanging out with kids my own age. I was used to hangin' with 28- and 30-year-old OGs (old gangsters)," he says.
Nate's big brother Josh, now 23, introduced him to a new family: My Own Blood, a local gang of about 140 members. Some people think MOB stands for Medford Oregon Boys, he says. MOB offers protection and respect, Nathan says as he proudly reveals an "M.O.B." tattoo on the back of his neck.
"People call it a gang, but it's more like a family," he says. "I was one of the first youngsters on it."
The MOB trades drugs for guns with another local gang, Ready and Willing, commonly known as RAW, Nate says.
"We had guns people wouldn't be allowed," Nate says. "I don't use weapons unless weapons are being used on me."
MOB was also Nate's defense team.
One day, when Nate was about 15 years old, a kid was poking him in the chest and wouldn't stop. Nate asked him to stop multiple times but he wouldn't, so Nate says he hit him in the head with a Crown Royal whiskey bottle. Later, about 40 MOB members went to the kid's house and beat up the kid, his dad and his brothers, Nate says.
"People are vicious," he says. "Even myself, I'm vicious."
Nate's MOB territory is on the Niantic block. There are about 15 to 20 MOB "homies" located on that block, he says.
"I was kickin' with them every day and night," he says. "I'm going to have to stay away from them for awhile until I get my head back on straight."
Nate has not made contact with any MOB members since April 6.
Now confined within the shelter's tan walls, Nate follows a strict routine closely monitored by staff in navy blue polos.
At 6 a.m. Monday through Friday, Nate's alarm clock buzzes. He gets up and showers. At 7:10 a.m., Nate sets the tables for breakfast, his chore for the week. Afterward, the boys clean their rooms, work out in the gym (Nathan likes Tai Bo the most) and get their hygiene boxes to brush their teeth.
At 9 a.m., the boys go to the classroom. Denis Knowles, the lead teacher, teaches all the boys in one classroom, second through 12th grades.
"They come in believing they already know everything they need to. Their attitude is if I can't use it today, then there is no use in learning it," Knowles says.
The classroom has 15 desks, a white board, bookshelves and five computers along the wall. Dozens of drawings of cartoons, shoes and cars and origami stars and boxes are taped to the walls above the white board. Dictionaries, pens, pencils, colored pencils and erasers all have numbers on them. Nate's number is eight.
"I have to account for everything all the time," Knowles says.
When something goes missing, Knowles can tell by the number which boy lost or stole it.
The boys are in class four hours a day and do a half hour of homework. The last hour of class is dedicated to crafts. Knowles has the boys practice calligraphy, grid drawing and origami.
Nate's favorite subject is calligraphy, and he practices it daily.
"It's more for them to transfer some of the skill to their handwriting, which they loathe," Knowles says. "I try to engage them as much as I can. If I started holding them to their age or grade level, they would all bail."
Knowles says most of the boys do very little work.
"I'm lucky if I get half the amount of work out them that would be expected in a traditional school," he says. "Their heads are so busy just trying to cope with life."
Next, the boys transition onto the basketball court where they practice some chalk art. Megan Harris, Nate's case manager, had seen 3-D chalk drawings online and suggested that Knowles have the class try it.
Nate wrote in calligraphy with red and black chalk on the court floor, "If you are not true to yourself you are not true to others." He heard one of the boys, Sebastian, say it once and liked the quote. Other boys drew peace signs, stars, a Nike swoosh and a phoenix.
When he was done with his chalk art, Nate joined Marcos and his roommate, Joe, 16, as they finished coloring a green, yellow and red Nike shoe on the wall.
"You gotta get down here," Marcos tells Nate as he points to an uncolored area.
"Stop man, I know how to color," Nate replies.
"Well, do you know how to stay in the lines?" asks Marcos.
At that moment, Joe blows a cloud of chalk their direction.
"Dude!" the two boys say.
"These kids like to tag stuff," says Holly Christian, the onsite nurse. "Now they can do it and get credit for it."
But success is measured differently in their world. "They only aspire to having good shoes," Knowles says. "They don't even dream of a car."
After chalk drawing, the boys return to the classroom to finish watching "Moby Dick." The boys jot down notes during the movie because Knowles asked them to write a summary. Knowles pauses the movie often to explain different concepts, like what it meant to have a "Jonah" onboard.
The boys eat lunch at 11:15 a.m. Then they have a few minutes to hang out, read or play card games before class starts at 12:15 p.m.
