I found this on another message board. Read the original article here, or scroll down. It’s long, but worth your time.
The last resort (part one)
When you have a teenager on the rampage, who are you going to turn to? In America, parents send their troubled offspring to Jamaica’s Tranquility Bay - a ‘behaviour-modification centre’ which charges $40,000 a year to ‘cure’ them. Decca Aitkenhead, the first journalist to gain access to the 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
Were you to glance up from the deserted beach below, you might mistake Tranquility Bay for a rather exclusive hotel. The statuesque white property stands all alone on a sandy curve of southern Jamaica, feathered by palm trees, gazing out across the Caribbean Sea. You would have to look closer to see the guards at the wall. Inside, 250 foreign children are locked up. Almost all are American, but though kept prisoner, they were not sent here by a court of law. Their parents paid to have them kidnapped and flown here against their will, to be incarcerated for up to three years, sometimes even longer. They will not be released until they are judged to be respectful, polite and obedient enough to rejoin their families.
Parents sign a legal contract with Tranquility Bay granting 49 per cent custody rights. It permits the Jamaican staff, whose qualifications are not required to exceed a high-school education, to use whatever physical force they feel necessary to control their child. The contract also waives Tranquility’s liability for harm that should befall a child in its care. The cost of sending a child here ranges from $25,000 to $40,000 a year.
Opened in 1997, Tranquility Bay is not a boot camp or a boarding school but a ‘behaviour modification centre’ for 11- to 18-year-olds. An American Time magazine journalist visited in 1998, and since then no media have been allowed inside. With all access denied, there has been little coverage beyond sketchy reports based on hearsay - even the local community knows almost nothing of what goes on. My discovery of Tranquility Bay came only by accident in 2000, while living nearby, and all my approaches since then were, like every other media request, firmly rejected.
The owner is an American called Jay Kay. He doesn’t trust the media, because ‘they go for sensationalist stuff. Nothing has really presented things in a way that is factual.’ On the other hand, he believes anyone who saw inside Tranquility would support and admire it, and blames criticism on ignorance. So Kay has been in a dilemma. His business is expanding, and he is turning his attention to the UK, for he believes there is a large untapped market of British parents who would ship their children straight off to Jamaica if only they knew about Tranquility. The British government, too, he hopes, might send him children in its care. ‘If social services was interested, at $2,400 a month I bet they can’t offer our services for that.’
This spring he decided to grant me and a photographer unprecedented, exclusive access. If he didn’t like the result, ‘Hell will freeze over before anyone gets in here again.’
The first impression once inside Tranquility Bay’s perimeter walls is of disconcerting quiet. Students are moved around the property in silence by guards in single file, 3ft apart - a complicated operation, because girls and boys must be kept segregated at all times, forbidden to look at one another.
Tranquility has a language of its own. The vocabulary is recognisable, but its use has been delicately customised, so that boys are ‘males’, girls ‘females’, and they are all divided into single-sex ‘families’ of about 20. The families have names such as Dignity, 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 known as ‘chaperones’, the family mothers and fathers control and scrutinise their children 24 hours a day. The only moment a student is alone is in a toilet cubicle; but a chaperone is standing right outside the door, and knows what he or she went in to do, because when students raise their hand for permission to go, they must hold up one finger for ‘a number one’, and two for ‘a number two’.
Corporal punishment is not practised, but staff administer ‘restraint’. Officially it is deployed as the name suggests, to subdue a student who is out of control. However, former students say it is issued more often as a punishment. One explains: ‘It’s a completely degrading, painful experience. You could get it for raising your voice or pointing your finger. You know you’re going to get it when three Jamaicans walk in and say, “Take off your watch.” They pin you down in a five-point formation 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 a secret, and employ an approved escort service to break the news. The first most teenagers hear of Tranquility is therefore when they are woken from their beds at home at 4am by guards, who place them in a van, handcuffed if necessary, drive them to an airport and fly them to Jamaica. The child will not be allowed to speak to his or her parents for up to six months, or see them for up to a year.
Let us say you are a new female assigned to Challenger family. You sleep with your family in one bare room, on beds which are pieces of wood on hinges hung on the walls. The day begins with a chaperone shouting at you to get 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 now completely bare. After performing chores, the family is ordered to line up, for your family mother to do a head count.
