Outside magazine, January 1996
Camping: I Was a Teenage Gilligan
A Tlingit JD talks about his not-so-hard time on a prison isle
By Bill Donahue
The crime was reprehensible, but the punishment seemed like a vacation. In August 1994, after beating and nearly blinding a pizza delivery man in Everett, Washington, Simon Roberts and Adrian Guthrie, two Tlingit teenagers, were legally banished for 18 months to separate cabins on islands off the coast of southeast Alaska. Rudy James, a Tlingit who has since been criticized by
his own people for falsely posing as a tribal judge, had pushed the plan as an alternative to prison, arguing before Washington State judge James Allendoerfer that the Tlingit have long banished lawbreakers. Allendoerfer agreed to try it, deferring the youths’ sentencing to see whether the idea worked.
It didn’t. The teenagers were coddled. Relatives visited, bringing groceries and gifts, and Guthrie was even ferried ashore to register his Ford Mustang. Last October, a fed-up Allendoerfer put an end to it, giving Guthrie 31 months and Roberts 55 months of real prison time.
What sort of tales were generated by this experiment? To find out, we checked in with Simon Roberts, now 19, just before he stepped inside the Washington Correction Center in Shelton.
What did you think when you got banished?
I figured I’d just be camping out; it’d be all right. But then the judges left me out there and took off in the skiff, and I’m thinking, “This ain’t no camping trip.” On a camping trip, you got all your friends and all the guns and weapons you want. You’re drinking beer–and I was afraid to go outside looking for water.
But eventually you had to get water.
Yeah, there was a stream about 800 feet from my cabin, and I used these plastic pipes that I found to siphon water up toward my porch. I only found 500 feet of pipe, though, so I wrote my grandma and asked her for some garden hose. She went to the True Value and got me 300 feet; I think she got a senior citizen’s discount.
It must have been tough, being taken away from your family.
Well, you know, I saw Dad a lot. He bought a boat just for this banishment–a 16- or 17-foot outboard with one of those convertible tops–and he’d come out and visit. It just took him, like, 20 minutes to get there.
Didn’t reporters visit, too?
Yeah. They had these funny-looking snow boots and these see-through rain jackets that I thought people only wore in California. Adrian made one of them chop his wood.
What was your most terrifying moment?
Well, bigfoot is out there. I could sense him sometimes, and one morning around 6:30 there was this big old bang on my cabin… After that, I didn’t play my music too loud.
Yeah, the tribal judges left me all this thick wire, and I strung it about 65 feet up in a tree to make an antenna for my radio. I got a station on the border of Mexico that played fifties music; 1410, in Canada, played nothing but love music.
What else did you do for fun?
I hiked on the beach and sat in my cabin carving halibut hooks. I wrote a lot–letters, poems, songs. I got seven songs down.
Yeah? Let’s hear one.
“I was banished to the island for my rehabilitation, / As I was tried by the Tlingit…” That’s the refrain. I don’t want to sing the whole thing because it isn’t copyrighted yet. I need, you know, a good agent and an entertainment lawyer. Do you know anybody?