Villains, Victims, Good And Evil: The Redemption of Oregon’s Incarcerated Youth

By Hannah Weinberg

At 9:37 p.m. on February 19, 2010, a seventeen year old boy is arrested for a series of crimes committed the previous November (Borrud, 2018). The charges against him are a collection of six methamphetamine-fueled armed robberies– including a Denny’s, two 7/11’s, an Original Philly’s, and an adults only store– all of which occured within the span of eleven days (Strovink, 2010). Months later, he pleads guilty and is sent to the Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC), expecting to spend the next fifteen years of his life behind bars. At DOC, he is placed in solitary confinement for six months, where he is allowed out of his cell for one hour in every thirty six- and it is this brief reprieve that allows him to maintain his sanity. Eventually, this defeated misfit is sent to Oregon Youth Authority, and it is here where, according to him, the story of his redemption begins.

The first time I met Joseph O’Leary, the director of Oregon Youth Authority, we were flying down zip lines with the rest of our party of family friends at Out ‘n About treehouses in Southern Oregon. The musty smell of horses and freshly cut grass raced by us as we fell from the sky, pine needles twirling to the ground. Later, hands clutched around bowls of soup and huddled around the campfire, we talked with some of the other campers. Slouching in camp chairs and shivering away the cold, a high school journalist, (me), her friend of five years, an IT consultant, and Joe, the acting director of Oregon’s juvenile detention shared stories as the sun began to set. It was around this fire-pit when my curiosity was peaked and I began my questioning of Joe.

“How do you change a culture? Is it with grassroots movements, or strong political leadership?” I asked O’Leary, having learned that he was one of the highest officials in Oregon’s Juvenile corrections agency. Oregon Youth Authority, I would later discover, is a government facility which admits and rehabilitates youth who have committed serious infractions against the law. Its mission is to “protect the public and reduce crime by holding youth accountable for their behavior” (Oregon Youth Authority). With the mandate of reshaping lives, I imagined that their goal cannot be to simply punish the youth for their misbehavior– my assumption was that rehabilitation plays a significant part. How much, was what I wanted to learn from Joe. And with reformed individuals, one would assume a change in their culture as well, because in the arena of juvenile corrections, officials take criminals and provide them the opportunity to both heal and grow. Those who refuse to grow are the ones who have high recidivism– the ones who keep returning and continuing their cycles of crime and/or addiction. If OYA wants to prevent youth from re-entering the system, they likely can’t reduce the numbers by asking each kid to think twice before he or she acts– they have to instill meaningful change in those individuals.

There are two types of responses to infractions that are talked about both in schools and in facilities such as OYA– punitive and restorative. Punitive measures involve strict punishment, whereas restorative justice focuses on teaching the individual about their mistakes and how to not make the same ones again. How do we change the communication style of our community members? In my small independent high school, we too debate the answer to this question. How do we prevent infractions and foster respect? At this point, we have no definite answer. I hoped Joe, an expert in the field of creating positive change in youth, would be able to offer some insight. After a long silence peppered with the soft crackle of burning wood, he began.

“Well- it’s not quite that simple . . .”

* * *

Six months later, I find myself sitting across from Joe in the conference room of the Multnomah County field office, asking him that same question once again. I was ready to resume our campfire- born conversation. With cropped dark hair and a tailored suit jacket, Joe looked every inch the professional– a stark contrast to the camping outfit he wore when we first met– but the corners of his eyes crinkled with each smile, and he had the easy posture of a friend. The door to the room was slightly ajar, behind which we could hear the padding sound of a toddler’s feet and the laughter of a reunited family. Joe described that a teenager who was scheduled for release in a few months was meeting with his family before returning to the facility which he called his temporary home. Much to my surprise, At 6pm on a winter evening, the flat colors of the building were brightened by the joyful mood of the people within it.

Born and raised in Oregon, Joe shared with me that he had been involved in public service from an early age, volunteering with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps NorthWest in Yakima Washington. He continued to become a defense attorney, and then general counsel to the Oregon Governor’s Office, from which he was appointed as the Deputy Director of OYA, where he served for five years. And in February of 2018, he was promoted from Acting Director to Director of the organization, following a Senate confirmation to that effect. On this late Friday afternoon, Director O’Leary held a slight rasp in his voice due to a cold, which slowed down pace of his sentences. He chose his words deliberately, and spoke each word with care.

