Josefina, 22, is one of seven graduates in Oregon Youth Authority’s peer mentoring pilot program. The program gives her state certification and gives her the opportunity to mentor other youth while incarcerated. (Aubrey Wieber/Salem Reporter)

Editor’s note: Youth in this story are identified by their first names only at the request of the Oregon Youth Authority.

ALBANY — When Josefina walked into Oak Creek Youth Correctional Facility five and a half years ago, she was closed off and angry at the world.

She often used alcohol and drugs to work through issues, but that wasn't an option anymore. She had been convicted of attempted murder for her involvement in a homicide committed when she was 15.

"I didn't know who I was," Josefina, now 22, said.

As one of the first graduates of Oregon Youth Authority's peer mentoring program, Josefina counsels other teens and young women at Oak Creek, Albany detention center for about 50 females. She also helps lead group counseling sessions.

The transformation is stark, but it took time and work. When Josefina got to Oak Creek, she recognized many faces from the year and a half she spent in juvenile detention leading up to her conviction.

She made friends with people in the facility that reminded her of her former life of running with gangs and using drugs. She also starved herself and hoarded sharp objects so when she was hit with a rush of emotion, she could find release by cutting herself.

But a change surfaced in December 2015. Her victim’s mother reached out to the staff at Oak Creek, asking them to pass along a message: She forgave Josefina.

Turning a negative into a positive

Josefina started accepting accountability and taking her treatment more seriously. She worked to forgive herself and realize she was more than her crime.

"Not too many people get that," she said. "It's a blessing."

She now uses that experience to help other young women entering Oregon’s juvenile justice system. Today, Josefina doesn't resemble a violent or cold person. She's candid and open and is deeply involved in reform.

The peer mentoring program was in part started by Ed Zager, treatment services coordinator at Oregon Youth Authority. He noticed a period of incarceration can actually be a plus in shaping people for counseling jobs. If youth can get a basic certification as counselors, that could give them a leg up once they are released, he thought.

After being released, the youth qualify for entry-level jobs if they pursue the field. Additionally, that certificate means that while they are still in state custody, they can mentor other youth, connecting on a level that an adult might not be able to.

Of the eight youth participated in the pilot program. Four are still in state juvenile custody. The agency is planning a new class of about 12.

"They get to take things that were considered negatives in their past — their own use and incarceration — and now they're going to turn it into a positive," said Sarah Evans, spokeswoman for the youth authority.

To be eligible, the youth need to be sober for at least two years, engaging in recovery activity such as substance abuse treatment and have a clean behavioral record for six months. The classes are co-ed and take youth from all facilities.

Learning to mentor

Oak Creek sits about five miles from Interstate 5 in southern Albany, set between the city and miles of agricultural land to the south.

It’s one of five state youth correctional facilities, and the only one for females. The state takes juveniles sentenced by a juvenile court judge and teens 15 through 17 charged as adults. Youth can stay in state juvenile custody until they are 25. Any time remaining on their sentence after that is served in the state’s adult prisons.

From the outside, Oak Creek looks like a standard government building, but as soon as you step in the lobby it’s clear the facility is secure. The building wraps around a large open courtyard. It’s far friendlier than an adult prison yard, with grass, concrete pathways, picnic tables and a small pond holding two ducks.

Inside are large dorm rooms where up to 25 youth live, sleeping in bunk beds. Each has a connected day room with couches and tables.

While they don’t live in cells, the youth are still always supervised by an adult employee.

The youth spend most of their day in the classroom. They can also participate in vocational or extracurricular programs and attend daily treatment sessions.

On a recent afternoon, Josefina sat on a school chair in a circle with seven other youth. The walls in the small classroom were adorned with posters showing the physical impacts various drugs have on the body. It was like what might be in a middle school health class, except the goal isn’t to stop them from trying drugs, it’s to keep them from going back to drugs.

The young women come from all walks of life and were there for different reasons, but united by incarceration.

Josefina stood out. Her glittery, silver slip-ons contrasted with the bulky black Velcro shoes the others wore. And she had traded out the blue sweatpants and baggy, lime-green sweatshirt uniforms the others wore for tight jeans and a long-sleeved black T-shirt.

Josefina sits left of John Jones, a drug and alcohol counselor, to lead a group treatment session focused on building socialization skills. (Aubrey Wieber/Salem Reporter)

Josefina had been there long enough and behaved well enough to earn special privileges, such as the ability to wear her own clothes. She also sat next to John Jones, a state drug and alcohol counselor, to lead the meeting.

“To help out other people in the same way others helped me made me feel like not a bad person,” Josefina said about mentoring.

The group was working on socialization, reading from a book about how life experiences can provoke decisions, good or bad.

In one moment, the high school maturity of the youth is clear; a ham-handed analogy in the book about trying to fry an egg in a toaster makes the girls laugh and get side tracked.

But in the blink of an eye, they hit on far weightier subjects. While they might be young, the youth have often battled substance addiction, been around violence and endured trauma.

One, who looks young enough to be a high school freshman, softly tells the group two years of methamphetamine use cemented the substance as a crutch. Now, she is learning to process emotion again.

Another talks about her week, which included her son’s birthday as well as the death of a friend. They talk about how they don't want to be at Oak Creek, and feel they'll never be released.