You are walked to a classroom to watch an ‘EG’ - a 30-minute video intended to promote ‘emotional growth’ - on a theme such as why you shouldn’t smoke. Then the family is lined up, counted and walked to the canteen to eat a plate 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 you eat is not water rich, what you are doing is clogging your body. Eat 80 per cent water-rich food. Try it for the next 10 days. Watch what happens to your body. It will blow your mind.’ Students have no choice in what they eat - there is a seven-day plan of basic Jamaican meals which never changes, and eating less than 50 per cent of any dish is forbidden.
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 family is moved into a classroom for two hours. You continue the US high-school curriculum where you left off at home, but there is no teaching.
Watched by chaperones, you read prescribed course books, take notes, then sit a test after each chapter. Two or three Jamaican 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 use an answer key sent down from the States.
After lunch and another inspirational tape come three further hours of school, a second EG, plus an educational video about a historical figure of note. There is a sports period, a family meeting, a final meal with tape, followed by a period called Reflections, when you must write down what you have memorised from the tapes and EGs. You may also write home to your parents, and though staff can read your mail, you may write what you like. But Tranquility’s handbook for parents warns them not to believe anything that sounds like a ‘manipulation’, the programme’s word for a complaint.
There is no free time, and you are never alone. At 10pm everyone is in bed for Shut Down; the lights go off, and Tranquility is silent, save for waves crashing on to the beach below. Chaperones watch you through the night. And the next day is exactly the same. As is the next, and the next.
‘Yep, identical,’ says Kay. ‘Exactly identical. Now you see,’ he adds, with a grim nod of satisfaction, ‘why kids are not happy here.’
Tranquility Bay is one of 11 facilities affiliated to an organisation in Utah called the World Wide Association of Speciality Programs. The facilities are located in the States and Caribbean region, and although independently owned, all run the same programme, devised by Wwasp.
Jay Kay is 33 years old, and the son of Wwasp’s chief director. He opened the facility at the age of 27, after four years as administrator of a Wwasp-run juvenile psychiatric hospital in Utah. Previously he had been a night guard there, and before that a petrol-pump attendant, having dropped out of college. He has no qualifications in child development, but considers this unimportant.
‘Experience in this job is better than any degree. Am I an educational expert? No. But I know how to hire people to get the job done.’ There is more than a touch of the Jerry Springer guest about his looks - heavy, shaven-headed, colourless, and a similarly deadening certainty of mind. ‘I’ve got the best job in the world,’ he claims, but he carries himself like a man who has learnt to expect the worst, and is seldom disappointed.
Tranquility is basically a private detention camp. But it differs in one important respect. When courts jail a juvenile, he has a fixed sentence and may think what he likes while serving it, whereas no child arrives at Tranquility with a release date. Students are judged ready to leave only when they have demonstrated a sincere belief that they deserved to be sent here, and that the programme has, in fact, saved their life. They must renounce their old self, espouse the programme’s belief system, display gratitude for their salvation, and police fellow students who resist.
A finely engineered reward-and-punishment system has been designed to effect this change. In order to graduate, students must advance from level 1 to 6, which they do by earning points. Every aspect of their conduct is graded daily and as their score accumulates, they climb through the levels and acquire privileges.
On level 1, students are forbidden to speak, stand up, sit down or move without permission. When they have earnt enough points to reach level 2, they may speak without 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 and approved) clothing, jewellery, music and snacks, they are employed for three days a week as a member of staff, and must discipline other students by issuing ‘consequences’.
Every time a member of staff or upper-level student feels a student has broken a rule, they ‘consequence’ them by deducting points. Rule-breaking is classified into categories of offence. A ‘Cat 1’ offence, ie rolling your eyes, is consequenced by a modest loss of points. A ‘Cat 3’ offence, eg swearing, costs a significant number, and may drop the student’s score beneath their current level’s threshold, thus demoting them and removing privileges.
‘You know,’ offers Kay, ‘if people want to talk about the length of the programme, it’s up to the child. If a parent wonders why their kid is here so long, well gee, we are doing our part, maybe you need to ask your little Joey why he is not moving forward. Everyone knows how to earn the points.’
The strategy of coercing children to rewire themselves is the concept Kay is most proud of, for he believes it places troubled teenagers’ redemption in their own hands. The choice is theirs.
‘For years, we just believed if you make the kids do what you want them to do, then they will make the change. But what we figured out was, why not get them to come to the conclusion that they need to make the change themselves? That’s what makes this programme special. It’s up to them.’
Students who fail to grasp this formula are forcefully encouraged to get the message. One girl currently has to wear a sign around her neck at all times, which reads: ‘I’ve been in this programme for three years, and I am still pulling crap.’