“Historically, there really was no such consideration of juvenile justice before the turn of the century in the 1900’s,” O’Leary said. “The first juvenile court for kids solely used the victim model. It was this idea that something had happened to these kids that caused them to engage in this misbehavior, and so we, their community, and their state, need to come around them and protect them. Another idea that was popular at the time was something that most people now believe is a myth, of the super-predators. Which was the idea that there are these kids with no conscience, who are psychopaths. And they needed to be incapacitated for as long as possible, because they were broken. They were villains.”

We’re all familiar with the roles of law breaking youths in literature, movies and TV shows, who are characterized as either good or bad– victim of abuse, or evil villains. Fiction will oftentimes provide us with a character pure of heart and strong of will, our relatable protagonist, and then the antagonist, jealous and conniving. When taken into the real world, I see this reduction of personalities to ‘victim’ and the ‘villain’ as counter productive, because it emphasizes the ‘other-ing’ of criminals, thereby reducing our view of their innate humanity and our compassion as well, as a result. OYA has moved away from both polarized ends of the spectrum, and O’Leary believes that they now reside somewhere in the middle, not viewing the youths as evil villains, nor are they helpless victims, either. Instead, as newly appointed Director of OYA, Joe O’Leary is making the choice to focus the agency’s credo on youths’ accountability for their own actions.

Now how does OYA ensure that their treatment plans are rehabilitative and meaningful for their incarcerated youth? O’Leary asserts that the relationship between the administrative team and staff members is integral.

“If you go up a couple hundred thousand feet, you find this whole idea of looking at other people as a resource, a person to both teach and learn from, rather than a villain or a victim. We all have that villain part of us, we all have that victim part of us, and if we’re trying to get to the kind of accountability that comes from within, we have to practice it ourselves, so leadership has got to set the tone. And how we interact with our employees will be reflected in how our employees interact with their kids.”

I was surprised by Director O’Learys point– how he emphasized treating his workers with the same care and respect that they will give to the youth. As an organization, OYA has learned from their charges that second chances are not only possible, but necessary to the progression of a society, and by modeling this behavior with the staff members, Joe has done his part in integrating the values of compassion and forgiveness in his facilities.

In the past 5 years, Oregon Youth Authority has been engaged in a culture change effort, moving from correctional to developmental approaches of juvenile justice, which led to the Positive Human Development (PHD) model. Recently, the number of youth sent from OYA to the Department of Corrections, the adult penitentiary, has decreased drastically, because those at OYA have emphasized treatment programs in place of straight punishment. The developmental approaches focus on rehabilitation and learning, which lowers chances of recidivism as well.

According to a report by Governor Brown in 2015, “PHD is diametrically opposed to the ‘old’ way the justice system traditionally has operated, and instead is rooted in human connection. Rather than focusing on punishment, PHD focuses on helping youth develop the skills and maturity they need to lead positive lives while holding them accountable for their behaviors” (Brown, 2015). The PHD pyramid features five keys to youth success: safety and security, caring and supportive relationships, high expectations and accountability, meaningful participation, and community connection (Oregon Youth Authority, 2014).

From 2001 to 2013, the number of youth commitment to juvenile detentions has decreased by 26%, with 1,275 individuals committed in 2001, and 948 committed in 2013. This decline is impressive, however less so when compared to the declines in other states, such as Mississippi with a 74% decrease over the same time frame (Rovner, 2015). Regardless, these drops in numbers hopefully reflects fairer sentencing as results of good behavior. Further, an analytics based program was introduced to OYA which analyzes an individual in corrective care and determines where they are most likely to succeed. This program is applied to any youth who is being considered for transfer to DOC, and oftentimes, the youth remains in OYA or becomes the recipient of more treatment plans instead of being transferred, as their chance of recidivism increases dramatically if sent to adult prison. The use of this system has kept many youths out of adult jail, and launched them on the most successful trajectories possible.

In the evening, the young family from before had left the building, and the security workers had headed home as well. The overhead lights in the hallways were dim, with the brightest glow coming from our fluorescent conference room, where Joe and I sat.

