Field Notes: The Ballad of Kenneth (Pt 1)

When I first saw Kenneth in the intake area of LCJC two weeks ago, I was compelled by the structure of his face. He is too beautiful to be a repeat offender from the Midwestern capital of urban blight. He was handcuffed to a teenage runaway, and with them was another handcuffed pair, Kenneth's 14-year-old brother Kentrell and a clownishly goofy looking accomplice. They were cuffed in pairs so that the four could be managed by a single police officer.

Kenneth and Kentrell were facing charges of vandalism and criminal mischief, having been picked up for breaking into cars at the Gary train station.  A local resident snapped photographs of Kenneth and crew in action, called the police.
Kenneth and his brother are the most hopeless pair to have crossed through while I've been here, and the most seasoned of the facility's staff look upon them with sympathy.  Last night, one of the residential supervisors (LCJC's version of a prison guard) delivered Kenneth's meal, on the eve of his court hearing, and admonished him for showing up so many times in LCJC---this is Kenneth's seventh visit---and he shared with Kenneth words of hope, and he told him that he loved him.
Kenneth and Kentrell are two years apart, brothers in a family of ten children, father in prison for narcotics, mother who did time two years ago for dealing crack cocaine.  A woman with her own demons, to be sure, demons that follow bloodlines upstream.
When Kenneth was eleven years old, he was handling a firearm  and accidentally shot his brother in the stomach.  He hoisted his brother into his arms, frantic at his mistake, and carried him to get help.  Picture it: a shocked eleven-year-old carrying his nine-year-old brother, the latter bleeding from the gut.  Kentrell lived and now lives in his brother's image, a repeat offender at 14.
Kentrell is also an attractive young man, though he seems simple with his slight overbite and constant giggle.  When he responds to questions he responds unintelligibly, communicating more with a shake or tilt of his head than with his utterances.  This is true whether the questioner is a documentary interviewer or a judge.  Some have concluded that this demeanor is a clever ruse, while others believe he is mildly retarded.
Kenneth responds to questions with the sincerity of grade school student giving an oral book report.  His responses to general question seem like rehearsed, stock answers.  But they seem like answers he believes to be true, the only answers one could give.  Hidden in his vague and simple responses is a desire for them to be more profound, more convincing.
The brothers have been in and out of detention for a third of their life.  Their mother has been likewise.  Same for the father.  Same for their uncles.  Their childhoods have been spent in Gary, Indiana.  The photographs speak volumes.  They have been a plague to their community, from the perspective of the system, and their community is rife with plague.
I don't excuse this kids for the choices they make, I simply cannot imagine them making different choices.  I can imagine very little for Kenneth and Kentrell, they seem to be very appropriate products of their family and community.  They could be guilty of far more egregious crimes and still seem thus.


Kenneth and Kentrell's mother declined to show up to their detention hearing, citing heart palpitations and recently diagnosed cancer.  In her stead, their 24-year-old sister Octavia came to court to speak on their mother's behalf.  Octavia is dipped from the same forgiving gene pool as her brothers.


There is little hope for the brothers to be sent home in their sisters care, and for as much time as they've spent in the system you might think they would guess as much.  Kenneth takes the stand to speak on his own behalf.  When he responds to his attorney's questions, Kenneth repeats the question as a school boy might recite his teacher's query.
"Kenneth, considering how many times you've been where you are now, what can you say to convince the court that you've learned a lesson this time?"
When Kenneth listens to his attorney, a kind and attractive man of roughly my age named Don Wruck, he looks him in the eye, concerned, and when he responds his eyes track to a vacant place in the middle of the courtroom floor and he focuses on some distance only he recognizes.
"Why do I think I've learned my lesson this time?  Because this time is more serious.  Bein' in here's made me think about what I did, and the seriousness of it . . ."  And he recited the admonition that he's been hearing for years from a first person perspective, until ". . . and that's why I think I've learned my lesson this time."
And he lifts his eyes from the place on the floor, looks back to his attorney who nods and finishes his questioning.  Don elects not to call Kentrell to the stand, for the boy's bewildered simplicity will do nothing to sway the court one way or the other.
Octavia takes the stand, and her role too seems familiar, almost rehearsed.  She reports her mother's illness, cites her father and an older brother who are incarcerated, leaving Kenneth as the man of the house.  She says his siblings miss him, and they look up to him, and Kenneth begins to cry.
He covers his face with his slender, feminine hands and rubs the tears into his cheeks.  She continues and he looks at her, attempts composure, but when tears slip out and fall to the glass top table he looks down and sweeps them away, dries the table with his sleeve.

The judge has little choice but to detain the boys until their initial hearing.  As she reads her decision Kentrell seems dumbstruck and Kenneth drops his head in deeper sobs that continue as the brothers are led from the court.
You cannot help but be saddened by these two, and the judge is no exception.  But what home life can she send them home to?  Detention is the only safe place for Kenneth and his brother until the court decides their most promising path to rehabilitation two weeks hence.  And at that hearing, their mother shows up.
Posted on June 21, 2010 and filed under Behind The Scenes w/ Calamari.