When most children first arrive they find it difficult to believe that they have no alternative but to submit. In shock, frightened and angry, many simply refuse to obey. This is when they discover the alternative. Guards take them (if necessary by force) to a small bare room and make them (again by force if necessary) lie flat on their face, arms by their sides, on the tiled floor. Watched by a guard, they must remain lying face down, forbidden to speak or move a muscle except for 10 minutes every hour, when they may sit up and stretch before resuming the position. Modest meals are brought to them, and at night they sleep on the floor of the corridor outside under electric light and the gaze of a guard. At dawn they resume the position.
This is known officially as being ‘in OP’ - Observation Placement - and more casually as ‘lying on your face’. Any level student can be sent to OP, and it automatically demotes them to level 1 and zero points. Every 24 hours, students in OP are reviewed by staff, and only sincere and unconditional contrition will earn their release. If they are unrepentant? ‘Well, they get another 24 hours.’
One boy told me he’d spent six months in OP.
I didn’t think this could be true, but it transpired this was not even exceptional. ‘Oh no,’ says Kay. ‘The record is actually held by a female.’ On and off, she spent 18 months lying on her face.
‘The purpose of observation,’ Kay offers, ‘is to give the kids a chance to think. Hopefully, it’s giving the kids a chance to reflect on the choices they’ve made.’ And indeed it is often in OP that a student decides to stop fighting. In this respect, OP works. In fact, the success rate of OP can be understood as a perfect distillation of Tranquility Bay’s ideology. If your son is willfully disrespectful, the most loving gift a parent can give him is incarceration in an environment so intolerable that he will do anything to get out - where ‘anything’ means surrendering his mind to authority.
‘I say to the parents,’ says Kay, leaning back in his office seat. ‘The bottom line is, what’s the end result you want? Getting there may be ugly, but at least with us you’re going to get there.’
Jim Mozingo got the result he wanted. Twenty months after sending his son Josh away, he arrived from North Carolina to collect him. Mozingo has four sons, an insurance company, and is a good example of a typical Tranquility parent. Divorced from Josh’s mother, busy, wealthy, he found Tranquility by typing ‘defiant teen’ into the internet.
‘I tell you, I was at my wits’ end with my son. We’d tried military school, but he got kicked out. He never got into trouble with the police. He was one step from that. What it was is, he was going through this identity crisis. Peer pressure. Pot got involved.’
Drugs feature high among reasons for choosing Tranquility, although addicts who need detox are not accepted. Running away from home, sleeping around, or being expelled from school are also typical. Some kids have been in trouble with the police. Others had been in court, where their parents persuaded the judge to let them send their child to Tranquility, rather than issue his own punishment. Other students were sent here for wearing inappropriate clothes, using bad language, or hanging around with the wrong sort of friends.
‘He was real disrespectful to his mom,’ Mozingo sighs. ‘Not to me. Never to Daddy. He lived with his mom until a year-and-a-half before he came here, and I knew the day would come when she would call me and say, “I can’t handle it.”’
But Mozingo had baby twin sons with his new wife, and Josh was a disruptive addition to the household. ‘I knew I had to do something. I didn’t want to lose him. I would do anything for him, that’s why I sent him here. We tried therapy at home, but you know.’ He laughs conspiratorially. 'God love 'em, we’ve got to have therapists, I guess. But I come from a class where if you’ve got a problem, well hell, you just work it out. Josh just needed to get his head on straight. And he has.
‘Sure, he complained like hell at first,’ he recalls fondly. ‘Typical case of manipulation, just like they said in the handbook. He said the staff were mean and violent, they beat you, the food is terrible.’ He chuckles, pleased by the neat symmetry of the handbook and letters. While he is talking, Josh hovers nearby, with bright eyes that dance longingly on his father’s face. It took Josh a whole year to reach level 2, some of it spent in OP, but his father feels only awestruck gratitude for the treatment his son has received.
‘Every time I come here I’m just so struck by the love of these people. You can’t fake this kind of love. And this place is just full of love. I challenge anyone to come down and take a look.’
These are classic Tranquility-parent feelings. For example, Mozingo believes his son had a serious drug problem before coming to Jamaica and Josh agrees. What was he taking? ‘I was doing marijuana. I was doing cigarettes. Alcohol.’ He looks disgusted with himself. ‘Mostly, though, I stole prescription pills from my grandmother.’
Also striking is the assumption parents make of entitlement to their child’s affection, as though this is a legal right. ‘She’s a neat kid, she really is,’ a former student’s mother says. ‘She just didn’t like us.’ But now, ‘I don’t believe she’s lying to me any more, and that’s a neat feeling.’
