Young Voices From The Cell

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Jacob Davis in the yard of the South Central Corrections Facility in Clifton, TN

"Not too bad," that's what the boy killer murmured to his lawyer when the verdict came in. He was right that it could have been worse. The Florida jury might have gone for murder one but instead convicted Nathaniel Brazill, 14, of murder in the second degree for pointing a gun between the eyes of his favorite teacher and pulling the trigger a year ago. "I'm O.K.," he mouthed to his mother Polly, seated in the courtroom's second row. Then he gave a little wave to a young cousin, sitting nearby.

If Brazill didn't at that instant grasp the grim future that awaits him, it probably won't take him long. Next month the judge will mete out a sentence that could mean a lifetime in prison. And if Brazill needs a clearer picture of what's in store for him, the prison life of other school shooters will give him an idea. These young gunmen, at the moment of their wrathful outbursts, were often filled with a sense of potency and triumph or at least relief that whatever or whoever was troubling them had been exorcised. But those sensations generally prove fleeting. As they settle into the monotony and isolation of prison life, these boys tend to experience feelings of profound regret, remorse and loss as they come to terms with what they have done to their victims and what they have done to themselves.

For eight weeks, TIME delved into the lives of 12 convicted school shooters--who had terrified their classmates and periodically traumatized the nation since 1997. Among them, they fired 135 shots, killing 21 people and wounding 62. If they were not suffering overtly from mental illness before their crimes, many clearly are now, with varying degrees of treatment available. Psychologists say they are likely to be suicidal for much of their lives and suffer repeated flashbacks to the single day when everything changed, when they killed beloved teachers or gunned down schoolmates they did not know, when they went from good sons to the young terrorists among us.

Within the system and in their own personal circles, these boys engender a wide range of reactions. Prosecutors label many of them unredeemable sociopaths; defenders say that with education and counseling, they can be restored. Even loved ones take varying positions. Some offer support, while others abandon their own.

To this day, a few of the boys refuse to explain themselves. And it is fair to ask why we would want to hear from any of them anyway or have sympathy for what they have to say. But many have developed, sometimes with the help of psychologists, a better understanding of what led them to murderous fury--an understanding that could help others avoid such atrocities in the future. Almost all the shooters were expressing rage, either against a particular person for a particular affront or, more often, against a whole cohort of bullying classmates. Some of their stories confirm the notion that school shootings are a contagion, that the perpetrators are imitating the gross acts of carnage they've seen reported in other places. On the day that he brought to school a .25-cal. semiautomatic handgun that he had stolen from his grandfather's desk drawer, Brazill boasted to a classmate that he would be "all over the news."

If these kids felt empowered by the notorious shooters who came before them, however, at least some--the most self-aware of the group--now want to set a new example for students tempted to perpetuate the cycle. Don't look to Columbine's Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the most notorious of the school avengers, this group is saying. Those boys killed themselves and never had to face the aftermath of their rampage. Instead, this group says, look to us, who are living the postscript, and don't let it happen to you. Even Brazill, in an interview with Time six weeks before his conviction, had come that far. Asked what he would like to tell the student groups who sometimes tour his jail, he replied, "Don't pick up a gun. You don't know what's going to happen."

The Price
Evan Ramsey knows. Four years ago, he brought a pump-action shotgun to his Alaska high school and opened up, killing the principal and one student. Now he is serving a 210-year term in a maximum-security prison in the Alaskan mountains. Every night, before crashing in the tiny cell he shares with a fellow murderer, he mops the prison floors, a job that earns him $21 a month, just enough to buy soap, shampoo and stationery, which the Spring Creek Correctional Center does not supply for free. His face pasty white from lack of sun, Ramsey told TIME his biggest complaint is the total absence of privacy. The light is always on in his cell, and the toilet sits in the open at the end of his bunk.

A school shooter with one of the longest sentences, Ramsey has encountered some of the harder edges of prison life. He spent six months in solitary confinement after beating a fellow inmate with a sock packed with batteries when the prisoner reneged on a gambling debt of four candy bars. Ramsey has heard that an uncle of the student he killed is in the same prison and that the man "wants to do a bunch of different things to me."

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