When people in charge are mostly white, what’s a black kid in jail to think?
When black youth enter the criminal justice system, most of the people in authority they come into contact with — social workers, lawyers, the jury — are white.
Diontae Moore-Lyons, 17, is currently incarcerated at Green Hill School in Chehalis, Washington, the state's maximum security facility for juveniles.
Moore-Lyons shot another teen during a fight over a misplaced hair pick. Shortly after the shooting, he called his mom.
“She was crying super hard, you know, telling me they're (the police) gonna kill you. I didn’t want my mom feeling like that,” Moore-Lyons said. "So I had to do what I had to do.”
He turned himself in the next morning and was charged as an adult with first degree assault. He is scheduled to be incarcerated until his 21st birthday.
He wishes there were more grown-ups around who understand his background.
“I’d like to see somebody who’s been through the struggle, who’s been in the streets, who I can look up to,” Moore-Lyons said. “It feels good to see somebody like me that actually did something with their life and been successful with their life. It gives me a sense of motivation.”
Moore-Lyons said he acted on impulse when he participated in that shooting, that his reputation was on the line.
This is the kind of dynamic that mentor Dominique Davis is trying to combat.
"When you don't have hope, all you got is the homies. Then that's all you live for every day. You need to have a sense of success,” Davis said. "We're trying to bring hope."
Davis’s team at Community Passageways mentors black youth. When Davis isn’t working with young people, he’s talking to county and city leaders about the importance of community partnerships and detention alternatives. He believes the most effective voices for change are black.
“We have to take that initiative to show them that, no, there are some real powerful, positive black people out here who are willing to help and take you to another level and grab you by the hand and show you the process on how to get there," Davis said. "It needs to be culturally relevant."
Antoinette Kavanaugh, a forensic clinical psychologist in Chicago who specializes in juvenile justice, said staff members can send messages to the youth about their expectations of a certain race versus another race “unintentionally, but potently.”
Two-thirds of the youth at Green Hill are black. But an even higher percentage of the "direct care staff" — counselors, security staff, kitchen staff, health center staff, recreation staff and psychologists — are white.
“You never see yourself through the whole system,” Davis said. “And then where do you see yourself? At when you get locked up. That's the only place you see yourself at. That is a subliminal message that 'I belong in here.'”
Kavanaugh pointed to a study that shows that black youth in detention are disciplined more harshly and are less likely to get mental health care.
“What they found out in the facility was, despite the level that their mental needs were at the same level, the white kids received more services. That's an institutionalized racism there,” Kavanaugh said.
Like many young black men, Moore-Lyons struggles with trauma. He said he has nightmares and flashbacks. Right now, he said he's getting medication but not therapy.
Reporter: "When you work with your social workers here, what kinds of things do they help you with?"
“What kind of things do they help me with?" he responded, after a delay.
Reporter: “Yeah, do you just have a regular therapy session where you talk it out?”
“Nope,” he said.
“You don’t get any mental health care?”
“Do you need it?"
Green Hill won't specifically discuss Moore-Lyons’ case.
When youth are sentenced to Green Hill, their mental health, education needs are evaluated. Each youth has a counselor who works with them on building social skills, regulating emotions and managing relationships.
Kavanaugh said cultural competency trainings could help white staff.
In 2010, Washington state began work to address the racial imbalance across the Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration.
Hiring staff of color is still a challenge because state detention facilities are located in rural areas. But by 2016, 98 percent of the JRA staff had completed diversity and inclusion training.
Jennifer Redman, acting superintendent at Green Hill, said they had more training this spring.
“It was a lot of self-reflection,” Redman said. “A lot of how we apply it to working with the youth and really just understanding and meeting youth where they're at, trying to understand their background.
“We’ve got work to do.”
That became apparent a few minutes later when Redman answered a question about how well staff work with a disproportionately black population.
“I’m working with Diontae, who is an individual who got in trouble,” Redman said. “For us it's all about just working with youth in a way that is culturally competent and almost, is race invisible, to an extent.”
Hearing about Redmond’s response, Dominique Davis said he wasn’t surprised.
“That makes me laugh, because when people say things like that, they mean it from their heart. But that's their brainwashing: 'I’m not racist, I don’t see color.' That’s just a whole other level of racism," Davis said.
And while it may be well intentioned, Davis said that kind of thinking won’t help kids like Moore-Lyons succeed — in or out of incarceration. He said if state and local leaders are serious about addressing racial disparity and juvenile justice, they have to get serious about addressing the problems of cultural competency.
“You have people that are talking the language, because 'restorative justice' and 'equity' and 'racial disparities' and all those words are being thrown out all over the place," Davis said. "We're in a good time right now to take advantage of that.
"But it comes down to, ‘Are you going to put your money where your mouth is?’"
Meantime, Moore-Lyons is trying to get through his time at Green Hill.
Recently he found a reason for the kind of hope Davis tries to instill in the youth he works with.
Moore-Lyons was participating in a panel discussion about youth incarceration when a black youth advocate from Tacoma offered to help him find his path after release in 2020.
“I just gave my mom his phone number,” Moore-Lyons said. “Hopefully at least when I get to the group home, I can get in touch with him. Hopefully he doesn't forget about me, though."