Uit The Observer:
Whenyou have a teenager on the rampage, who are you going to turn to? InAmerica, parents send their troubled offspring to Jamaica’s TranquilityBay – a ‘behaviour-modification centre’ which charges $40,000 a year to’cure’ them. Decca Aitkenhead, the first journalist to gain access tothe centre in five years, wonders if there isn’t too high a price to pay
Read part two of ‘The last resort’ here
Sunday June 29, 2003
Parentssign a legal contract with Tranquility Bay granting 49 per cent custodyrights. It permits the Jamaican staff, whose qualifications are notrequired to exceed a high-school education, to use whatever physicalforce they feel necessary to control their child. The contract alsowaives Tranquility’s liability for harm that should befall a child inits care. The cost of sending a child here ranges from $25,000 to$40,000 a year.
Openedin 1997, Tranquility Bay is not a boot camp or a boarding school but a’behaviour modification centre’ for 11- to 18-year-olds. An AmericanTime magazine journalist visited in 1998, and since then no media havebeen allowed inside. With all access denied, there has been littlecoverage beyond sketchy reports based on hearsay – even the localcommunity knows almost nothing of what goes on. My discovery ofTranquility Bay came only by accident in 2000, while living nearby, andall my approaches since then were, like every other media request,firmly rejected.
The owner is an American called Jay Kay. Hedoesn’t trust the media, because ‘they go for sensationalist stuff.Nothing has really presented things in a way that is factual.’ On theother hand, he believes anyone who saw inside Tranquility would supportand admire it, and blames criticism on ignorance. So Kay has been in adilemma. His business is expanding, and he is turning his attention tothe UK, for he believes there is a large untapped market of Britishparents who would ship their children straight off to Jamaica if onlythey knew about Tranquility. The British government, too, he hopes,might send him children in its care. ‘If social services wasinterested, at $2,400 a month I bet they can’t offer our services forthat.’
This spring he decided to grant me and aphotographer unprecedented, exclusive access. If he didn’t like theresult, ‘Hell will freeze over before anyone gets in here again.’
Thefirst impression once inside Tranquility Bay’s perimeter walls is ofdisconcerting quiet. Students are moved around the property in silenceby guards in single file, 3ft apart – a complicated operation, becausegirls and boys must be kept segregated at all times, forbidden to lookat one another.
Tranquility has a language of its own. Thevocabulary is recognisable, but its use has been delicately customised,so that boys are ‘males’, girls ‘females’, and they are all dividedinto single-sex ‘families’ of about 20. The families have names such asDignity, Triumph and Wisdom, and are led by a staff member known as the’family mother’ or ‘father’, addressed by the children as Mum or Dad.The 200 staff are all Jamaican.
Along with multiple guards knownas ‘chaperones’, the family mothers and fathers control and scrutinisetheir children 24 hours a day. The only moment a student is alone is ina toilet cubicle; but a chaperone is standing right outside the door,and knows what he or she went in to do, because when students raisetheir hand for permission to go, they must hold up one finger for ‘anumber one’, and two for ‘a number two’.
Corporal punishment isnot practised, but staff administer ‘restraint’. Officially it isdeployed as the name suggests, to subdue a student who is out ofcontrol. However, former students say it is issued more often as apunishment. One explains: ‘It’s a completely degrading, painfulexperience. You could get it for raising your voice or pointing yourfinger. You know you’re going to get it when three Jamaicans walk inand say, "Take off your watch." They pin you down in a five-pointformation and that’s when they start twisting and pulling your limbs,grinding your ankles.’
Before sending their teen to Tranquility,parents are advised that it might be prudent to keep their plan asecret, and employ an approved escort service to break the news. Thefirst most teenagers hear of Tranquility is therefore when they arewoken from their beds at home at 4am by guards, who place them in avan, handcuffed if necessary, drive them to an airport and fly them toJamaica. The child will not be allowed to speak to his or her parentsfor up to six months, or see them for up to a year.