The group goes back to reading aloud from the book, mechanically working through the paragraphs, nary an ounce of excitement. When the reader hits on something the leaders want to expand on, Josefina or Jones stops them. How can they relate the lesson to their lives?

At once, the room livens again.

Josefina and John Jones lead a group of seven youth. The girls read from their workbooks until Jones or Josefina hear something they want to expand upon, such as coping skills or dealing with anger. (Aubrey Wieber/Salem Reporter)

A new way of living

It's wave after wave of emotion for an outsider, but the youth seem used to it. It’s part of their new routine.

Naseria, 18, had been in for 10 months. She talked about how the group work — learning how to avoid using substances as a crutch — has made doing time easier.

On that outside, Naseria said, she never participated in counseling. The concept was foreign. But now, she's openly talking about her crimes and sobriety.

Peer mentors like Josefina have also helped. She's always around to explain how the facility works or help her with homework.

Staff describe the strides Josefina has made in the past few years, but her life outside of the facility sheds more light on her journey.

As a little girl in northeast Portland, Josefina was happy and outgoing. As she got older, she took to writing fictional stories and playing in the park.

But a little bit of her light was dimmed at age 5 when she found out her father was murdered before she was born. Growing up, family members like her brother and cousin were in gangs, and she was often around gang activity.

In the sixth grade, Josefina fell in with a similar crowd. Her grades suffered, and she started getting in fights.

In seventh grade she started skipping school to drink, do drugs and hang out with boys. She eventually dropped out of school and joined a gang.

That path led Josefina to being implicated in a homicide years later. She declined to talk in detail about her crime, saying she wants to first tell the account to the victim’s mother.

But she said it was a gang-related incident that involved her and two others. Josefina said she wasn’t directly involved in the killing.

Following the killing, Josefina crawled further into the recesses of her mind, retreating from friends and family and turning to drugs.

“Those were my darkest days,” she said.

She was surprised to be arrested two months later. Her adolescent mind didn’t even think about criminal repercussions. She was mostly afraid of her mom finding out and punishing her.

“I was just thinking how it went wrong,” she said. “After being involved in gangs for a long time, I was just kind of still surprised how easy it was for someone to take someone’s life.”

Being involved in a death can make an adolescent grow up quickly. But at Oak Creek, that type of experience has actually helped Josefina and another peer mentor, Kathryn, reach other youth.

Kathryn came to Oak Creek three years ago after intentionally hitting another car in a suicide attempt. She survived, but the crash killed someone else. Going through that trauma prompted Kathryn to want to help others.

Both also said they think it gives them some authority: The other youth know what they’ve been through.

Kathryn also said the dynamic is reciprocal.

“Feeling like we can help other people is maybe a part of dealing with what we’ve done,” she said.

Kathryn said mentoring others helped her overcome biases she had when she entered Oak Creek. Coming in contact with sex offenders really bothered her, she said.

Now, she said, she thinks about all the different scenarios that led to someone’s crime. She thinks about how she doesn’t know the full story, and people are more than what they get convicted of.

Josefina said she sees her past choices in the girls coming into Oak Creek. She’s been through what they are dealing with and come out the other side. It gives her words as a mentor more weight.

“I definitely have a purpose now because I am figuring out what I want to do in life,” she said. “As a 15-year-old I was living day by day, trying to find excitement or where I could get my next high.”

Josefina was 15 when arrested for her involvement in a homicide. A year and a half later, she landed at Oak Creek Youth Correctional Facility to start her 15-year sentence. About five years in, she has made a transformation and dedicated herself to a mentally healthy life where she isn’t dependent on drugs. (Aubrey Wieber/Salem Reporter)

Life after incarceration

Katheryn doesn’t anticipate a career in counseling, but the program’s aspirations extend beyond job training.

Evans and Zager are hoping participants find empowerment in the responsibility the program places on them, and the help they give to other youth.

Evans said the program has helped several graduates come to terms with their past.

“It doesn’t just have to be this negative thing that is only bringing bad to the world,” Evans said. “Now I can show that not only have I changed, and I am sorry about what I did, but I’m also going to turn it into a positive now moving forward.”

Josefina still has almost 10 years left on her 15-year sentence. Because she was convicted under Oregon’s mandatory minimum sentencing law, Measure 11, she will do every day of it.

In a few years, she will go to an adult prison. When asked how she feels about it, she struggled to answer, choking up between words.

Josefina fears having her relationships with staff severed and worries she could backslide in an environment where people don’t want to better themselves.

“To be able to make a big change and then be away from the people who have seen me grow and help me grow, is really hard,” she said.

But she does like to think about her life after prison. She wants to be a journalist, possibly covering incarceration, but overall, she wants to give a voice to the unheard, she said.

And when asked if she would trade her life now, locked up, for the freedom she had as a 15-year-old, she paused, then said, “I feel more comfortable with who I am and how I have developed mentally and emotionally. I like who I am now.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story reported the incorrect criminal charge for Josefina. She was convicted of attempted murder.

Reporter Aubrey Wieber: [email protected] or 503-575-1251. He is a reporter for Salem Reporter working with the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of the Pamplin Media Group, EO Media Group, and Salem Reporter.