Juvenile offenders start life over with a crochet hook

At a facility in Maine, Brendan Staples and other teenagers make blankets in a program that teaches valuable skills and life lessons.

At first glance, stubborn cowlicks and goofy humor are the most unruly things noticeable about the teen-age boys gathered in a late afternoon meeting of the Blanket Project at the Long Creek Youth Development Center.

The group is calm and focused on their hands – the nicked knuckles and nibbled nails of hands gripping crochet hooks. They wrap and hook and pull and release strands of yarn that bloom, inch by inch, into bright creations on their laps. And we're not talking grandma doilies here – we're talking tightly woven blankets that can weigh several pounds and cool monogrammed hats that teenagers would actually be seen in.

But the quiet conversation – about bad dreams and crochet blisters, meds they take and girlfriends outside – wafting from the klatch at this juvenile detention facility belies just who these kids are. Asked how many incarcerations each has, the dozen boys call out numbers – 9, 17, 11 ... to a total of 139. The youngest, an impish 13-year-old in his first day in the crocheting program and hooking an inexpertly loose first few rows of a blanket, reports 14 incarcerations.

Their crimes? Attempted murder, arson, gun-running, drug sales, and more.

In another world – the adult world – these boys would be called felons. At Long Creek, they're juvenile offenders allowed second, third, fourth, and more chances to correct their ways.

But still, Long Creek is a jail. Kids arrive shackled and cuffed. They're patted down every time they come "home" to their 8-by-15-foot locked bedroom cells. They have a life without hip-hop (too violent) that starts at 6:30 wake-up and ends at 9 or 10 p.m. lights-out, and even in this program the crochet hooks and scissors are counted and carefully checked out and in.

The Blanket Project is for those who earn it through good behavior – and once involved, they're careful not to lose the privilege. "Crocheting makes me feel good," says Timma Johnstone, a pony-tailed, 19-year-old arsonist who burned a field "because I was mad at someone." Crocheting a long pink blanket, he adds, "When you're here you can calm down."

Yes, it's touchy-feely, but the program is about more than making the boys feel good.

"It helps the kids build those skills they've not been exposed to at all, or have had no opportunity to practice," says Dan Reardon, a consultant and former CEO of the Bass shoe company who has volunteered 20 hours a week here as a mentor for more than a decade. "To create something from beginning to end, being able to give to their families and communities, talking for hours and hours – those are all social skills that will help make them successful outside. That's restorative justice – to make everybody whole."

The blankets – dozens of them crocheted, dozens more cut-and-tied fleece – are largely given back to the communities in which crimes were committed. They go to homeless shelters, day-care centers, and retirement homes.

"Jail doesn't make anybody better," says Mr. Reardon, echoing the corrections conundrum that has forever vexed policymakers. "But [the Blanket Project] brings them closer to reconciliation with the community."

There's no direct measure of how the project or other "risk intervention" programs like it at Long Creek contribute to keeping kids on the straight and narrow. But this facility, says superintendent Rod Bouffard, has a low rate of recidivism – 15 percent. About 85 percent of those youths released from Long Creek in the past year and a half have not been recommitted to any correctional facility, he says, compared with a national average of just over 50 percent.

Tomorrow begins one boy's test of his Blanket Project mettle. Branden Staples, a veteran from Long Creek's "high risk" unit, turns 20 on Thanksgiving Day and will walk free after spending most of his teen years here for an attempted murder in a drunken brawl and assaults on a probation officer and policeman.

To look into his wholesome face – chiseled like Ben Affleck's – is to see the all-American kid down the street. The kid destined to charm and succeed. To see his eyes well up with emotion about the smiles his blankets have brought a needy elderly man and a toddler in a day-care center is to witness genuine tenderness.

But charm, tenderness, and Blanket Project notwithstanding, to hear the strapping teen recount, in his soft Maine accent, the complex and violent story of where he's been is to worry a bit about where he's going.

Branden calls himself "the backbone" of his family of seven children, who grew up behind the bar that his single mother owned in down-and-out Lewiston, Maine. As a self-appointed protector of underdogs and women, he explains that he has had trouble containing himself when he sees someone being dissed. He learned, he says, at the feet of bar patrons: "We lived right behind the bar, so seeing fights and arguments or drunk people ... it wasn't anything different.... I grew up with the wrong crowd, I guess."

His first brush with authorities was at age 6 when he was caught rifling through a mailbox looking for checks. While he says he was an A and B student and was moved up to varsity-level football as a freshman, Branden's childhood was full of run-ins with the law: fights, marijuana, alcohol, oxycontin abuse.

Branden's description of his most troubling crime – attempted murder – is a fog of conflicting facts and emotion. He was 15 and drunk. He tackled a man he says was beating a woman; the fight escalated when the man pulled a knife and Branden either grabbed the knife or one of his own – his story changes in the telling. In the struggle, Branden stabbed the man – 29 times – and ran. "I knew I did something wrong," he says. But what most concerned him at the time, he recalls, was whether he'd get to school the next day because he didn't like to miss. The man took six months to recover, leaving Branden waiting to learn whether he'd be charged as an adult with murder, or something less.

It's difficult to discern if it's streetwise pragmatism or childish petulance that Branden displays when he says, deadpan, on the eve of his release: "I don't feel remorse.... If he hadn't been assaulting a female and pulled a knife ... then none of it would have happened." Branden admits he had a knife that night, but adds, "his was a lot bigger than mine, though."

For all that he's missed on the outside – getting a driver's license, the prom, the football team, taking care of his brothers and sisters – Branden's been a star in the Blanket Project. He's made more blankets – 25 crocheted, and hundreds more tied fleece – than anyone else. And to think, he refused to join the group for his first 18 months, saying, "This is granny knittin'; it ain't for me."

Authorities here have reason for hope for Branden – he's been exposed to all that Long Creek has to offer (education, counseling, job training, and the Blanket Project).

"He has a chance," says Reardon.

Branden's Thanksgiving Day chance is the kind every boy here longs for but that, ironically, all fear. It's safe here – a respite from the jungle. "The thing I fear most about leaving this facility is that I can't come back here," says Branden, who will go home to his sister's in Lewiston, just miles from the streets that shaped him and sent him here. "I don't want to get back out and fall into the same group. If I leave here this time and get in trouble.... I'll be guaranteed to be away a long period of time."

But Branden utters the words "I hope" a lot – about everything from his dream of being a Fortune 500 CEO to being able to make his stuffed mushroom specialty for his family on Thanksgiving. The hopes that still survive in a boy already incarcerated for a quarter of his life are something Branden can be thankful for.

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