Messy divorce and remarriage are the norm among these parents. Their expectations of loyalty from their children, though, suggest a gilt-edged ideal of American family life so brittle any rebellion or defiance is literally terrifying. This culture then creates its own logic - for once adolescence is criminalised, Tranquility becomes the obvious solution.
A clearer picture of this family culture emerges from conversation with a group of levels 5 and 6.
‘Oh, my relationship with my family was pretty bad. I just went to my room and avoided my parents. There was always arguments and stuff,’ offers Pete. ‘I was very angry with my parents, their divorce had a big influence on me. I’m not angry with them now, though. Not at all. I mean, I look at this as a punishment, obviously, but I deserved it. How I acted towards my parents.’
Susie is 16, from New York, and here ‘because of having sex. Not going to school. It was my attitude. It wasn’t, like, drugs. The problem was, me and my mom, we just didn’t have a relationship. We could say how was your day, that was about it.’ The possibility that this was a normal phase is adamantly rejected by Susie.
‘No, that wasn’t normal. I would be doing the same thing all my life. I would never have got out of it.’ Her friend Michelle believes, ‘I’d be living on the streets now. And I think one of the biggest things I’ve learnt here is that everything happens for a reason. I came here for a reason. You see, I just wasn’t meant to be living the life I was living. I wasn’t meant to be homeless.’
So who is meant to be homeless? ‘What?’ She looks thrown, before putting the question aside. ‘If my mom hadn’t sent me here I would have died.’
That without Tranquility they would be dead is an article of faith among all the students.
I ask one how they would have died. ‘What?’
It soon becomes apparent that despite all having been programmed with the script of their near death, no one has paused to wonder how it would have happened. But if they hadn’t been dead, they would have been poor, a destiny they have been taught to consider more or less the same thing. ‘Tranquility showed me that I’d have been a minimum wager,’ Nick says. ‘This place saved my life.’
‘I’d probably be living with a drug dealer or something awful like that,’ speculates a girl. ‘And going nowhere. Not being successful.’
A number of these students are 18 years old and therefore legally free to walk out, but until they graduate the programme their parents are refusing to have them home. Lindsay Cohen is nearly 19. A straight-A high-school graduate, she was heading for Harvard until an unsuitable choice of boyfriend had her sent here at the age of 17. The day she turned 18, Tranquility would be obliged to hand over $50 and the return half of her air ticket if she wanted to leave.
She picks the words of her explanation carefully. ‘OK. I’m used to a high-profile lifestyle. I really don’t own anything too inexpensive. What I’m accustomed to isn’t anything of the sort you can buy for $50. And my parents promised to support me through law school if I stayed. So really, walking isn’t worth it. Sometimes,’ she murmurs, ‘I still think I didn’t need to come here…’ but stops herself and offers, vaguely, ‘But I guess in life things happen.’
The students all describe their pre-programme selves using the same subjective descriptions, such as ‘ignorant’ or ‘disrespectful’, as if these were neutral adjectives, like ‘brown’. Their delivery, too, is disturbingly similar, for the words come out like empty envelopes, emotionally vacant.
‘When I was sent here I was very upset,’ Kate tells me. Her voice is careful but dull. ‘My parents didn’t tell me I was coming here. They tricked me.’ She smiles a faraway, inscrutable smile. ‘I had to have the police escort me on to the plane.’
How do you feel about it now? ‘I think it’s great. The fact that I changed my life is great.’ And what’s your relationship like with them now? ‘It’s great.’ What spark Kate and others have is lit only by Kay and the chaperones, towards whom a faintly flirtatious electricity seems to flicker. These children do not just obey rules. They seem to have been psychologically rewired.
‘You have to understand,’ a former student, who turned 18 and walked out, tries to explain. ‘The staff are constantly trying to work out what you are thinking about and constantly telling you what to think about, and then constantly checking to see if you are thinking about it. And if you’re not, and they know you’re not, you might as well be dead.’
Every day, each family has a meeting, taken by its ‘family representative’, the staff member who reports to their parents in a weekly phone call.
Challenger family’s meeting is the first I attend, and has the appearance of group therapy. The girls sit in a circle on the floor, with an hour to stand up and ‘share’, or offer ‘feedback’.
The first to her feet is frightened that her old problem of anorexia is returning. ‘I feel really disgusting the whole time. I hate it so much because I feel so imperfect. I just feel so insecure, I didn’t think this was going to come back, I don’t know what to do.’ She casts about, anguish bubbling out incoherently. ‘Like, if I was to date a guy, and I was always hating myself, well that would push him away. