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Juvenile delinquents joy-ride in the annual Washington Soap Box Derby

Antonio works in the pit crew for a team running in the 59th Annual Greater Washington Soap Box Derby. At 17, he’s too big to fit his lanky frame into any of the low-tech kit cars, but he likes to hang around the younger speed-racers anyway—wiping down the cars, changing wheels, and just shooting the breeze. It’s good practice, Antonio says, for when his own 9-month-old son is the right age. He’s already tattooed his son’s name on his right arm by using a safety pin and fountain-pen ink.

The soft-spoken teen says that he especially appreciates how kids working on the cars feel free to say whatever is on their minds at any given moment.

Just over a year ago, Antonio wasn’t waxing soapbox cars. He was joy-riding in a real one. Today, he’s close to finishing his one-year sentence in the Oak Hill Youth Center, the District’s maximum-security facility for juvenile offenders. And he often feels less than free.

But this spring and summer, Antonio has had the chance to take some vacation days away from the Youth Center. By participating in the derby, Antonio—whose surname is being withheld because of his age and juvenile conviction—and four other Oak Hill inmates get to bid the world of fences farewell for a few days per month and fly downhill in machines of their own making. And, while they’re at it, they get the chance to compete against kids from the outside world.

On this Saturday morning in late June, the whirring of hard rubber wheels on asphalt and the echoes from a megaphone are the only sounds on Constitution Avenue. Soapbox racers have only the speed of gravity to propel them—so despite the heavy traffic, no engines drown out the cheers of race spectators. With the Capitol on one side and the Taft Memorial Carillon on the other, the cars will coast from New Jersey Avenue to Louisiana Avenue.

“Suck it down!” yells local organizer Steven Atwill at the starting line, trying to get the kids to squeeze into the cars. Because the trick to winning a soapbox race is to minimize resistance, he wants them to make sure they stay as low as possible.

At the starting line, the Oak Hill kids ready two of the cars they’ve built. Yellow and black, with “Spirit of Peace and Oak Hill Youth Center” branded onto their sides, they sport a variety of sponsors’ logos. The drivers, Keith and Macarthur—also juvenile offenders—find themselves pitted against each other deep in the bracket, vying for a higher place in the rankings and, of course, a bigger trophy.

This is a big race. Bragging rights are involved. The stakes: The humiliated loser has to carry the winner’s shoes back up to the encampment of chaise longues after the race.

“If it don’t hurt, it ain’t there,” Atwill barks. The drivers center their eyes on the road ahead and steady themselves in anticipation. Vertical bars rising out of the starting ramp keep each car from sliding downhill until the starting call. “One, two, two-and-a-half…three!”

This is Oak Hill’s first official soapbox derby. The reform school’s team of beginners partnered with the Spirit of Peace Baptist Church from Laurel, Md., in a church-state collaboration fostered by the Rev. Edward Cole, youth minister at Spirit of Peace. For the last six months, Cole has also led a prison ministry at Oak Hill. Back in the ’50s, he organized soapbox racing collaborations between the Metropolitan Police Boys and Girls Club and his old church. Half a century later, he decided to apply his experience to forming a new team.

“This is the first time that the church and the correctional institution have ever entered into a soapbox derby venture,” Cole says. “It’s groundbreaking.”

Some parents worried about teaming a bunch of suburban church kids with a handful of hardened teenagers—especially because half of the 22 church kids are girls and the Oak Hill racers are all boys in their late teens. But, says church parent Sharon Coleman-Logan, her daughter tells her that “the boys over there are nicer than my brother,” so she’s stopped worrying. Inmates on the team were hand-picked by staff from a pool of volunteers in April. They were given permission to leave the facility only upon the approval of their convicting judge.

Together, the group has built and raced eight derby cars since then, three of which will place today. “It’s a real enjoyable experience to see these kids mingle together—and they’re teaching each other,” says Cole. “They’re teaching the kids that are free not to get incarcerated, and the kids that are free are teaching [the incarcerated kids] how to walk straight when they get out.”

