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"LOOKING LIKE PSYCHOPATHS"
"Tell us what you know about Capital Offenders," Kelley asks the group.
Up until this moment, the boys' reactions have been as uniform as their haircuts and clothing. Heads nodded when a yes was required, went sideways when the answer was no. Now, the masks are coming off. The youth with one eye breaks into a slow grin. A boy with peaked features and startling blue eyes in the second row waves his hand in the air. He looks up, surprised to see it there.
"Life Stories, miss. We'll be telling our Life Stories," says a small, somber black youth with large eyes. He inflects the words "Life Stories" in a way that makes it plain they are uppercase. Those two words are al- ways capitalized in the TYC resocialization dialect these young men have learned to speak.
"You can't leave anything out! You go over it and over it until it's all out there in the open," adds a youth with a solid-gold front tooth, the symbol of a successful drug dealer.
"You can't be fronting. No way can you front your way through," declares a powerfully built young man in the first row. He is wearing granny glasses and could pass for a scholar-athlete if his forearms and biceps weren't so heavily gang-tattooed.
"You can't front empathy," agrees a slight, boyish Korean-American. "If it ain't real, you got to get real. You can't be hiding behind no thinking errors."
"Life stories." "Empathy." "Thinking errors." It turns out that human behavior and the programs designed to alter it are inextricably tied to language. The fact that the national debate over delinquency issues rarely, if ever, reaches a level where language is explored is one reason why the more lofty the setting--a mahogany-paneled legislative hearing room in a state capital; a Senate subcommittee room with chandeliers and marble floors in Washington, D.C.--the more ersatz the debate. Frontline treatment specialists in Giddings take little heed of congressional hearings such as "Is Treating Juvenile Offenders Cost-Effective?" The people who actually do the work tend to view splashy hearings as little more than a platform for grandstanding politicians, one-issue zealots, and academics pushing a thesis. On the front lines, that question has been settled: treatment works.
It is one thing to say that about programs in a state institution. Taxpayers are picking up the bills, and the outcomes, no matter how scientifically they are evaluated, remain suspect because state institutions collect their own data and measure their own results. It is quite another when the marketplace says that intense treatment changes the trajectory of troubled teenagers' lives. The best evidence of that is the "emotional-growth boarding schools" that have sprung up west of the Rockies in the last twenty years at a rate that rivals the growth of traditional prep schools in New England in the nineteenth century. These schools cater to teenagers who are so deeply into drugs and self-destructive behavior, their parents are terrified they will not live to turn twenty. The tuition at CEDU, the oldest of the emotional-growth, or "therapeutic," boarding schools (founded in 1967 in Palm Springs, California), is well over $100,000 a year. If the cost is astounding, so are the results. Families that can afford a six-figure annual tuition would not keep enrolling their children in CEDU if they did not see tremendous changes.
CEDU is at one end of the socioeconomic spectrum, Giddings is at the other. And yet the programs they operate are very similar. In both places, teenagers begin by memorizing a language they will eventually internalize. In both schools, the students come close to running the programs themselves.
The information the boys are practically shouting at Kelley did not come only from a manual or a lecture. Much of it came from their peers. They know so much about what is going to happen because after the eighteen boys were selected from the main Giddings population, they were transferred to Cottages 5-A and 5-B, where they moved in with a dozen students who had recently completed Capital Offenders. No introduction presented by a staff member, no matter how eloquent, carries the weight of a COG veteran who says, "Listen up, this is what they gonna have you do."
The eighteen boys in this room have spent the last two to four years immersed in the resocialization program that structures life in the State School. Resocialization is a rethinking of the oldest concept in juvenile justice--rehabilitation--and in some ways, the word is poorly chosen. It assumes that some early socialization occurred in the lives of these boys, and for a majority, that did not happen.
An average, functioning family acts as a crucible where children are socialized, i.e., civilized, meaning they learn to relate to others through the relationships they form with parents and siblings. Most of the boys in this room come from families where the adults were drunk, high, street criminals, or in prison. In their families, "socialization" too often meant getting together to shoot hard drugs.
Giddings is not an attempt to re-create the family. That never works, in institutions, group homes, or foster homes. Kids instinctively rebel--This is bullshit! You're not my real dad! Instead, Giddings is a gigantic bell jar where 390 young offenders are under intense observation sixteen hours a day. Over the past few years, these boys have spent countless hours in one kind of a group or another, acquiring skills that were not ingrained in their families of origin.
