By Hassan Nicholas, 19
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This photo of Francisco at Central

When I heard I would get a chance to meet a teen who was in prison, I never thought I would be talking to him about Shakespeare and college. It surprised me to learn that Francisco, charged with some serious crimes, had many of the same hopes and dreams as I did.

Through the Probation Department, I got permission to interview Francisco, as long as I promised not to discuss his crime or give his full name. I knew he was being charged as an adult and could face a life sentence if he was found guilty.

Going to Central Juvenile Hall was like going to another world. Hidden away in an industrial section of downtown, Central Juvenile Hall just looked like a plain beige building next to a tall wall. I gave my ID and was checked in at the front gate. The staff looked at me, like, "Another one." One guy joked about putting me in a jumpsuit. I could see a teen sitting on the floor in a room nearby, looking down at the floor.

Then we walked by a holding tank called the Day Room. Rows and rows of teens were sitting on benches wearing their orange or navy jumpsuits. The orange jumpsuits indicate that the youth has committed a violent crime. They looked at me with cold faces. I felt fortunate that I was just walking through and I didn’t have to stay there.

I passed by a skinny kid who was staring off into nowhere, his hands held behind his back, which is one of the prison rules. Half his hair was braided, and the other half was a wild nasty afro. He looked 14. I wondered what his story was.

Juvenile Hall was scary

We walked outside through numerous doors and passageways, past guards and locked gates. Then I met Francisco, a tall kid with short hair and an athletic build. He was wearing an orange jumpsuit.

As we sat in the courtyard under the watchful eye of one of the staff members, Francisco told me about Central Juvenile Hall. In juvenile hall, you have no freedom. Everything, from your clothes to jewelry, is taken away. There are no computers, CD players or radios. (To me, that would be the hardest thing—I can’t imagine life without music.) You have to ask permission to use the bathroom. Each and every move is constantly being monitored. And fights are common, so you need to watch your back.

Being behind bars changed the way he looked at life, he said. "I appreciate the little things. Being able to take a walk. I miss anything and everything."

We sat and watched as a group of inmates walked across the courtyard after their morning high school classes. Only one group is allowed in the courtyard at a time. They walked, zombie-like, their hands behind their backs, escorted by their guards. There was no joking, talking or sudden movements. Their faces seemed lifeless. "You see people 14 and 15 years old facing life without parole. It makes you grow up," said Francisco.

The same thing day after day

In addition to all the restrictions, life in jail is boring, he said. The day starts at 7 a.m. The guards come to open the doors and turn on the lights. You wash up and eat. Then you get ready for school, make your bed and clean your cell. Then it’s lunch, back to school, a brief recreation period outside, a shower (which is timed by guards) and dinner. On a good day you might get to watch a movie in the Day room. Before night falls you’re back in your cell, waiting till morning—and the same thing happens again.

As he spoke, my stereotypes about him as a "menace to society" began to fade. I could tell he was an articulate, confident kid who had a lot to say. One of the things that has been important to Francisco has been his involvement in a theater program.

Francisco said that when the Unusual Suspects, a program of professional volunteer actors and writers, approached him about participating in their theater workshop he was skeptical. "It seemed dumb at first," he recalled.

But by participating, he could get out of his cell once a week for a few hours. It was something different. "You can’t let yourself go crazy," he said.

With the help of Unusual Suspects, he and the other youth did skits and improvisations, and slowly got to know each other better. "It brought everybody closer … We relieve a little bit of stress. When you see people smiling, it makes you smile."

In his first performance, Francisco played Romeo in a scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. "It was real fun to get to do that in here. That story is like—it’s going to be around forever. It’s timeless."

Then he got involved in writing a play with some of the other youth. They were taught how to brainstorm, create characters and character conflicts. They wrote a play called The Hard Way Out about a group of prison inmates who are given a chance to be set free by the government if they retrieve some hostages overseas. They practiced every Sunday for three hours. As the performance approached, they had rehearsals every Wednesday as well.

Putting together a play turned out to be harder than it looked. "Everybody was playing around. It was looking like it wasn’t going to happen. We were angry, getting into arguments with each other, and with the staff from Unusual Suspects. I was going to give up when we had a discussion about it. We decided to stick with it, keep on trying. We convinced each other we’d all be working hard—all we had to do was try our best. We did and it came out good."

In the end, a group of 17 performed the play for immediate family members, close friends and even agents and producers. The play was a success. The three packed performances left mothers crying and actors proud. "It makes you feel like you’re part of something. You’re actually doing something meaningful and worthwhile."

Francisco felt the play’s theme could be understood by everyone, "Everybody wants another chance, not just us. Who doesn’t want another chance—even you?"

He gave thanks to the volunteers of Unusual Suspects for giving their time and effort to the project. "They’re all real nice people, dedicated. Not too many people will do what they’re doing."

While in juvenile hall, Francisco took advantage of all there was to offer. In addition to acting, he earned his G.E.D., took a college course in geography and had his Catholic confirmation. He was given permission to speak to a group of at-risk youth about his experiences in jail, hoping to influence them to stay out of trouble.

All the while he worried about his case, wondering if he would spend life behind bars. Support and visits from his parents, brothers and sister helped him stay positive, he said. "I’m a lot closer to them now. I always knew they were there, but I never appreciated it before," he said.

The judge released him

A few months after my interview, Francisco’s case went to trial. He was cleared of the more serious charges because the jury felt that he had acted in self-defense, according to his lawyer, Michael Zimbert. He was charged with a misdemeanor offense, but since he had already served a year in Central Juvenile Hall, the judge released him on the day of his trial.

Trying to reach Francisco after he got out was difficult—his cell phone was ringing every two seconds as friends called to congratulate him. He said he was looking forward to getting a fresh start in life. He hopes one day to be a probation officer. "I might have a chance to talk to kids my age and set them straight a little bit."

Francisco managed to do what many youth in his position wish they could do—tell someone his story, his way. I thought I would be writing a sob tale about a neglected youth who somehow got caught. Instead I met a young man who liked acting, planned on higher education and wanted to help others. Even though he had made mistakes, even though he was in jail, he had hopes for the future and he was doing his best to move in a positive direction. I’m just glad he’s getting a second chance.