David Eischens: Imprisonedby Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio,
Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
David Eischens has spent most of his young life in jail or prison.
Lino Lakes, Minn. — Handcuffed and shackled, wearing a white t-shirt and grey prison pants, David Eischens, 23, sits at a table in a small prison conference room.
He's polite and respectful, a stark contrast to the image created by the gang tattoos on his arms, and his long record of violent behavior.
David Eischens is from Ponsford, a small village on the White Earth Indian Reservation, but he's spent much of his young life locked up.
DAVEY THE CAR THIEF
Eischens' parents divorced before he was 10. He stayed with his mom or spent time at his grandparents' house, where could always count on a hot meal or a place to sleep.
But as he became a teenager, he joined a gang, and his gangster friends became his real family.
"That's the way it is out on the rez," said Eischens. "You get a group of people together and that's your family, man. All we had was each other and our crime. There wasn't nothing to do, so we'd go and commit crimes to keep us occupied. At least that's my excuse."
Eischens says he didn't plan to become a criminal, who would spend most of his teenage years in juvenile detention centers before moving on to the county jail, and then prison.
It all started when an older cousin got him high on his 11th birthday. Before long he was smoking marijuana every day, and soon he was skipping school. His first encounter with the legal system was a truancy charge at 12.
He was 14 when a friend showed him how to steal a car. It was a new high.
"To me, it was the thrill," he said. "The first time I got into a stolen car, man you can do anything you want, and not have to worry about paying for it. It was like another drug. I couldn't go a week without stealing a car. I still think about it sometimes."
In the small community of Ponsford, Eischens' drug use and car thefts were no secret. He was known as "Davey the car thief," but he says no one in the community really tried to stop him.
"Everybody knows who's doing what around there," said Eischens. "It's such a small community, you can't do anything without anybody knowing about it. People just turned their heads and looked the other direction."
Then Eischens found new ways to get his kicks. He busted down the doors of lake cabins to steal guns and raid the liquor cabinets. He was in and out of juvenile detention and the county jail.
He feels lucky he's not in prison for life. He always carried a gun, and remembers getting in a drunken argument.
"I grabbed the gun. Had the wrong bullets, though," he said. "But if I would have had the right bullets for that gun, that dude woulda died. I know it in my heart, cause I ended up beating the dude with the rifle butt."
Eischens still has nightmares, waking up in a cold sweat thinking about the time he nearly killed his brother.
He picked up what he thought was an unloaded shotgun, and playfully aimed it at his brother. As he pulled the trigger, he moved the gun. The blast just missed his brother's head, blowing out a nearby window.
NO DREAMS FOR THE FUTURE
David Eischens says he doesn't remember ever thinking about his future. To a poor teenager on the reservation, gang members were his vision of success.
"I don't remember having no dreams about, you know, being a firefighter when I grew up," said Eischens. "I never thought about that. I wanted to be like the older guys around the reservation. I see them driving around in cars, drinking all the time, got a girl on their arm. I wanted to be like them."
Eischens looks back wistfully on what he sees as the one missed opportunity he had for a better life. He was 17, and was serving time in the county jail. He was assigned to a work detail at the National Guard armory.
The heavy equipment, the uniforms and easy camaraderie impressed Eischens. He tried to enlist, but he was rejected because he admitted using drugs.
"That was something I really wanted to do, that I think would have changed my life if I could have gotten into there," said Eischens with a sigh. "Sometimes I still think about that."
Another regret that troubles Eischens is the pain he knows he caused his grandparents, the people who were always there for him.
When his grandma was hospitalized, Eischens says he chose a night of drinking over going to visit her in the hospital. When his grandma died a few days later he was in jail again, and couldn't even go to her funeral.
"I feel bad because I had the opportunity to go and see her," he said. "I didn't think I'd never get to see her again. I got a lot of hurt in me about that. That tore me up inside. It still does when I think about it. I love my grandma. I still miss her. She was a very strong lady. She kept our family together."
CAN HE BEAT THE ODDS?
David Eischens has been locked up since 2000 in the Minnesota state prison at Lino Lakes, for committing a burglary with a dangerous weapon. He is scheduled to be released next month.
Eischens says he wants to change. He doesn't want to go back to prison. He wants a job, a wife and kids. But he admits he's not sure how good the odds are he'll be successful when he leaves prison.
"There's been several times I've been sitting in the detention center, saying I was going to change my life," said Eischens. "Then I walked out them doors -- I'm a free man. I get outside those doors, I go back to the same thing every time I got out."
The last time David Eischens was let out of prison on parole he stayed with his grandpa, Alvin Bloom, in a small tidy home in the Ponsford projects. His freedom lasted only a couple of weeks before he violated parole and was sent back to prison.
Alvin Bloom is 78, and in a wheelchair after back surgery. He has four grandsons in prison. He writes to them and sends $20 when he can. They write to him regularly.
Hanging on the wall above the television is a framed pencil drawing of an eagle. It was sent to Alvin by one of his incarcerated grandsons. Tucked into the side of the picture frame is a poem David Eischens wrote while in prison, as a tribute to his grandmother who died while he was locked up.
Terry Bloom is David Eischens' cousin, and grew up with him. He says they're more like brothers than cousins.
As he makes coffee for his grandpa, Terry Bloom shakes his head and wonders aloud about his cousin's future.
"Sometimes I kinda worry about Dave," says Bloom. "Most guys, they go to prison and they want to come home. To me, it's like Davey thinks prison is home."
Terry Bloom says when Eischens was paroled from prison a few months ago he seemed uncomfortable back on the reservation. Within a few weeks, he was back in prison on a parole violation.
"He comes here for awhile, and then it seems like he gets sick of everything and wants to go back there," said Bloom. "Then we get a letter from him two weeks later and it seems like he's happier than anything. I don't know if it's because he grew up there most of his life, or what it is."
"CAN I HAVE YOUR DAD?"
Terry Bloom says he's done his share of drinking and hellraising. But at 31, he has all the incentive he needs to stay out of trouble. He's a single dad with three kids under the age of 9, and he's convinced it's his responsibility to keep his kids on the right path.
Bloom is teaching his kids traditional ways and values. He says it's important to have something to believe in. But he says just as important is the simple act of just being there for his kids.
"I wish a lot of these guys that are out making kids would take care of them," Bloom said angrily. "We've got a kid that lives just over there. He's never known his dad ever in his life. He comes over here and I like to take care of him. Don't want to be his dad, but I like to get out and have fun with these boys."
"He's always telling my son, 'Tyler, you got a good dad, can I have your dad?' Tyler says, 'No, that's my dad, but you can come do things with us,'" said Bloom. "We take him deer hunting and stuff. I think a lot of these kids, if they had someone to look up to, they wouldn't get in trouble. "
Terry Bloom wonders how things would be different if there had been someone to take his cousin David under their wing when he started down the wrong path.
Dan Gunderson is based in Moorhead, Minn.