At 1:15 p.m. they are ushered to the purple couches that form a "U" in the center of the living room in front of the staff desk. For the next 45 minutes, the staff reviews the boys' "Points and Pillars" for the morning shift.
A-and-E staff developed the "Points and Pillars" system as a way to discipline and reward the boys. Each boy has a tracker where he records his bad behavior. Each boy is also given $30 in fake cash at the start of the morning and night staff shifts. If he argues, sags his pants or cusses he owes the staff $1 or $2. If he does things like demonstrate diligence, courage or initiative, he is rewarded with pillars, points for good behavior. The boys also receive points for fulfilling personal goals in class and throughout the day.
At the beginning of Nate's A-and-E experience, he was assigned two personal goals by Harris — accountability and responsibility — based on his behavior during the first 24 hours in A-and-E.
"He was minimizing, blaming and victimizing," Harris says. "That's not responsible thinking."
At the end of each day, the amount of cash, the number of pillars and points is added up from both shifts. This number is used to determine what privileges each boy has the following day. Privileges could mean additional phone time, an extra shower or more time on the PlayStation2.
At 2 p.m. the boys return to the classroom for the last hour of class. Nate pulls out two styles of calligraphy and begins tracing each of the letters with a slow and steady hand.
Knowles calls for transition at 3 p.m., and the boys are sent to their rooms to read or work on homework. Sometimes Nate props up his book, so he can take a nap without getting caught.
He has two roommates, Joe and Keifer. Joe is Nate's closest friend in the shelter.
"We'll probably end up hangin' out on the outs, bein' each other's positive influences," Nate says.
The boys' beds are against opposite walls. Nate's bed has a green comforter with all the corners and sides tucked in. Under each bed is a clear plastic tub with the boys clothes neatly folded.
The boys aren't allowed to wear clothes with drug or gang references.
"Not even Billabong because it has the word 'bong' in it," Joe says.
"I know one thing I'm wearin' when I get outta here: my black and gold Scarface shirt, my black and gold bandana, slippers and black pants," Nate says. "Scarface was one of my main role models."
Next to the bed is a desk. A Bible is propped up in the corner. About 10 letters from staff and his mom are taped above his desk along with three pictures of the Virgin Mary. Several pencils are scattered across his desk, where there are seven books, his group workbook and various sheets of paper. Nate is reading "The Five People You Meet in Heaven" by Mitch Albom.
"He reads a whole bunch (of books) at once so he never finishes," Joe says.
"The only one I've finished was in detention — 'Touching Spirit Bear,'" Nate says.
Taped under a shelf above Nate's desk are several pages of contraband, rap lyrics that he wrote in his free time. One reads: "Creeping threw the night with my mask on/Tell your boy's not to laugh when I blast on."
When Keifer was caught by staff writing similar rap lyrics, he blamed Nate for helping him. Harris searched Nate's room for the lyrics, but couldn't find them. Instead, Nate showed her one of his "inappropriate" drawings of a mushroom smoking and shooting a tree. She thanked Nate for being accountable.
"I'm pretty sure it was all he had. He showed me honesty and handled the consequences very well," she says.
Harris never found Nate's lyrics.
Following their room time, the boys transition into the eating area and take a seat at one of the four round, blue cafeteria tables for a snack — 1 percent milk and oranges.
"May I be excused, Alison?" Nate asks when his snack is done.
Alison, a staff member, nods, and Nate gets up, rinses out his milk carton in the drinking fountain and throws it away.
Once again, the boys take seats on the couches. Some of the boys refuse to sit next to each other. The boys are required to be 18 inches apart at all times.
Evan, another staff member, leads the group through their workbook assignments from a book titled "Private Relationships." In the book, the boys answer questions regarding relationships in their life and discuss their answers with the group. Alison sits in the corner and records each boy's behavior points.
After group, the boys have a few minutes of free time before dinner. Nate joins a group of three boys for a game of hacky sack. The boys have a record of 18 kicks.
Dinner comes on large, gray trays with orange plastic forks. Macaroni, a hot dog, cooked carrots and cake are in separate compartments on the tray. Nate asks Harris for some salsa for his hot dog to change it up a bit.
"This is a pretty good din-din," Nate says as he takes a large spoonful of carrots. "I love my vegetables."
"The 106 days I've been here, I've never had one vegetable," says Sebastian. "That's probably the cause of all my headaches."
"When I go on my first outing with my dad, I'm going to my grandma's house and see if my aunt can hook me up with some great Mexican food," says Nate.