Let us sayyou are a new female assigned to Challenger family. You sleep with yourfamily in one bare room, on beds which are pieces of wood on hingeshung on the walls. The day begins with a chaperone shouting at you toget up. You put on your uniform and flip-flops (harder to run away in)in silence and fold your bed against the wall. The room is nowcompletely bare. After performing chores, the family is ordered to lineup, for your family mother to do a head count.
You are walked toa classroom to watch an ‘EG’ – a 30-minute video intended to promote’emotional growth’ – on a theme such as why you shouldn’t smoke. Thenthe family is lined up, counted and walked to the canteen to eat aplate of boiled cabbage and fish in silence while listening to an’inspirational tape’ broadcast loudly through the room, urging you to,for example, eat healthily.
‘If 70-80 per cent of the food youeat is not water rich, what you are doing is clogging your body. Eat 80per cent water-rich food. Try it for the next 10 days. Watch whathappens to your body. It will blow your mind.’ Students have no choicein what they eat – there is a seven-day plan of basic Jamaican mealswhich never changes, and eating less than 50 per cent of any dish isforbidden.
Morning routines vary between families. Some shower(three minutes, cold water), others wash clothes (outside, in buckets,cold water), or exercise (walk round the yard). At 9.30am, each familyis moved into a classroom for two hours. You continue the UShigh-school curriculum where you left off at home, but there is noteaching.
Watched by chaperones, you read prescribed coursebooks, take notes, then sit a test after each chapter. Two or threeJamaican teachers sit at the back of the room in case you get stuck,and they may be able to help. But to mark the tests, they have to usean answer key sent down from the States.
After lunch and anotherinspirational tape come three further hours of school, a second EG,plus an educational
video about a historical figure of note. There is asports period, a family meeting, a final meal with tape, followed by aperiod called Reflections, when you must write down what you havememorised from the tapes and EGs. You may also write home to yourparents, and though staff can read your mail, you may write what youlike. But Tranquility’s handbook for parents warns them not to believeanything that sounds like a ‘manipulation’, the programme’s word for acomplaint.
There is no free time, and you are never alone. At10pm everyone is in bed for Shut Down; the lights go off, andTranquility is silent, save for waves crashing on to the beach below.Chaperones watch you through the night. And the next day is exactly thesame. As is the next, and the next.
‘Yep, identical,’ says Kay.’Exactly identical. Now you see,’ he adds, with a grim nod ofsatisfaction, ‘why kids are not happy here.’
Tranquility Bay isone of 11 facilities affiliated to an organisation in Utah called theWorld Wide Association of Speciality Programs. The facilities arelocated in the States and Caribbean region, and although independentlyowned, all run the same programme, devised by Wwasp.
Jay Kay is33 years old, and the son of Wwasp’s chief director. He opened thefacility at the age of 27, after four years as administrator of aWwasp-run juvenile psychiatric hospital in Utah. Previously he had beena night guard there, and before that a petrol-pump attendant, havingdropped out of college. He has no qualifications in child development,but considers this unimportant.
‘Experience in this job is betterthan any degree. Am I an educational expert? No. But I know how to hirepeople to get the job done.’ There is more than a touch of the JerrySpringer guest about his looks – heavy, shaven-headed, colourless, anda similarly deadening certainty of mind. ‘I’ve got the best job in theworld,’ he claims, but he carries himself like a man who has learnt toexpect the worst, and is seldom disappointed.
Tranquility isbasically a private detention camp. But it differs in one importantrespect. When courts jail a juvenile, he has a fií sentence and maythink what he likes while serving it, whereas no child arrives atTranquility with a release date. Students are judged ready to leaveonly when they have demonstrated a sincere belief that they deserved tobe sent here, and that the programme has, in fact, saved their life.They must renounce their old self, espouse the programme’s beliefsystem, display gratitude for their salvation, and police fellowstudents who resist.
