Unhappy Campers

Critics of a private prison firm that ran two juvenile boot camps in Dallas wonder where the love is at these "tough love academies"

A former manager at the Sheraton hotel owned by the Horn family, Slattery befriended Morris Horn in the '70s. The two men went into business together running welfare hotels in New York for the homeless. The Brooklyn Arms, their flagship hotel, so to speak, was listed for 600 housing code violations before the city shut it down in 1989.

The CSC chairman, who pockets nearly $500,000 annually in compensation, has testified that he believes any sex between the three female inmates and the maintenance worker at the now-closed Tarrant County boot camp was "consensual."

"Slattery is rough around the edges. Nobody is mistaking him for a diplomatic, politically correct guy," May says.

The CSC-managed facility in Southern Dallas no longer houses emotionally disturbed juveniles. Dallas County ended the program after realizing it wasn't working.
Mark Graham
The CSC-managed facility in Southern Dallas no longer houses emotionally disturbed juveniles. Dallas County ended the program after realizing it wasn't working.

This spring, Ira Cotler, the company's chief financial officer, quit and became a consultant for the company. He says the company's recent downturns are partly caused by counties overbuilding their facilities, but he predicts continued success and profits in Texas. "The big advantage we have is our reputation with TYC," he says.

Steve Robinson, the executive director of TYC, says he makes sure that any facility managed by CSC also has a large complement of agency workers on site. "That way, we haven't had any trouble," Robinson says.

In defending his former company, Cotler concedes some employees at some institutions have created problems, but they represent an aberration, he says. "If someone is not performing their job, they are let go," he says.

He acknowledges the company's pay scale influences its services. "I can't sit here and deny the fact that if everyone's wages doubled we'd perhaps have a higher quality workforce, and I'd encourage Dallas County to increase our per diem to allow us to do that," he says with a laugh, knowing it won't happen.

Cotler believes reporters haven't always given a fair shake to his company. "CSC's reputation in the industry is not what you read in the press, because the press only likes to run the negative, " he says.

In Houston, Rau, vice president of business development, is less sanguine than Cotler about CSC's financial future. "I don't see any expansion. It's flat to declining. The demand has tapered off," he says of juvenile delinquent populations in Texas.

The overall incarceration rate in this country--which grew in the '90s and fueled the growth of the private prison industry--has slowed, and CSC has fared worse than its competitors in large part because it staked its claim with juveniles.

Buying out rival Youth Services International two years ago, CSC has become the largest manager of juvenile facilities in the country with 4,000 beds nationwide. When CSC acquired YSI, the juvenile prison market looked inviting for profit seekers. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, an agency at the Department of Justice devoted to helping state and county governments with youth programs, estimates that the market for alternative youth placement programs grew 86 percent from 1996 to 1997, to more than $110 million.

But CSC is discovering that kids in prison are a lot less stable and profitable than adults. They don't stay as long, and educating and rehabilitating them costs more.

In Texas, CSC has benefited tremendously from the overall rise in juvenile incarcerations, the trend since the Legislature toughened the laws and started doling out money for the counties to build boot camps. Some 1,200 county-operated boot camp beds--twice the number that existed in just 1998--are now available for juveniles because of the state subsidies that were part of the reform package. The theory behind the tough-love academy funding was simple: The state gives counties money to build and operate grueling boot camps that scare delinquents into never recommitting crimes and never becoming Texas Youth Commission charges--or expenses to the state.

Unfortunately, the boot camps have not proven to be even remotely effective at stopping juveniles from committing crimes.

Some 54 percent of the CSC boot camp graduates return to the juvenile courts within a year of their release, according to the Dallas County Juvenile Department's Stretcher. Because the recidivism rates for the CSC-operated boot camps have been so dismal, juvenile department officials decided this past spring to refine the program.

"The treatment approach needs to be changed," Stretcher says. In October, he expects CSC to bolster group therapy sessions, increase medical staffs and slim down the constant and punitive exercise assignments for the youths at the two county camps. They will no longer be called boot camps.

The news that boot camps fail to deter most kids from returning to the courts doesn't startle longtime analysts of juvenile justice. Boot camps, despite their popularity nationwide, have long been identified as ineffective. The federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, in an extensive study in three cities, found no significant difference in recidivism rates for youths who had been held in boot camps or state or county institutions or been placed on probation. In some places, 75 percent of the kids returned to the courts within the first year of getting out of boot camp. Worse, the federal researchers discovered that kids who committed the least serious offenses were the ones most likely to wind up in the courts again if they graduated from a boot camp.

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