Joe resumed talking: “I think one of our primary goals is to really entrench this culture change. It takes a really long time to develop new habits as human beings, to develop muscle memory around new practices, and this whole move away from the correctional approach is pretty new. Which is why we must walk that walk, continuing to treat our youth with care and respect.”

Joe O’Leary had only worked as Director of the Oregon Youth Authority for a few weeks when we had our conversation, but I have high hopes that he is going to be an effective leader. He spoke with a quiet confidence, and when he talked about his goals for the future, I saw what I read as true faith in his gaze. He believes in positive change, and he knows that he has the ability to influence the culture of juvenile justice. And his first step? Changing how OYA thinks about the people in their care. In the past few years, OYA has changed the phrasing in its policies, changing ‘delinquents’ and ‘offenders’ to ‘youth,’ and most recently, ‘human.’ Joe wholeheartedly supports this decision. “We took the ‘youth’ out, and put the ‘human’ in.”

* * *

Nine years after committing the crimes which would shape the rest of his life, the impressionable seventeen year-old boy from 2010 is unrecognizable. Several weeks after our meeting, I took Director O’Leary up on his offer of meeting a former youth from one of OYA’s resident facilities. When I met with him at the Heathman hotel in late February, the now twenty five year-old, Brandon Dixon, looked like any of the other male Portland millenials, with a clean haircut, casual white shirt, flashy silver watch, and wrinkle-free khakis. His eyes– a light blue– were earnest and held a steady gaze. Dixon, a barber with a teaching degree, a passion for cooking, a fluency in three languages, and a felony, was put together and charming, but with a solemn air.

In August of 2017, Dixon faced a threat alongside his twenty fifth birthday– the age at which he would transfer from OYA to DOC, where he feared he would spend the next seven years of his life. After eight years in custody, this time seemed like an eternity. “I just felt defeated.” However, on the eve of his birthday, Governor Kate Brown gave him an early birthday present. She summoned him to a meeting, and with the recommendation of District Attorney John Foote, she granted him clemency. With the stroke of her pen, Brown gave Dixon a second chance.

Brandon’s newfound freedom was not an accident– it was the reward for his wholehearted commitment to his own rehabilitation and growth. Once in OYA, he discovered a phenomenon which he and his friends like to call the five percent rule.

“When you first walk through those gates as a prisoner,” Brandon said, explaining the ‘rule’, “you realize there’s a certain group of guys that are just doing something different- they’re not getting in trouble. And why is that? It’s because they chose to really take advantage of their time and really do something different because they know what they have been doing isn’t working. You see, there’s a certain percentage of people there, that are just different.”

And these people were the key to his success. Brandon decided to follow this minority group of well behaving inmates and stay out of trouble. And with their help, he was able to take advantage of all the opportunities that he was given while in OYA.

It’s late morning, and as Brandon and I sit across from each other in the dining area of the Heathman, business begins to pick up around us– the sound of clinking cutlery raises ever so slightly, and the filtered light from the restaurant’s large windows paints shapes on our table. Our coffee cups are nearly empty.

While in custody, Dixon achieved more things than many people might achieve in the outside world– jail appears to have inspired him to improve his work ethic. “Oregon Youth Authority does a really great job developing intrinsic motivation,” he said. “Some people already have it, and some people have to develop it while in the facility.”At OYA, he became fluent in Spanish, got a third of the way through Portuguese, finished high school, began co-teaching workshops with the staff members, attended college to get both his associates and teaching degree, and now he’s two terms away from receiving his third. He created various fitness and accounting programs, contributed to chapters in a few books, completed his hair design license, learned to cook, and built his own barber shop. Dixon currently spends fifty to sixty hour weeks barbering at the prestigious Throne barbershop, and he spends his free time as a personal trainer, taking college courses, speaking at OYA facilities, and educating about incarcerated life.