Afinely engineered reward-and-punishment system has been designed toeffect this change. In order to graduate, students must advance fromlevel 1 to 6, which they do by earning points. Every aspect of theirconduct is graded daily and as their score accumulates, they climbthrough the levels and acquire privileges.
On level 1, studentsare forbidden to speak, stand up, sit down or move without permission.When they have earnt enough points to reach level 2, they may speakwithout permission; on level 3, they are granted a (staff-monitored)phone call home. Levels 4, 5 and 6 enjoy significantly higher status.In addition to enjoying privileges, such as (strictly limited andapproved) clothing, jewellery, music and snacks, they are employed forthree days a week as a member of staff, and must discipline otherstudents by issuing ‘consequences’.
Every time a member of staffor upper-level student feels a student has broken a rule, they’consequence’ them by deducting points. Rule-breaking is classifiedinto categories of offence. A ‘Cat 1’ offence, ie rolling your eyes, isconsequenced by a modest loss of points. A ‘Cat 3′ offence, egswearing, costs a significant number, and may drop the student’s scorebeneath their current level’s threshold, thus demoting them andremoving privileges.
‘You know,’ offers Kay, ‘if people want totalk about the length of the programme, it’s up to the child. If aparent wonders why their kid is here so long, well gee, we are doingour part, maybe you need to ask your little Joey why he is not movingforward. Everyone knows how to earn the points.’
The strategy ofcoercing children to rewire themselves is the concept Kay is most proudof, for he believes it places troubled teenagers’ redemption in theirown hands. The choice is theirs.
‘For years, we just believed ifyou make the kids do what you want them to do, then they will make thechange. But what we figured out was, why not get them to come to theconclusion that they need to make the change themselves? That’s whatmakes this programme special. It’s up to them.’
Students who failto grasp this formula are forcefully encouraged to get the message. Onegirl currently has to wear a sign around her neck at all times, whichreads: ‘I’ve been in this programme for three years, and I am stillpulling crap.’
Whenmost children first arrive they find it difficult to believe that theyhave no alternative but to submit. In shock, frightened and angry, manysimply refuse to obey. This is when they discover the alternative.Guards take them (if necessary by force) to a small bare room and makethem (again by force if necessary) lie flat on their face, arms bytheir sides, on the tiled floor. Watched by a guard, they must remainlying face down, forbidden to speak or move a muscle except for 10minutes every hour, when they may sit up and stretch before resumingthe position. Modest meals are brought to them, and at night they sleepon the floor of the corridor outside under electric light and the gazeof a guard. At dawn they resume the position.
This is knownofficially as being ‘in OP’ – Observation Placement – and more casuallyas ‘lying on your face’. Any level student can be sent to OP, and itautomatically demotes them to level 1 and zero points. Every 24 hours,students in OP are reviewed by staff, and only sincere andunconditional contrition will earn their release. If they areunrepentant? ‘Well, they get another 24 hours.’
One boy told me he’d spent six months in OP.
Ididn’t think this could be true, but it transpired this was not evenexceptional. ‘Oh no,’ says Kay. ‘The record is actually held by afemale.’ On and off, she spent 18 months lying on her face.
‘Thepurpose of observation,’ Kay offers, ‘is to give the kids a chance tothink. Hopefully, it’s giving the kids a chance to reflect on thechoices they’ve made.’ And indeed it is often in OP that a studentdecides to stop fighting. In this respect, OP works. In fact, thesuccess rate of OP can be understood as a perfect distillation ofTranquility Bay’s ideology. If your son is willfully disrespectful, themost loving gift a parent can give him is incarceration in anenvironment so intolerable that he will do anything to get out – where’anything’ means surrendering his mind to authority.
‘Isay to the parents,’ says Kay, leaning back in his office seat. ‘Thebottom line is, what’s the end result you want? Getting there may beugly, but at least with us you’re going to get there.’
The last resort: part two