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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.

"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.

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Miriam Rozen
Contact: Miriam Rozen

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