Reflecting on my earlier conversation with Director O’Leary, I wanted to know Brandon’s opinion on ‘good’ as opposed to ‘bad’ people. Because of some serious mistakes made in his childhood, Brandon became a felon, and he will face the prejudice of that for the rest of his life. But what’s most clear about him is how much he has evolved from the self described “selfish punk” he was at seventeen. Are there good and bad people? He responded: “There are good people everywhere! If they deep down have a good heart, then in my eyes, they’re a good person, because they’ll do the right thing. But no, I don’t believe in ‘bad people.’ I believe that some people don’t want to change, aren’t ready to change, or aren’t capable. If you think that it’s all about you, you’re in trouble. There’s a big world out there.”

There are good people, and those who do not change. Brandon embraced his mistakes, and he underwent a metamorphosis while at OYA. By his own definition, he’s absolutely a good person– and all people can be– as long as they maintain a growth mindset.

By this point, almost an hour has passed, and Brandon is relaxed, leaning his wicker chair back on two legs, laughing easily and talking about his dreams of retiring his mom and traveling the world. He has a large tattoo on his left forearm, an oblong rectangle which I hadn’t been able to identify from far away. But on closer inspection, I realize that it’s an incomplete design– a barber’s razor with a serial code on the side. “That’s my barber number,” he explained. He plans to add a pair of shears, in addition to more illustrations, all centering around his passion– cutting hair. “I like cutting hair, but I like people more,” he said with a grin. As a man with quite an interesting story, I wasn’t surprised that his greatest dedication was to hearing those of others. I thanked him for his time, and as he walked past the hotel porters in renaissance costume, he gave one last wave.

Through past mistakes, Brandon Dixon has lived the experience of being the ‘classic’ villain. However, after speaking with him, I realized that characterizing someone in that way– by labeling them as an antagonist and refusing to see the remainder of their story– is one of the most destructive things that we as individuals, and as a larger society, can do. After hitting rock bottom, Brandon found a second chance in the Oregon Youth Authority, and he took it. That motivation to change the self is not something that can be forced upon anyone, but it is integral that this opportunity is granted to all who have made mistakes. Additionally, Director Joe O’Leary, and his future work with OYA, is necessary for this change. He understands that compassion and forgiveness are required in restorative justice, and without it, the youth at OYA would not be given a fair chance. But if the youth are seen not as criminals, but simply as humans who traveled down the wrong path, there is a bright future for many of them in OYA. And Brandon is the perfect advocate for this safety net. He embraced his mistakes, and not only made a life for himself in teaching and barbering, but he is a role model to his peers and gives back to those in corrective care facilities. According to Brandon, there are no evil people, simply those who are stuck in their ways. What we can learn from him? Even in the outside world, be more compassionate, more forgiving, and look to change yourself. Admit to your mistakes, and create positive change. If we all hold ourselves and others accountable, then there really is a redemption story for everyone.


Works Cited

Brown, Kate. Oregon Youth Authority Takes on Ambitious Project of Training over 1,000 Staffers

on Positive Human Development (PHD), including at MacLaren. Oregon Youth Authority, 8 Apr. 2015,

ApproachJuvenileJusticeApril2015.pdf . Accessed 24 Apr. 2018.

Borrud, Hillary. “Kate Brown Grants Clemency to Young Man Who Served Time for 2009

Robbery Spree.” The Oregonian. OregonLive,  Accessed 23 May 2018.

Dixon, Brandon. Interview. 25 Apr. 2018

O’Leary, Joseph. Interview. 23 Feb. 2018

Oregon Youth Authority at a Glance. 2017,  Accessed 18 Apr. 2018.

Strovink, Jim. “Armed Robbery Suspect Apprehended for Series of Robbery Events

Occurring in Clackamas County.” PDX Traffic, 20 Feb. 2010, Accessed 23 May 2018.

“QuickFacts Oregon.” 2017. United States Census, Accessed 25

Apr. 2018. Raw data.

Rovner, Joshua. “Declines in Youth Commitments and Facilities in the 21st

Century.” 11 Dec. 2015. The Sentencing Project,

/publications/declines-in-youth-commitments-and-facilities-in-the-21st-century/. Accessed 25 Apr. 2018. Raw data.

“Welcome to the Oregon Youth Authority.” Oregon Youth Authority,  Accessed 18 Apr. 2018.

Youth Reformation System. Oregon Youth Authority, 2014, Accessed 25 Apr. 2018.