"Thinking errors" are at the heart of this process. Along with clothing, one of the first things a youth receives upon arriving in a TYC institution is Changing Course: A Student Workbook for Resocialization. As soon as he gets his layout down, he is told to turn to Chapter Three and memorize the list of nine thinking errors. They are: deceiving, downplaying, avoiding, blaming, making excuses, jumping to conclusions, acting helpless, overreacting, and feeling special. All of us employ these techniques at one time or another. These kids have used them in a way that has harmed others, and will allow them to keep on harming others, if their thought processes are not confronted and altered.
"Thinking errors are used to justify criminal behavior," says Linda Reyes. "The error is in the justification, not in the fact. A youth can state true facts: I was sexually abused. Therefore, I sexually abused my sister. The thinking error is not in the facts. It is in the justification based on the facts."
Do all newly incarcerated young felons hate memorizing thinking errors? They certainly do. Do they do it by rote, as if they were memorizing words in a foreign language? Of course. Learning a new language is like picking up a tool chest. The real work is learning to use those tools-- sitting in a group and stopping a peer in midsentence with, "Hold on, right there. You just used a thinking error. Can you name it?" and then helping him see he is "avoiding" or "downplaying." This is an arduous practice, akin to a young musician learning the scales. It goes on and on and on, day after day. Walk into any cottage after dinner and the boys are likely to be sitting in a circle, conducting a behavior group. Typically, a boy has erupted in anger at a juvenile corrections officer--"Jay-Ko" in the Giddings vernacular--who ordered him to clean up his "PA," or personal area, a small clothes closet that sits at the foot of every bed. Instead of referring the boy to the security unit for being disobedient, the Jay-Ko called a behavior group. The group may spend hours in the circle, trying to help the boy understand why he got angry, and how anger feeds into his offense cycle.
The boys entering Capital Offenders are about to become archaeologists of the self, slowly and methodically sifting through their own lives. Each youth will spend two to three three-and-a-half-hour sessions telling his life story. At first glance, this does not seem daunting. Most of us, in one way or another, are telling one another our life stories all the time. But for these boys, the task is terrifying. They have soaked their systems in drugs and alcohol; shaved their heads and covered their bodies with tattoos; convinced themselves that they are hard, impossible to penetrate; surrendered their identity to a gang--all to hide themselves, from themselves.
When they were little, they were abused. They were defenseless; they were victims. As they got older, they vowed to be strong. Being strong meant inflicting pain. That is what the powerful figures in their lives did to them. Either/or, black or white, the preyed-upon and the predators. What is fascinating is, this "nature, red in tooth and claw" view of reality often butts up against an inner world that is pure fantasy.
The former drug dealer with the gold tooth? His mother was a crack cocaine addict who turned tricks on the corner. In fourth grade, he came out for recess and looked across the street to see his mother climbing into a van with a trick. "No boy should ever have to see his mother doing that," he blurted out one afternoon in a behavior group.
The short Latino in the front row covered with gang tattoos from his ears to his fingernails? Like his father, he has committed a murder. His father was in prison serving a life sentence when his conviction was suddenly overturned on a technicality. A few days after he got out, he found that his wife had taken up with another man while he was behind bars and promptly burned the house down.
A ten-year-old can't deal with a mother who is on the street, working as a prostitute. A twelve-year-old can't handle a father who gets drunk night after night, beats him and his mother, and keeps threatening to burn the house down--again. Sometimes, the only defense is fantasy, and these fantasies are often as delicate as they are elaborate. For years, the Latino gangbanger convinced himself that his dangerous, drug-dealing father was really an undercover agent for the DEA. His dad had infiltrated a gang of Colombians, and as soon as the DEA took them down, his dad was going to abandon the act and use his retirement money to buy his family a home on a hillside in Mexico, overlooking the ocean.
That fantasy is all the boy has left after his father was stabbed to death outside a bar in San Marcos. He cannot imagine living without it, just as he cannot imagine climbing out of the gang shell he has encased himself in. But in Capital Offenders, he will have to face the truth about his father, and the mother who never protected him, and his half dozen criminal uncles. This will require a great leap of faith, for like every boy in this room, he grew up knowing he could trust no one, least of all the adults entrusted with his care.