But the kids say that the project hasn’t been quite as successful at getting them to mingle as the minister claims. At the races, the Oak Hill kids joke with each other. Some have family in attendance, and there are also corrections officers to tease. The church kids—smaller and younger—are surrounded by family and friends of their own.

“We just doing what we supposed to,” says 12-year-old Destiney Smith, who is on the church half of the team. The boys from Oak Hill are nicer than she thought they’d be, she says. But she hasn’t made friends with any of them. And perhaps, she reflects, she and her fellow church kids don’t need to: They’ve gotten a glimpse of what happens when you pay the time for doing the crime. That may be enough.

“We using what we know; they using what they know—it’s coming along fine,” says Keith. Once the cars were built, there wasn’t a need for much interaction between the groups, he says. Which didn’t stop him from having a great time. “This means a lot to me,” says Keith. “It’s the first time I’ve ever done something like this.”

Three months ago, Keith was sent to Oak Hill for dealing crack. At 16, he says, he was making a doctor’s salary by selling off “a 31″—approximately a brick-size chunk—of crack cocaine per week. But today, he’s just another kid looking forward to making it to the national competition in Akron, Ohio.

“They don’t have much of an opportunity to do what normal kids get to do,” explains Gayle Turner, administrator for D.C.’s Youth Services Administration. Derby racing, she says, gives the Oak Hill kids a chance to respond positively to circumstances that are out of their control, such as being the underdogs in a race. “Hopefully, we’ll put an imprint on their heads and their hearts for the rest of their lives.”

Lawyer Ben Crisman and his wife, Virginia Crisman, a court-appointed monitor who helps oversee Oak Hill, donated money to fund two of the cars. The value in programs like this, he says, is that the inmates can’t help but breathe in some ’50s-style values as they ride in their ’50s-style jalopies.

“All these kids, at some point, are going back to the District of Columbia,” says Deputy Administrator for Youth Services Administration George Perkins. “You want them to come back [with] positive experiences, educational experiences, as well as knowing that they have fulfilled their obligation to the government for their crimes. There’s a balanced approach to it, because the reality is they are all coming back.”

The bars fall forward, and the two cars begin to drift downhill, lurching off the starting ramp and picking up speed as the hill grows steep. Near the bottom of the 900-foot track, they reach top speeds of 25 to 30 mph. Both cars ride the stretch, hugging the cones. Macarthur crosses the finish line first—little more than a tenth of a second before Keith.

Swapping lanes and wheels for the second phase of that heat, Keith pulls ahead of Macarthur, crossing the finish better than two-tenths of a second ahead. He’s beaten the time differential. Oak Hill inmates and staff laugh and hoot while Keith walks back to their area in his socks. Macarthur bobs behind him, Keith’s shoes in his hand.

All in all, it’s a pretty good day for the combined team. Destiney takes third place in the master’s division in a sleek green rocket-shaped car with a red needle-nose. Keith places fifth in the super-stock-car division. And 11-year-old church member Sadia Coleman earns seventh place in the super-stock division.

After nearly 10 hours in the sun, the two groups clean up the site and wait for word that the awards ceremony will soon begin. The inmates clean and joke, pouring cold water over their heads and polishing off a batch of potato salad with their parents and corrections officers. (They get a kick out of dumping water on Oak Hill Director of Recreation Julio Perez.) Macarthur prematurely boasts about his championship in next year’s master’s competition and half-tries to convince the officers that he threw his race against Keith.

“I forfeited,” Macarthur tells them. “You know why?” he asks, and then points to each of his three Oak Hill inmate companions: “He can’t go; he can’t go; he can’t go. Ain’t no use in going [to Ohio] by myself.”

The officers—who stayed close to the inmates toward the beginning of the day—now pull back, keeping to the side while the five teens walk freely toward the ceremony. The inmates stop ahead of the group and gawk when a girl in short-shorts and a tight top saunters down a grassy path across the street.

At the ceremony, the three winners get trophies for placing, and the others get smaller ones for participation. When the inmates get back onto the prison bus—the kind with bars over the windows—they’ll be handcuffed for the ride home. And they certainly won’t be driving. “Back to the same old routine,” says Travis, a 17-year-old detainee. CP