One of Washington's children is here. Joseph Nicks. The little Joe Joe who at 12 was convicted of a felony in the death of Gladys Werlich, 87, who was hit on the head as she was being robbed by a gang of boys. It's the same Joe Joe who at 15 was convicted of a felony in the shooting of a Hispanic man who wouldn't empty his pockets when he met up with another gang of boys including Joe Joe. That second time he was tried as an adult. So he is here doing 20 years to life at the adult federal correctional institution.

Joe Joe is here, but he doesn't quite know why. He says he didn't understand what happened in the trials back in Washington and what all the social workers, psychiatrists and lawyers had to say about a boy who had killed twice. The prisoner sitting across the way from me in the visiting room has been found to be psychologically stable by the courts. He may have some slight learning disability, but he is not retarded. There is no swagger to him. He talks slowly, thoughtfully.

But his eyes are blank, his mind is blank. His life was a blank page waiting for someone, anyone to put some mark on it, to define it. Skipping school, his parents not around, Joe Joe went to the streets to find that someone. Joe Joe never planned to rob anyone, never planned to hit anyone on the head or shoot them. The prosecutors say Joe Joe hit Werlich with a Coke bottle, but he wasn't the first to actually push her down; they say he told someone else to shoot Orlando Gonzales-Angel,but he didn't actually pull the trigger. Joe Joe wasn't strong enough to decide on murder, but as it was happening he would go along with it, drawn to some identity.

On this gray drizzly day in Alabama, all Joe Joe can say for sure is that he is now 17, and the only glimmer of freedom he can see is 1991, the year he will be eligible for parole. He will be 27 years old and will have spent 15 years of his life in some sort of jail or juvenile detention center.

"I try to keep the bad thoughts away," he says, rubbing the fuzz growing on his chin. "What I got to keep away from is the suicide thing. When I first got sentenced it came to my mind. I called my grandmother and told her I didn't know if I could make it. She said I got to have faith in God and I'll make it."

Joe Joe pouts. He looks away: "They're dead. I got to keep living. It's just like being dead to be in the pen. I don't want to be in here for the rest of my life. . . . I think to myself about what they say about me. I want them to know I'm not dangerous. I don't think of myself as a murderer. I know I'm court guilty but I ain't saying I'm guilty. They didn't find my fingerprints on the gun. I didn't actually do it. I was there all right but I didn't tell nobody to pull no trigger or hit no old lady on the head."

He is recounting the Werlich murder: "As soon as they started approaching her I wanted to walk away but I couldn't. We were talking about snatching some money and we went out of the McDonald's. The rest of them went on and pushed her, grabbing for the purse. She goes down and hits her head on the concrete."

Well, if he didn't hit 87-year-old Mrs. Werlich on the head with a Coke bottle, as the prosecutors alleged, then why didn't he help her?

"It didn't come to my mind," he says, his eyes moving quickly away from a visitor.

What about the Gonzales murder? The prosecutor said Joe Joe yelled to his partner "Shoot him, shoot him," before Gonzales was shot dead.

"We were smoking wack," he says, "you know, angel dust (PCP on marijuana). It was my first time that night and they said, let's get money. . . . the Spanish guy and me--we had a little scruff and then he shot him. We didn't get no money because a whole lot of people were looking out the window.

"Sometimes I'm in my room and I think about it. Like that old lady. She could have been my mother, my grandmother, anybody in my family. But I couldn't stop them. Those guys. Everybody's got to think for themself, right. I feel for her. I remember her . . . the other guy--yeah, I feel for him too. It's a human life. He was just out walking, an innocent bystander . . . you know I'd stole some hubcaps and shoplifted . . . But I wasn't doing it all the time. I was out on the streets just seeing how other people were scuffling by. The only thing that made my crime look so bad was the two murder charges. I'm sorry it kicked off that way."

Who is to blame?

Joe Joe recalls that his mother was a heroin addict for much of his childhood. He couldn't stand to see her so he would hang out, walk the streets. He says his father went to jail for selling drugs. He lived with his maternal grandmother, who was bringing up about 20 other children for her three daughters. Joe Joe was one of seven children his mother had with three men. This background was described by Joe Joe's attorney at the sentencing hearing after his trial.

After he was convicted of felony murder in the Werlich case, Joe Joe spent a year and a half at Cedar Knoll, the District's detention facility for children. Then he was in a community group home for six months.

"Cedar Knoll wasn't nothing but learning how to fight," Joe Joe says. "It was fighting all the time. It's not as bad here. I didn't get no guidance there. Nothing like that."

He could have been held in Cedar Knoll until he was 21 after his murder conviction in the Werlich case. But there is an effort to get children sent to juvenile institutions back into the community, back home if possible, according to District officials. In Joe Joe's case, "back home" unfortunately meant back on the street.

When he gets out, Joe Joe says, he is not going back to D.C. "Wrong kind of people there," he says. He wants to go to Arkansas, where his family owns a farm. He is trying to get his high school equivalency diploma, too. He says he is making some progress with his reading.

On Sundays he calls home to talk to his grandmother about her arthritis and to his older brother Gerald, a former college basketball player who is now trying to graduate and get a job. Joe Joe tells the little kids to stay in school and forget the streets. "I was always afraid I was missing something out there. Ain't nothing out there."

The rest of the time he is in a distant place alone. He has no friends here, he says, only "associates." He says he keeps to himself to avoid trouble. He is thinking of becoming a Muslim, like some of his fellow prisoners. "They know about Europe and Africa and where they came from." It would be the latest gang for a boy with no identity, no idea of who he is.

"I can't stop living," he says looking away again, stopping between words as thoughts reel across his face creating smirks and grimaces. "They don't know me. I'm not rough and bad and, ah--what do they say?--a menace to society. I just got caught up in it. I got to break out of it."