Unhappy Campers

The boy knew rage.

A troublemaking, dope-smoking misfit, "Brad" was in and out of trouble with the law, and more in than out. He ran away from home, stayed out all night, stole.

Then there were the fits of blinding anger, a symptom of his bipolar disorder. Doctors prescribed medication, but pills only work when you take them. He didn't, and one night in July 1999, when he was 16, Brad became furious when his grandmother threatened to kick him out of her Garland home after he stayed out all night at a party. He smashed up her living room using a wrought-iron chair, then chased her outside, dragged her by her legs across the lawn and held her hostage in her home until police arrived and arrested him.

It was the latest in a string of increasingly violent episodes, but his grandmother, while shaken, still hoped that someone, anyone, could help her grandson.

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"It went from bad to worse. I was at my wit's end. I was so overwrought. I just simply didn't know what to do. If I said he couldn't do something, he simply got out a knife and would do like this," the slight woman says, waving her hand back and forth as if grasping a knife.

Help came in the form of confinement to a juvenile "boot camp" run by Correctional Services Corp., a private company that manages two Dallas County juvenile facilities.

Sent to CSC's program for emotionally disturbed youths in Southern Dallas, Brad's condition quickly deteriorated. At one point, he became so emotionally strung out in the camp's isolation unit that director Thomas Brown, flummoxed about what to do with the inconsolable boy, called his grandmother and asked her to come down.

"I just held him in my arms for two hours," the gray-haired 70-year-old woman recalls.

Privately, the boy's group counselor told his grandmother, "I am not qualified. I do not have the education. He needs more than I can give him."

Those words, from one of CSC's own employees, might be used to sum up the company's long and troubled history of running juvenile and other jail facilities here and nationwide with what one critic calls a "Costco" approach to juvenile treatment. It is a track record that includes chilling episodes of sexual abuse, gross mismanagement and, in one Tarrant County case, the death of an 18-year-old.

In the past decade, in New York, Florida and Texas, local authorities and the federal government have canceled contracts with CSC, following a host of complaints from former CSC inmates and their families.

Dallas County officials have rethought the "boot camp" approach and this fall sought competitive bids from private companies to operate alternative programs at its two juvenile facilities managed by CSC.

Correctional Services Corp. won the contract.

Since entering the private prison business in 1989, Sarasota, Florida-based CSC has expanded rapidly, especially in Texas, where its fortunes soared thanks to juvenile justice reforms passed by the Legislature in 1995. CSC quickly became the premier operator of Texas' "tough love academies," the juvenile boot camps that attempt to reform young lawbreakers with a harsh regimen of military-like discipline.

Over the past six years, lawmakers have provided a total of $45 million in state funds for counties to establish and operate boot camps. State and local agencies, in turn, have awarded CSC contracts to manage 900 beds in juvenile facilities statewide. With 29 juvenile and 12 adult facilities in 17 states and Puerto Rico, CSC's roster includes several Texas boot camps that bring in a yearly haul of roughly $26 million for CSC from Texas taxpayers.

In its annual report for 1999, CSC brags that its programs, "by instilling the qualities of self-respect, respect for others and their property, personal responsibility and family values, can help reduce the recidivism rate of program participants."

One top Texas government official in the juvenile justice system, who declined to be named, says CSC has a two-pronged pitch when it sells its services. First, it promises much lower costs. The Texas Youth Commission, for instance, budgets $129 per day per juvenile at its facilities, compared with the $80 or $90 a day CSC charges.

In other instances, CSC pledges to help counties make money. By building larger facilities than they need, counties can essentially rent the excess bed space to other, overburdened counties.

In Dallas, CSC made a persuasive case for itself largely on the basis of cost. In June 1998, county authorities granted the company contracts to operate two 96-bed boot camps, one on Harry Hines Boulevard and the other in Southern Dallas. At the same time, CSC contracted with the county to set aside 24 of the 96 beds at the Southern Dallas building for youths like Brad who had emotional or mental problems and had run afoul of the law.  

During the nine months that CSC operated the boot camp for emotionally disturbed delinquents, half of the 65 residents attending the program flunked out and had to be sent elsewhere for treatment and incarceration. Altogether, Dallas County paid CSC $82 a day per youth--about $600,000 in all--before scrapping the program in January 2000.

"It wasn't working," Ron Stretcher, deputy director for administration at the Dallas County Juvenile Department, says about the unit for emotionally disturbed youths. Nevertheless, county officials say they still have confidence in CSC, which has been responsive to their concerns. The company's executives, meanwhile, plan a nationwide expansion of their specialized programs for emotionally disturbed youths, one of the fastest-growing categories of the juvenile delinquent population.