After dinner the boys are excused to scrape and stack their trays and do their chores — dishes, vacuuming and cleaning the bathrooms. Next the boys sit down for their second group meeting. Alison leads them in a discussion about efficacy.
"To tell you the truth, I don't pay attention," Joe says. "I don't think anybody here knows what efficacy is."
The boys endure until 8 p.m., when they are excused for an hour of free time. From 9 to 9:30 p.m. the staff announces their "Points and Pillars" for the day. Lights must be out between 10 and 10:30 p.m.
On Friday nights, Alison chooses a G- or PG-rated movie. The boys are content with tonight's selection, "Paul Blart: Mall Cop." On movie nights, the boys are also able to use their cash points from the week to purchase items from the Tiki Hut such as juice boxes, jerky, chips, peanuts, fruit snacks, pudding cups, popcorn, "foamy stuff to play with" or teddy bears to send home to their families.
"They can have Sunny D only on Friday so they don't try to ferment it," Joe says. Friday night snacks must be consumed during the movie time.
During the weekends, the boys can also listen to selected music, watch specified TV channels, and play video games. Boys who have achieved certain levels of behavior are often taken to the YMCA. On Sundays the boys wash the probation officers' duty cars.
Nate's probation officer, Stewart Sadorf, checks in on Nate once every 30 days. First he meets with Nate to see how things are going, and then meets with Harris.
"He's got good work ethic, but he's a sad, low-functioning kid who will turn criminal if he keeps with the alcohol," Sadorf says to Harris. "But I don't think it will take the full 90 days. He's got to go out in the real world sometime."
"Who's he going home with?" Harris asks.
"His only option, his dad. His mom's an absolute nightmare," Sadorf says.
Nate's dad, Fidencio, works at the Rogue Valley Mall as a landscaper. He visits Nate about once a week.
"I get excited to see him, but we never talk," Nate says. His fondest memories with his father were a year the two spent in Mexico together when Nate was about 6 years old.
"All the stuff there was so cheap," he says. "You could get like four pairs of shoes for $10."
After Stewart leaves, Harris reviews the session with Nate.
"You're going to get counseling from OnTrack," Megan says. "Robin will come in and start treatment and then you'll go out into the community and continue treatment from home."
"But when?" Nate asks.
"You have at least a month," she says.
Harris says she is somewhat concerned about Nate in the outs. "They come in here and get clean and sober and say 'I feel great,'" she says, "but it (the alcohol or drugs) isn't in here."
Harris said when Nate's emotions rise she senses flairs of alcohol cravings.
"He drinks when his feelings are high," she says, "and he gets restless and more upset."
One day when the boys were playing basketball, Nate said, "That white boy's got game." He was reprimanded for using a racial slur and paid the staff $2. Later, a female staff compared his comment to someone calling him a "beaner."
"I wanted to punch her in the mouth," he says. "I don't like that word 'beaner.'"
When Nate was 13 years old, a girl called him a "beaner." He backhanded her. "I hit a woman. I never once hit a woman in my life."
Nate was so upset he'd hit a woman he says he tried to hang himself under a pedestrian bridge behind Bad Ass Coffee Co. on Riverside Avenue. A friend found him and cut him down before Nathan lost consciousness.
"I can't change history," says Harris. "I can only change what's in front of me. He's not digging deep enough. He's one way with staff and another way with his peers. I think it's a respect-based thing. He's too confident in what's easy for him."
Nate recognizes his weakness.
"I have to work on skills in here so when I go out there I can say 'no,'" Nate says.
Nate's 90 days are up July 7. He hopes he will be able to go back to Ashland High School in the fall. "I'll have to be starting sophomore year all over again," he says "By the time I graduate, I'll be about 19 or 20."
Nate wants to attend Southern Oregon University after he graduates and study to become a mortician.
"I've always had an interest in bodies," he says.
On the phone one day, Nate's mom told him she would pay for him to get more tattoos when he got out. Nate wants a tattoo of a joker face with "M.O.B." written in the joker's nose on his side. Next to it in Old English font would read "Someday we all die." He also wants a tattoo of his parents' names across his shoulder and chest.
"I like the sting of the needle," he says.
Nate says he'll hit the streets again once he's out but "not like in the past." When he heard that his 4-year-old niece, Lexy, had been asking why Uncle Nathan hadn't come to see her and if he hated her, Nate says it was his lowest point.
"I want to live in a stable place and do well for myself," says the kid as he rocks his chair back and forth.
Nate says he feels the weight of the consequences of his actions.
"I ain't even old yet, but I feel old," he says.