Lockdown: America Treats its “Troubled Youth” Like Prisoners
"As long as the child will be trained not by love, but by fear, so long will humanity live not by justice, but by force. As long as the child will be ruled by the educator’s threat and by the father’s rod, so long will mankind be dominated by the policeman’s club, by fear of jail, and by panic of invasion by armies and navies.”
— Boris Sidis, from A lecture on the abuse of the fear instinct in early education in Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 1919
There are places where all the most oppressive aspects of society are distilled into institutions of systematic abuse. Both prisons and youth programs (such as therapeutic boarding schools, residential treatment facilities, wilderness programs, and boot camps) use suppression of speech and thought, isolation, violence, dogma, snitches, and forced labor to control inmates or students. These tactics serve to break down a person’s sense of identity and security, leaving them vulnerable to any ideology the institution wishes to impose. Perhaps the greatest irony can be found in the fact that these places exist in the interest of deterring crime, and more insidiously, in the name of “healing” and “curing.” Unfortunately, inmates often leave prisons unable to integrate back into society, and thus resort to more crime, while kids leave behavior modification programs with psychological scars and little faith in their ability to better themselves.
Locking people up is one of the fastest growing industries in the nation. The alliance between prisons and the corporations that profit from building and maintaining them is known as the prison industrial complex. The number of inmates in state and federal penitentiaries has skyrocketed from less than 200,000 in 1970 to over 2 million in 2003. The US incarcerates 714 out of every 100,000 of its citizens, by far the highest rate in the world. Of these, a disproportionate number are blacks and Latinos.1 in 8 black males, 1 in 27 Latino males, and 1 in 63 white males of the same age group are currently behind bars.
And yet, prisons rarely rehabilitate their inmates. Funding for educational and drug treatment programs has been cut, while facilities are overcrowded and staffed by poorly trained guards in order to maximize profit. Most job training amounts to forced labor where prisoners are paid pennies for their work. Being locked up weakens social bonds and lowers social status, making it difficult for inmates to form relationships and find jobs upon release. However, the most debilitating aspect of prisons is the mentality of fear and degradation they instill through a system of hierarchy and punishment. Those with the ability to dominate gain more respect. It’s no surprise that prisons tend to act as a “school for criminals,” and inmates often leave with a greater likelihood to commit offenses. This perversion of the idea of rehabilitation reflects our society’s attitude that goals can be attained through force without respect to the individuality of a person or a situation. Increasingly, this mentality is directed towards youth in a way that can be as destructive as any maximum-security prison.
Everyone loves a quick fix. So when someone offers a frustrated parent a “miracle cure” for their rebellious, depressed, truant, or just plain weird kids, it’s very tempting for parents to hand over all responsibility to a behavior modification program. Like the prison industrial complex, programs for “troubled youth” have become a profitable industry that is largely unregulated. In many states there is a loophole that allows any school that claims to have a religious basis to operate outside of government supervision. Some programs have even moved to places like Mexico, the Caribbean Islands, and the Czech republic to avoid public scrutiny. Although the unregulated nature of programs makes it impossible to be precise, there are an estimated 10,000 to 14,000 kids in approximately 400 therapeutic boarding schools, residential treatment facilities, wilderness programs, and boot camps currently operating in the US. Behind barbed wire fences and locked doors, or in the wilderness of forests and deserts, horrendous abuses against children often take place.
Kids are usually “escorted” to programs, meaning that they are hauled out of their homes by a couple of beefy guys without any warning. Inmates at least have the luxury of knowing why and when they are being locked up. Once inside, contact with parents and the outside world is strictly censored, if allowed at all. Prisoners have far more freedom to communicate with others. As in prison, kids who snitch on each other receive more privileges from the authorities. Friendships between students are discouraged because administrators feel that these bonds will undermine their authority. Youth are more vulnerable to their particular brand of dogma when they are socially and culturally isolated. Religion plays a major role in many behavior modification programs, from providing spiritual guidance to enforcing moral standards. Creative expression such as drawing, writing, and playing music is forbidden unless it is part of “the program.” On the other hand, inmates are usually allowed pen and paper to fill the empty expanse in their daily lives. Both inmates’ and students’ individuality is slowly eroded by their monotonous daily routines.
Another method of disciplining students is to assign mindless and repetitive tasks such as carrying buckets of rocks from one place to another, only to move the pile back to its original location. This is reminiscent of the chain gangs of past times breaking rocks all day.. Working kids to the point of extreme physical exhaustion is a common practice in behavior modification programs. Since 1980, at least twelve young people have died of easily preventable conditions such as dehydration, heat stroke, and hypothermia in wilderness programs throughout the nation. While physical exercise and contact with nature can do much to clear one’s mind and invoke self-discipline, many outdoor programs are callous and neglectful to individual children’s needs. There are also “boot camps” for kids that mimic the harsh authoritarianism of the military. Boot camps are some of the most degrading and violent programs children must endure. They have resulted in a number of the total of 37 children’s deaths that have occurred in institutions in the US.
Most of the kids who are sent to behavior modification programs come from families that are abusive in one way or another. Many have mental illnesses that they and their communities don’t know how to deal with properly. Those who end up in prison usually come from poor communities where violence is a part of everyday life. Clearly, these problems are deeply rooted in our culture and manifest themselves in numerous ways. People do not learn to take responsibility for their actions by being locked up, humiliated, isolated, and abused. They simply learn that they are not to be trusted and that coercion is an acceptable means of attaining goals. From the start, children need the security of being able to make mistakes and creative outlets to express themselves. Discipline must be constructive, not cruel and arbitrary. If problems arise, they need to be dealt with on an individual basis that takes a child’s personality and circumstances into account. Of course, all this takes time and energy and a lot of care, but it is vital if we as a society are to end the cycle of abuse and build a culture of mutual respect.
Submit to a new reader about abusive institutions for youth entitled Teenage Lobotomy: A Zine about the Institutionalization of Youth.
The reader will consist of: • An introduction to the abuses that take place at therapeutic boarding schools, residential treatment facilities, and wilderness programs. • Personal stories and interviews from students, parents, and ex-teachers. • Discussion of alternative ways to help "troubled" teens, including art therapy, various forms of counseling (such as utilizing AA outpatient programs or talking to mentors for help), and other programs that encourage healing in positive ways. •Information about mental health, youth emancipation and "maneuvering the system" (such as the prison system and juvenile detention centers)
We need your stories. This may include: •Where you (or your child, or your friend) were sent, • Specific disciplinary techniques used, • Reasons for being sent away, • What the staff was like, • How the experience affected you (or your child, or your friend), • Approximate relapse rate, • Legal actions taken against the institution (if there ever were any)
These are only guidelines. You may tell your story in words, pictures, or any form of communication that will bring your experience to life. PLEASE SEND US YOUR WRITING AND ART BY MARCH 1ST 2005, and keep it under three pages. Thank you.
This reader is being compiled by two teenage artists and writers- Nick, who was locked up in the Family Foundation School in New York, Second Nature Wilderness Program in Utah, and Saint Paul's Prep School in Arizona, and his close friend Sarah.
Contact us at: Nick- firstname.lastname@example.org / Sarah- email@example.com OR write to: 3706 72nd Street # 5H/ Jackson Heights, New York 11372
(contact info from 2005 - ed)