Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Tranquility Bay 

Our learned colleague John Gorenfeld, erstwhile chronicler of all things Moonie, has just published an extremely disturbing story about American citizens whisked off to foreign countries against their will and imprisoned in secure facilities where they are routinely subjected to physical and psychological abuse. You may think you've heard it all before, but you haven't: in this case the prisoners are teenagers, and they're being held captive with their parents' enthusiastic consent:
From the Czech Republic to Costa Rica and Mexico, cops have seized American overseers for caging or mistreating American teens at harsh "boot camps" run under foreign flags to escape U.S. law.

But here at home, the companies that ship teenagers to remote reform schools can freely go about their business in many states. You can dial 1-800-355-TEEN to reach the sales staff of Teen Help, LLC, who can arrange for your child to be spirited away. They might put you in touch with "escorts," guys who can pull up to your driveway in a van and transport even the most defiant child to the airport. The next destination is up to you: a "tough love" school here in the 50 states, like Majestic Ranch in Utah or Spring Creek Lodge Academy in Montana?

Or perhaps Tranquility Bay, a barbed-wire discipline facility in Jamaica, where some of the approximately 250 teens can find themselves confined against their will and marched around by guards. Only the devil stands in the way of your consumer choice. The devil, that is, and a lone congressman, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.

Just ask Ken Kay. He's the president of the tightly knit group of Utah men who run these outposts with their families, under the umbrella company World-Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools (WWASPS), whose leaders, critics say, try to hide their role in running the schools by running them under different names. Ken's son Jay, a college dropout who ran a mini-mart in San Diego, now oversees Tranquility Bay, where he had admitted to the media that he squirted pepper spray on his charges in the past.

As a teen at Tranquility Bay, you can't call home and are escorted between rooms by Jamaican "chaperones." Talk out of turn and your punishment might be that a trio of guards wrestles you to the ground. "They start twisting and pulling your limbs, grinding your ankles," a student told the British newspaper The Guardian. Not knowing when you'll go home, you might take cold showers and watch "emotional growth" videos. The promise is that you will return a respectful, happy teen. But many WWASPS alumni who've banded together at online survivor websites like Tranquility Bay Fight and Fornits say their lives haven't been saved, they've been devastated.

Several WWASPS schools have been shut down after abuse claims. Tranquility Bay's counterpart, High Impact, a WWASP affiliate in Mexico, closed in 2002 after dark stories emerged. Teens said they were kept in dog cages. Two parents, Chris Goodwin and Stephanie Hecker, told the Rocky Mountain News their children were made to lie in their underwear for three nights with fire ants roaming over them and were threatened with a cattle prod if they scratched.

In December, Rep. Miller asked Congress's nonpartisan General Accounting Office (GAO) to launch a fact-finding probe into similar schools, claiming the $1.2 billion teen rehabilitation clinic industry is shrouded in secrecy. Miller's office is awaiting word from the GAO on the investigation request. After a call to the GAO, AlterNet was told no decision had been made yet as to whether to launch the study, which would look into whether the industry was receiving special tax treatment or using fraudulent marketing techniques. Asked why he requested the probe, Rep. Miller explained, "Far too little is known about the so-called 'behavior modification' industry, even as it has surged in size since the 1990s, and that is why I have asked the GAO to review it... There is no excuse for allowing children to be placed in unlicensed programs where their physical or emotional health is jeopardized."

The loose network of WWASPS-affiliated corporations has its hub in Utah. According to the Salt Lake City Tribune, company founder Bob Lichfield, his family members and his business associates have donated over a million dollars to Republican campaigns at the local and national level. Those generous contributions have undoubtedly helped stave off the potentially disastrous prospect of government oversight and regulation.

In an earlier piece, Gorenfeld told the story of Mel Sembler, head of a teen-rehab outfit called STRAIGHT that went under in 1993 amid accusations of beatings and rapes. Sembler later raised millions of dollars for George W. Bush and was rewarded with an ambassadorship to Italy -- even though he didn't speak Italian.

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