That wasn't usual. Cruz, better known as Frosty to his homies and his weary keepers, stood 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighed about 112 pounds. But after spending most of the previous four years locked up in places like Adobe Mountain School in north Phoenix, the little guy from an impoverished, crisis-ridden Guadalupe family was an expert at survival, intimidation and knowing the value of a reputation. On the outside, he had a long record of stealing bikes, sniffing paint and pulling penny-ante burglaries. On the inside, he was admired for his artwork, respected for his courage and his loyalty and ever so slightly feared for his wild unpredictability. A Hispanic kid from the wrong side of town, he was tough. But like many of the black, Hispanic and Indian kids who occupy most of the locked rooms in the state's juvenile facilities, he was also wounded and abandoned.
Frosty scrambled out of his bolted-down, steel-frame bed, checked his slicked-back hair, admired the teardrop tattoo he'd pricked into his face just under his eye with a needle and pencil lead, and sallied forth jauntily to meet the world.
On the couch in his cottage's rec room at Adobe, he discovered the four biggest kids in the unit staring bleary-eyed at the television set. Three of the four were black or Hispanic, like nearly two-thirds of the kids in the state's juvenile facilities. Grinning impishly, Frosty walked up to the first hulking delinquent on the sofa--a kid known for his prowess in a knife fight.
"Fuck you," Frosty shouted, pointing his finger at the much-larger kid.
The other boy stared at Frosty, amazed at his apparent death wish.
Frosty moved down the line to the next kid. "Fuck you," Frosty repeated.
"Fuck you, too," said the second kid, not taking his eyes off the television set.
Frosty moved on. "Fuck you," he said.
"Frosty, you're an asshole," said the third boy, who was feared throughout the institution as a gang enforcer.
The fourth boy on the couch was the biggest, baddest kid in the unit, with his own reputation for sullen unpredictability. He eyed Frosty balefully, mad-dogging him an unmistakable warning. Frosty took up his position in front of the much-larger kid, a heavily muscled 230-pounder who spent most of his free time in the weight room or hanging out with the other members of his gang.
"Fuck you," Frosty said without hesitation. The other boy stood and casually punched Frosty in the face.
Frosty went down, but bounced back to his feet as though he were spring-loaded.
"Fuck you," he said again.
Another punch and Frosty was on the floor again.
He climbed once more to his feet, wiping the blood from his nose.
"Fuck you," he said cheerfully.
Another blow, and Frosty was on the floor a third time. The bigger boy turned and walked away, shamed by the unevenness of the battle. Frosty jumped him from behind as the boy emerged into the yard, pounding him with a stick Frosty had picked up somewhere.
The bigger boy covered his head with his arms. "Come on, Frosty. Chill," he yelled.
Then the bigger kid walked away again. This time Frosty let him go, standing unsteadily. The incident put the final touch on Frosty's reputation in the tough, closed, violent juvenile justice system. The State of Arizona spends about $28,000 annually to lock up kids, like Frosty, who can't live by the rules. Most of them have been beaten, abused, abandoned and neglected. Most are all but illiterate and struggle with drug addictions and emotional problems in a world of startling violence, indifference and injustice.
Like Frosty, they're mostly minority kids, who are three to six times as likely to be locked up for their crimes than are Anglos. Most, like Frosty, find that living in lockup requires mastering a tough new set of rules.
The story spread how the half-pint Frosty, already famous for his intricate artwork, beat up the toughest kid at Adobe. During nearly four years in locked institutions, Frosty had learned that the only way a little Hispanic kid can survive is by supporting gang members and cultivating a reputation for wild courage.
Sometimes that meant participating in the racial, gang-linked brawls that punctuate life in those institutions--even though Frosty normally got along well with both blacks and Anglos. Sometimes it meant taking a beating in a hopeless fight without offering or asking for quarter. Sometimes it meant taking the rap for something he hadn't done in order to protect his homies. These were hard lessons, and he learned them well. But they only got him so far in a system in which lives are reduced to statistics, code numbers and sometimes skin color. Eventually, Frosty ran up against the inexorable rules of the system itself, which dispenses justice in lopsided ways. Earlier this year, Frosty, then 16, got into a fight while on probation. Once again he was in a hassle with a man twice his size. This time both were high on paint fumes, arguing about something Frosty later couldn't remember. One thing led to another, and Frosty threw a rock that put a gash in the man's forehead. Frosty ran. Someone called the police. The police picked him up later. It wasn't hard. He'd gone home.