Not everyone shares the enthusiasm for CSC's programs. According to defense lawyers, parents, inmates and others familiar with the Dallas unit, the youths suffered from physical abuse from staff members, sexual assaults by other inmates and inadequate medical and psychiatric attention.

Only one part-time psychiatrist was available for the entire 96-bed facility. The CSC medical and counseling staff did not have the training or manpower to handle the intensity of the bipolar, depressed and otherwise emotionally disturbed children who entered the program, court records and accounts from family members of former inmates suggest.

At CSC boot camps in North Texas, drill instructors are hired at $7.46 an hour. Their training consists of observing other instructors for a week, before being put to work.

"There were a whole lot of people hired to do jobs they didn't know how to do," says one educator who taught at the facility, speaking on the condition that she not be identified. She worked for another company hired by the county to provide schooling at the CSC facility but quit after six months because she believed she and her staff, who went for weeks without offices or phones, were ill-equipped to handle their responsibilities. One fresh-out-of-college education major, she recalls, was handed the responsibility of developing a special education program.

"When you would go down there, the kids were literally unteachable. They were spitting and yelling obscenities," she says.

Brad certainly did his part to create the zoolike atmosphere.

Born to a mother who has been institutionalized for substance abuse, Brad was raised by his stepmother and father. When he was 11, the family moved to an isolated white supremacist community in Missouri. There, he told a Dallas County Juvenile Department psychologist, his father beat him with a rod. At 13, Brad ran away into the Mark Twain National Forest in southern Missouri for two days. After he was found, his paternal grandmother took custody of him. (Brad is not his real name; he and his grandmother spoke on the condition that they not be identified.)

Once in Texas with his grandmother, it didn't take long for Brad to get in trouble with the law. In April 1997, when he was 14, he was caught shoplifting. During the next 18 months, he was charged with criminal mischief, evading arrest, public intoxication and lying to police about his name and age.

His grandmother sought help from the state's mental health services and had him in weekly individual and group counseling sessions. But Brad, who had not yet been diagnosed as bipolar, needed more. In March 1998, he grew angry when she grounded him for the evening. He pinned her to her bed, and while a Garland police SWAT team surrounded her house, he held her and two of his friends hostage. During the siege, Brad slit his own wrists and put blood on his friend's neck and displayed him through the window. When he was finally subdued, Brad was sent to Terrell State Hospital, where he began receiving medication for bipolar disorder, a condition marked by repeated episodes of depression and mania, deep lows followed by highs of mental and physical hyperactivity, disorganized thoughts and erratic behavior. Eight weeks later, he was released.

After the July 1999 attack on his grandmother, Brad was taken to the Dallas County juvenile detention center. A month later, state District Judge Hal Gaither committed him to the CSC boot camp. Initially, his grandmother welcomed the development. She believed the help she had sought had finally arrived.

But even behind bars he continued to misbehave and spent countless hours, sometimes shackled and handcuffed, seated on a concrete bench in a small confinement room that reeked of urine.

Brad, like many of his peers, did not meet with an individual counselor, family counselor or psychiatrist for months. When he did see a doctor, the juvenile simply told the psychiatrist to halt his prescribed drugs, and the physician agreed, according to records. "I was just like, 'Yeah, I'm doing a lot better now. I don't need those,'" Brad recalls. When his grandmother asked why the doctor had taken him off his medication, she received a letter that stated the CSC unit was an appropriate place to test Brad's thesis.  

"Brad wasn't getting individual counseling, and I was not getting copies of his individual plan as I had been promised," she says.

The lack of promised counseling wasn't unique to Brad's case.

Attorney Craig Sargent represented a mentally retarded client sent to CSC's unit for emotionally disturbed kids. His client, he says, was also denied the family counseling he had been promised. At a hearing to determine whether the boy should be sent to a Texas Youth Commission facility, Sargent grilled a CSC drill instructor and program director Brown.

The instructor testified that despite working with the youth every day, she had not realized he was mentally handicapped.

"That would be important to know when you're addressing someone as far as their mental capacity and their ability to follow your directive, if they have any defect. Would you agree with me?" Sargent asked.

"Yes, sir," the employee replied.

For four months, CSC had been receiving $82 a day to treat the boy, Sargent notes.

"It pissed me off as a taxpayer," he recalls.

CSC started as Esmor Correctional Service Corp., founded by New York slumlord Morris Horn, who has since died, and his business partner James F. Slattery. The pair owned "one of the most notorious welfare hotels in New York," which the city eventually condemned, according to The New York Times.

Horn and Slattery's new company's first entry into managing a detention facility was in a federal halfway house in Bedford-Stuyvesant, New York. They took over the house after its former manager was accused of sexually assaulting inmates, according to The New York Times.

