On February 4, 1992, 5' 4" tall, fifteen-year-old Paul Choy was being taught a lesson he wouldn't forget -- his last, as it turned out. According to the official version of events, Choy was required to sit on a wooden platform in the cold for five hours as punishment for failing to finish a five-mile run. That's five hours of shivering and without bathroom breaks. Finally, in reckless desperation, he gave his keepers just the signal they were waiting for. They were poised for action. Two staff mambers restrained him in what District Attorney Jorgenson described as something like a full Nelson. They held him for about ten minutes, after which time they noticed he wasn't breathing.
... Well, you can't just let these punk kids ignore the rules, can you? You gotta put 'em in their place, right? If they're out of control, you restrain 'em, right? When they don't cooperate, you gotta make 'em cooperate, right? And when they come lookin' for trouble, you give 'em trouble. They ain't in boot camp to be mollycoddled, you know, but to learn respect for authority. And I'm not their goddam granny who's gonna give 'em hot coco when they need their butts kicked...That was the scene, more or less, at a place prophetically called Rite of Passage.
Paul celebrated his 16th birthday at Washoe Medical Center in Reno, brain dead and on life support. Before he died, a nurse at the facility, trained to identify signs of sexual assault, observed injuries consistent with anal rape.
His was the first such case to come to my attention.
I've lost count of the number of children killed by suffocation in custodial settings. Yes, I said "suffocation." I know the preferred euphemism here is "accidental restraint-related death." But out of respect for the victims and respect for the English language, I opt for the other word.
After the event, there was the predictable mad scramble to rationalize it. This explanation emerged: Paul was too frail a boy for that particular camp. He didn't have the "athletic ability." He should have been sent somewhere more suitable. His "accident" was the result of an unfortunate, but innocent, bureaucratic oversight. The authorities miscalculated when they sent a puny, little Asian kid to a camp designed for tough young thugs who are inured to being knocked around--ones who would benefit from being marched and exercised to exhaustion and could safely bounce back from almost any amount of brutal treatment. The camp staff were only doing their job. The camp management was only following time-tested procedures. One boot camp apologist characterized Paul's demise as part of the "the window of loss," as though he were an egg in a large shipment of eggs to market. One must expect some breakage, particularly among the ones with prior defects. It's the price of doing business. Presumably, the "window of loss" is a small window, and the few who fall through it don't detract from the larger picture.
Whenever the subject of youths dying violently in custodial settings breaks in the news, which is becoming more frequent as larger numbers of them are funneled into that industry, there is a call for better training of staff. One rarely hears the recommendation for more stringent vetting of applicants for staff positions. That would be unduly accusatory. The mere suggestion that there are people employed in such places who shouldn't be there, who are unfit to be entrusted with the power of life and death over the powerless, would shift the focus of attention onto politically dangerous territory. It could be the first step toward opening a debate over the very essence of youth boot camps and the like, their stated purpose and purported efficacy. It is far safer to leave an engine that is running -- and running well -- alone. Tinker with peripherals, if you must, such as better training for current staff, but don't challenge the fundamentals. Surely no one can reasonably object to better training. Every sensible employee welcomes additional training to help improve job skills. And just think of the exciting new employment opportunities for those who will be the trainers. Everybody wins. Hopefully, those who are unsuited to youth work will be weeded out, or will gracefully weed themselves out during the training process.
This is wishful thinking.
In fact, there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that sadists and bullies are that easily diverted or that they can benefit from in-service training, except, perhaps, to improve their ability to do their dirty work undetected. Also, having been duly trained and certified gives kid keepers an extra measure of deniability in the event of an "accident." It is interesting to note that developers of so-called restraint procedures prescribe frequent periodic refresher courses for staff. Does the science of restraint change that often? Or is this a tacit recognition of the fact that "restraining" a teenager is a peak experience for some users, and they are apt to get carried away in the act?
Offshore facilities serving the "troubled youth" market typically operate in places where child abuse prevention laws are virtually nonexistent and recruit staff from among the locals. How thoroughly job applicants' qualifications to work in educational/therapeutic settings are assessed is anybody's guess. Employers are the sole arbiters of that standard. "Out of sight, out of mind," seems to be their unspoken motto.
Stateside facilities typically set up in remote, inaccessible places where a laissez faire approach to child abuse prevention prevails and where they can easily isolate inmates from all outside contact, even from contact with their families. Isolation, they say, is essential to the success of the program. That's true, but not in the way they imply. It is hard to imagine a more favorable environment for custodial institutions staffed by people with few, if any, marketable peacetime skills.
To date no one has been able to document that boot camp graduates fare better for the experience. The self-serving anecdotal "evidence" touted by the industry's shareholders and enthusiasts, must set every skeptic's bullshit alarm bells ringing -- if the number of deaths were not enough.
Read Youth near death following restraint, San Francisco Chronicle, February 18, 1992
Read Boy in coma after scuffle at camp for troubled youths, San Francisco Chronicle, February 13, 1992
SEE RELATED: "Practicing Restraint," by Scott Kirkwood and "In Harm's Way," By Charley D. Miller at www.cwla.org/articles/cv0309restraint.htm