PENDLETON - Students from Pendleton High School who visited the Umatilla County Jail Tuesday morning were told one thing by a corrections officer when they left: Don't come back.
It wasn't because the students were rude or discourteous. But the officer doesn't want to see them returning as clients, i.e. inmates. And the officer has seen far too many inmates leave the facility only to return after committing another crime.
The 15 or so students are part of the school's Reconnecting class, a course for students who have been issued a minor in possession for drinking alcohol or who have been caught using or abusing an illegal substance, such as marijuana. Counselor Vickie Read brought her students to the jail Tuesday as a wake-up call.
"Probably the most important thing when you leave here today is to imagine yourself staying in this facility," Read told the students.
Besides touring the numerous rooms and areas of the jail, which is in the basement of the Justice Center, students had the opportunity to hear from inmates themselves about the wrong choices they made and how they ended up in orange suits behind bars.
Students met with inmates enrolled in the jail's 30-day Crossroads to New Life sobriety program to help kick drug and alcohol addictions. It was an eye-opening experience for the students.
"You've got to be careful. You don't want to be sitting in here in orange," said inmate Noah Weatherford. "It's not worth it. And it all started with alcohol and pot, the gateway drugs. I've got four kids and a wife, and I can't be an asset to them when I'm in here."
Other inmates spoke about not being able to serve as mothers because drugs took a higher priority for so long. And all spoke of starting their drug-induced criminal careers with alcohol and marijuana.
"You may think it's cool and it's fun, but now's the time for you to stop," said inmate Jeff Fields. "I had the option to stay out of jail and I didn't take it."
Another inmate reminded the students that, though not illegal, alcohol is a drug and can serve as a gateway to other more illegal substances.
"It all boils down to personal choice," said inmate Grant Hamlin. "I used to have it all - a house, a car, kids, a wife. Now I have nothing and I've embarrassed my family."
The students found out that while in jail, the weather doesn't exist. Inmates have no idea if it's been snowing or if there are tulips blooming. Eating quickly to make sure your food isn't stolen by another inmate is part of everyday life. Family and friends are nowhere to be found.
"You're just stuck here," said Sgt. Pam Carstens, programs director for the jail.
Carstens led the students around the jail, allowing them to see where some inmates spend their days in solitary confinement. The students were startled when the inmates began pounding on their metal doors and screaming at them. Another student got to feel what it's like to sit in a restraint chair, with his arms and legs bound tight.
But they also learned about treatment. Inmates spoke of turning themselves in to authorities in order to receive the help they'd always been too afraid or too proud to ask for.
"A lot of us should have been dead a few times by now," said inmate Rick Ford. "But God must have had a different plan for us. Maybe it's being here talking to you guys right now."
The experience brought tears to the eyes of some students. Others left in a state of shock. All left with a different outlook on where they want to take their lives.
"I kind of want to stay out of trouble and not get in here," said one student.
"We think school's a bad thing," said another student. "To them, it's a dream."