Off the coast of Anacortes, Wash., exists a cluster of islands known as the San Juans. While a few of them sustain entire towns that appear on maps, the smaller, more remote ones are little more than aesthetic landmarks. In the spring of 1999, when I was 14 years old, I was marched along a dock at the marina in Anacortes, ushered like a prisoner onto a boat named Sea Wolf, and driven to one such island, dubbed “Little Alcatraz” by its residents.
My biological father died when I was two, and for a few years it was just my mom, me, and her array of various boyfriends. One of my earliest memories involves one of them finding out about another and breaking my dog’s leg. She married my stepfather when I was five, and though he taught me what it meant to be a man by taking full responsibility for a child that wasn’t his, we never forged much of a bond.
I was 13 years old the first time I ran away from a home where I couldn’t seem to do anything right. My parents spoke to me with their fists and belts more often than words. After having been picked up in different counties and states along the I-5 corridor, my mother finally took the advice of a caseworker who recommended she petition a judge to have me sent to Little Alcatraz.
The scenery during the ride was reminiscent of wilderness scenes from the movie, “Jurassic Park.” The boat cut between forested landscapes for the greater portion of an hour before reaching Cypress Island. I spent most of it trying not to cry or show any signs of weakness because there was also a group of boys who had been on a store-run with staff.
Secret Harbor School was the type of boys’ home I had thought only existed in movies. The building was reminiscent of a ski resort, and the surrounding view was heavenly, but I quickly learned that it was no vacation home. I wouldn’t understand until years later how it was just one of countless other group homes in our nation. Lying atop a metal bunk in a tiny prison-cell, I realized that it was little more than an agent of a system designed to groom orphaned children for adult lives spent incarcerated.
I don’t know whether this was by design or an unfortunate consequence of an indifferent system, but the fact that the foster system has not changed in the 20 years since I was one is troubling.
According to the popular site, fostercare2.org, almost 80% of inmates incarcerated in prisons have spent time in foster care, and 25% of foster youth land in prison within two years of emancipation. Pulling together data from a variety of studies, an article in the website Adoption in Child Time reported that 30 to 40% of foster children have been arrested since they entered into foster care, over 25% have spent at least a night in jail, and over 15% have been convicted of a crime. A December 2014 issue of the journal Labour Economics found a higher rate of crime among men, who had been first placed in foster care at 13 to 18 years old.
There were no locked doors at Secret Harbor. Control was maintained by inducing fear through violence. Physical restraints might have been legal, but they were used to degrees that surely were not. Transgressions such as refusing or questioning a directive, talking back to staff, or refusing to take psych meds, resulted in residents being thrown face-first to the tile floor while adults knelt on their bodies and heads, and wrenched their arms painfully behind their backs for five-to-ten minutes at a time. This was known as being “slammed” and it occurred multiple times a day.
After being slammed, boys were sentenced to sit silently on one of two couches for weeks at a time without access to television, music, or reading and writing materials. Talking resulted in another slamming, and a longer confinement to the couches, from which we were only allowed to leave to sleep, eat, use the restroom, and be slammed.
Only a handful of the boys in Secret Harbor were there as a result of being incarcerated. As far as I knew, those who were, were all receiving treatment for sexual offences. The rest were merely placed in Little Alcatraz because they had run away from home, from foster homes, or because the state needed to put them somewhere.
Nearly every cliche one might conjure up about American prisons existed in Secret Harbor School. Residents were extorted and physically and sexually assaulted by not only their neighbors, but staff as well. Boys often conspired in whispered tones to steal a boat in order to escape (something that actually happened more than once). Though only a handful of houses stood on Cypress Island, staff spread tales of a man who drove around with a shotgun, shooting runaways and loading their bodies into his truck.
I was allowed one 10-minute phone call, once a week, and I spent them begging my mother to let me come home. She finally did when Secret Harbor attempted to take her to court for legal custody of me. It didn’t matter that the state’s foster system was already clogged with orphaned youth, because the home received thousands of dollars every month for each individual it housed.
By the time I left Secret Harbor, I was unafraid of incarceration because I had already been in such an environment. Shortly after, I served my first juvenile prison sentence, and then was sent to various other group homes. Though none of them were quite like Secret Harbor, they all shared certain commonalities, such as micromanagement, dehumanization, and the lack of compassion or guidance for the children they housed.
In prison, I’ve met other products of boys’ homes, but it’s always most depressing to run into the ones who had been at Secret Harbor. There was a darkness to that place that seemed to linger in all of our memories like the clouds that seemed to permanently encompass Cypress Island.
A couple years ago, I began working on a book I titled “Secret Harbor.” After it was released in 2020, I was contacted by the fiancé of an ex-resident, claiming that the home had destroyed her partner’s mental health and scarred him for life. She told me my book was the only account she could find describing the same conditions he had been telling her about for years, and that after a lawsuit finally shut the facility down, the state seemed to have concealed all records that it ever existed.
When my wife and I searched for Secret Harbor School on the Internet, there was very little information. After operating for 50 years, the island program had been closed in 2008 and was revived as a family connection in-home support system in 2013.
I see this as progress. The abolition of one such mistake is better than the willful ignorance of it. Though Secret Harbor was merely an amoeba in the vast, polluted sea of foster-care, its history serves as proof that reform is possible.
At the same time, considering that 80% of America’s incarcerated were dumped from that sea into the equally polluted and overpopulated prison-system, it seems we’re somehow failing as a nation to learn from history or the multi-billion-dollar foster-care and prison industrial complexes are intentionally being enabled to prey on the helpless and innocent.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.