CSC grew in the '90s at a rapid pace, winning contracts to manage prisons, Immigration and Naturalization Service detention centers and juvenile facilities nationwide. During those years, the company's financial fortunes soared, despite run-ins with the government agencies.

In June 1995, asylum seekers and illegal immigrants held at the CSC-managed facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey, rioted, damaging the place so badly that it had to be closed. A month later, the INS issued a scathing report on the company's management of the detention center. "Poorly paid, ill-trained guards physically and verbally abuse detainees, shackling them with leg irons, roughing them up and waking them without reason," the report stated. Diane McClure, a former CSC senior vice president who is now executive of a rival company, testified in a lawsuit filed by former inmates at the center that training records were altered and the INS was overcharged for transportation costs.

In the late '90s, the company ran into similar problems in Florida.

Dade County officials terminated contracts when they discovered CSC had deliberately kept delinquents beyond their release dates to pocket extra money. The local school district paid the company to teach kids in its custody; CSC was accused of collecting money for days when it provided no schooling.

"They are a completely greedy company. They have a Costco approach to meaningful intervention," says Marie Osborne, an assistant public defender in Dade County who went to court to get 11 of her indigent clients removed from a CSC facility.

The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice conducted a study of the facility and found a lack of training, inadequate background checks on employees and inadequate food service. Employees had even helped stage fights between 13- and 14-year-olds while their peers watched and referred to these bloody scrabbles as "The Main Event" in memos, according to CSC employees' testimonies.

Dallas County officials do not have to read about out-of-state litigation, however, to learn of CSC's problems. Tarrant County commissioners terminated CSC's contract to operate a 370-bed boot camp for young adult offenders in Mansfield after one employee pleaded guilty to charges of official oppression, and the nurse at the camp was indicted in the death of an inmate.

Michael Zahn, a former maintenance worker at the boot camp, allegedly intimidated three young women into disrobing, showering and touching themselves while he watched. All three girls had been sexually abused before they were committed to the camp. In February, a judge awarded them $2.8 million in damages. This spring, CSC agreed to settle the case for an undisclosed amount.

During the trial, state Senator Chris Harris testified that Russell Rau, a CSC senior vice president in charge of business development, told him that the three plaintiffs "got what they wanted." Rau denies making the statement.  

In January, an 18-year-old prisoner at the boot camp, Bryan Alexander, died of antibiotic-resistant pneumonia caused by a staphylococcus infection. Alexander's father alleged the boy had received improper medical treatment. In May, a Tarrant County grand jury indicted CSC nurse Knyvett Jane Reyes on negligent homicide and manslaughter charges. Jack Strickland, the lawyer who represented both her and the company, believes that government officials, some with personal ties to inmates at CSC facilities, have unfairly targeted the company and its employee. "We've had agencies falling all over themselves to investigate this. It's really a whole incestuous matter," he says.

Alexander's parents have filed a $755 million wrongful death suit against CSC.

The lawsuits against CSC are mounting to the point analysts say that they are threatening the corporate bottom line. Once a Wall Street darling, CSC has fallen on hard times. For the quarter ending in June 2001, the company's revenues dropped 16 percent compared with the same period in the previous year. CSC suffered a net loss of $421,000 for the quarter, compared with the $1.3 million it earned in profits the previous year. The company's stock traded recently for around $2 a share, down from a high earlier this year of $5.

Andrew May is a financial analyst who covers the prison-management industry for Jefferies & Co., an investment bank. Like many of his peers, he no longer puts the company's stock on his recommended buy list. He believes that CSC doesn't have the financial might to expand in the federal prison system, where more capital is needed to build facilities, and that the state-dominated juvenile prison markets offer only low profits.

But Slattery, now CSC chairman and chief executive officer, betrayed none of those concerns in his comments in the 1999 annual report. "I firmly believe that the fundamental reason for our success is attributable to the determination of our people to excel in every aspect of the business," he wrote. Slattery declined to be interviewed for this article.

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.

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.

This June, Dallas County asked for outside contractors to submit bids to manage the boot camp facilities that CSC now operates. The county officials asked bidders to submit a rehabilitative model other than a boot camp.

CSC won the bidding over two rivals, Children's Comprehensive Services and Securicor New Century Corp. Stretcher says the former had its hands full with another county contract to provide schooling for students expelled from the local school districts, and the latter was too new to evaluate. CSC, Stretcher says, "presented the best option for us."

Rau says the differences between the boot camp and the new program are mostly semantic. "I can't really explain how these things happen. At some point the pendulum swings. We don't start the pendulum swinging. We do what the clients want. Boot camps are really just our regular facility with a little more regimentation dialed in."