One word is used more often than any other in Giddings: "empathy." Everything that happens on campus, from the behavior groups to the football team, is designed to foster empathy. It is ironic that empathy is a word that connotes soft, feminine feelings in "The Free," as the kids call the world outside the fence. Inside the fence, it describes a rigorous, demanding, life-and-death struggle.
"People tend to think that empathy leads to forgiveness, but forgiveness is too easy, way too easy," says Linda Reyes. "Kids say, 'I'm sorry for what I did, I forgive myself, I'm going to move past it.' Empathy is far more difficult. Having empathy means taking responsibility. It means making a choice: the things a youth has done to others will never happen to someone else because of him. In a sense, empathy means being your own father, your own mother."
The boys in this small, square room all ran. It is important to understand that. They stabbed or brutally beat someone, and took off running. They fired shots from a car into a house at the exact moment when every member of the family was home and then the driver floored it and the car fishtailed up the street. In a way, the prison system allows criminals to keep on running because it does not make them confront themselves. And when they come out, they are indeed angrier, meaner, and dumber than when they went in.
"In Giddings, they have to stop running," says Dr. Corinne Alvarez-Sanders, Linda Reyes's successor as the State School's director of clinical services. "Developing empathy holds them accountable in a very agonizing way. What's harder: being forced to look at yourself and what you did, or sitting in a cell day after day?"
Alvarez-Sanders is right. According to studies done by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 75 percent of youth eighteen and under who are sentenced to terms in state prisons are released before they reach age twenty-two. Ninety-three percent of the population that are sentenced to prison while still in their teens complete their minimum sentences before reaching age twenty-eight.
Since violent young offenders are going to get out, society has to answer several questions: Do we want to try to treat this population before they are released and move in next door? Or do we want to keep sending them back to The Free, hardened and without a future? Without empathy? The answer seems obvious. And yet Texas, which loves its law-and-order image, is one of very few states that has intense, systematic programs designed to alter the lives of violent young offenders.
If empathy has a special meaning inside the fence, so does the word "thug." To the public, all 390 teenagers confined in Giddings State School are thugs--that is why they are there. But ask a veteran Jay-Ko, someone who has spent years working eight-hour shifts in the dorms, and she will search her memory before naming a kid who illustrates "the kind of young man prisons are built to hold," a kid who is "heartless," "cold-blooded," or has "nothing inside but ashes.&
Excerpted from Last Chance in Texas by John Hubner
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted April 26, 2008
Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting Butch Held, a former Superintendent of the Giddings State School. During our conversation, he said a book had been written about Giddings, by journalist John Hubner, and offered to lend me a copy. Most of you have never heard of Giddings, Texas, let alone the state school there. I know I hadn't and I've done a lot of traveling in the past 62 years. Giddings is a city in Lee County, Texas, United States situated on the intersection of U.S. Routes 77 and 290, 55 miles '88 km' east of Austin. The school is under the authority and direction of the Texas Youth Commision 'TYC'. To look at Giddings State School, you wouldn't think of it as a prison. In fact, judging from the picture on the website, you would think it was a highly refined private school. In a manner of speaking, it is. The program they have there is unlike any other in the nation, or world, for that matter. Giddings receives the worst of the worst youth offenders. They deal with murders, high-level drug dealers, rapists, prostitutes, etc., etc. Yet, they have no rehabilitation program and they do not refer to them as inmates or prisoners or any other tag you want to put on someone who is incarcerated. They are students, or kids that's it. Why don't they have a rehabilitation program? John Hubner explains it better in the book, but in my words and the definition in Merriam-Webster, rehabilitation is the act of restoring to a former state 'as of efficiency, good management, or solvency'. The youth at Giddings have never had a 'former state' to restore them to. The book cover says 'The redemption of youth' 'the deliverance of mankind from such fundamentally negative or disabling conditions as suffering, evil, finitude, and death'. This is the mind-set of each and every staff member at Giddings. As I began reading the book, it took very little time to realize John Hubner has a special talent. He not only paints a clear picture in your mind, he animates it. If they made a movie of the book, and could do it justice, it would be great. However, if you read the book, you don't need a movie. John's style of writing plays the scene out right in front of your eyes. It's like you're actually there, witnessing the whole thing.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.