Normally, most of us wouldn't wish prison or the military on anyone. But when you're in prison, and your best option is the military, well, that's an entirely different story.
And that is the story of John Madden, the rosy-cheeked 18-year-old who emerges as the "star" of “Lockup: Pendleton Juvenile Extended Stay,” the latest stellar juvenile-justice documentary from Indianapolis filmmaker Karen Grau.
In this three-part documentary, Grau, who's made her name nationally by taking cameras into places few of us have ever seen — juvenile courts and prisons — brings us back for a third look inside the Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility, the address of 300 of Indiana's most notorious young offenders.
That's where we meet Madden, who looks like a young version of actor Kevin Connolly from “Entourage” and talks like Eminem's little brother. Madden confesses sheepishly that he's spent his 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th birthdays inside the razor-wire-enclosed lockup. But he's been participating in the Future Soldier Program and hopes to get out and join the military.
As you'll see in the totally compelling first hour, that's not as easy as it sounds. For one thing, Madden has to prove that he deserves to be released. Then he has to pass an exam. Then — toughest of all — he has to be out of lockup for a minimum of 30 days before he can enlist.
Thirty days sounds like nothing, but when you come from a gang- and drug-infested neighborhood, it's more than ample time to find new trouble. Madden doesn't share much about his crimes or his background, but he tells us most of what we need to know when he talks about how he doesn't want to follow in the footsteps of his father, who's been in and out of prison.
I won't tell you how his story ends, but I can pretty well guarantee that you'll be rooting for the kid.
Madden's story is the dominant one in the first part of “Lockup,” which also gives us a look at counselors trying to calm down crazed teens and guards performing a harrowing "cell extraction," rushing in to subdue an inmate who may be about to do himself harm.
"Juveniles are much more challenging and much more frustrating on a daily basis," Pendleton Superintendent Mike Dempsey says.
Watch “Lockup” and you'll see just how much of an understatement that really is.