When CSC operated the Dallas County program for emotionally disturbed delinquents, the schedule for the juveniles in the specialized unit varied little from the regular regimen. At 5 a.m., all the youths were awakened for one hour of "physical training." Later in the afternoon, the emotionally disturbed kids were supposed to spend an hour in an anger-management class. Although many of the children were told in court that they would attend family counseling sessions, those programs failed to materialize.

Chris Wilson, who was sent to the CSC unit at 16 after kicking in his therapist's door, says a drill sergeant told him that "my mother was a faggot for having given birth to me." But his mother and grandmother, who repeatedly asked to attend a session, were not called in for one until Wilson had stayed there for three months.

Now 17 and a Garland high school junior, Wilson has been committed five times in his young life to psychiatric institutions. Doctors have diagnosed him with bipolar disorder and severe depression. In and out of the juvenile courts for three years, Wilson completed probation at the end of June.

Wilson's records in the juvenile courts describe his psychiatric treatment as "extensive." Since age 7, he has spent a month each at the psychiatric units of Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas and Parkland hospital and the Charter Behavioral Health Systems, spent a year in family therapy and was sent to a county mental health facility for two weeks.  

Wilson claims that drill sergeants slammed him against the wall and squeezed his neck so hard they left handprints. When Wilson's grandmother called to complain, she says, the CSC doctor told her that Wilson had been examined "and the bruises on his neck were going away and that they had him restricted from any physical activity because of [a] sprained back."

Another time, Wilson alleges, he was punished for talking back while in a confinement room. The drill sergeant slammed his head against the concrete bench and split his chin and lower lip.

The CSC doctor overprescribed his medications to the point that, Wilson's mother recalls, her son would sit in a corner and drool.

In November 1999, Wilson complained to his probation officer that a fellow inmate had attempted to rape him. Wilson claimed that his attacker climbed atop his back while he slept, and while a crowd of other residents watched, tried to pull down his pants and sodomize him.

Within a month of Wilson's report, the county ordered the unit closed--although some of the emotionally disturbed residents remained there. Wilson, whose mother and grandmother had written numerous letters complaining about conditions, was transferred in early January 2000 to New Horizons Ranch, another treatment facility.

"The people there listened when you talked," says Wilson. In six months, he successfully completed the program and even wanted to stay. Off probation for less than a month now, he has so far kept out of trouble.

The same cannot be said for Brad.

When he talked to a juvenile department psychologist, Brad described in detail his cruelty to animals. He claimed to have shot cats with BB guns, thrown kittens to dogs, set a frog on fire and poured acid on a toad.

He told the evaluator he needed his medication to feel like "a normal person."

Since he was 15, he said he had smoked marijuana, tried cocaine, used acid and "huffed" Freon. He attempted suicide twice.

He has never received adequate attention for his emotional problems, says his grandmother, who describes the program at Terrell State Hospital as a "joke." Once Brad was released from there, a counselor visited him twice a week at home. He told her he should stop taking his medication, and she agreed, he says, leaving Brad in the manic condition he was in when he pulverized his grandmother's living room with the wrought-iron chair.

Once he was in CSC's program, Brad took it upon himself to get out.

At an afternoon anger-management session, led by the woman who had conceded to his grandmother that she was unprepared for the job, Brad recalls screaming: "I'm not fucking going to take this shit anymore." He threw chairs and encouraged his fellow delinquents to do the same. As he expected, Brad was taken to isolation.

There, he acted out again. "I'm not stupid. I knew what the others had done. I tore out the fixture of the lightbulb and reached down and grabbed a piece of the broken glass. No one would come in then, because it had a sharp edge and they were afraid I was going to stab them with it," Brad says.

In court, his juvenile defense lawyer argued that because of Brad's neglect at the CSC facility he should be sent home. The juvenile system had failed him, attorney Laura Peterson told the prosecutors. "Grandma put him in the system to get help and the entire time he got, what, two hours of counseling?"

Despite recommendations from a juvenile department psychologist and probation officer that the boy be sent to a highly structured program at TYC, the prosecutors agreed to allow Brad to return home. He was ordered to live with his grandmother and report weekly to a juvenile probation officer until his 18th birthday.

Brad had spent almost a year in the juvenile system--at a taxpayer cost of roughly $25,000, about 60 percent of which went to CSC--yet none of it had prevented him from growing up to be a criminal.

This past June, Brad did not contest the charges that he had been carrying an unlawful homemade club. As a result, he was sentenced to six months of community supervision--as an adult. He had turned 18 eight months earlier.

He didn't get into any more trouble over the summer, his grandmother says, but he has gone back to his father, and she hasn't heard from him for a few weeks. Asked to summarize the experience at CSC, she says without missing a beat, "It made him worse."

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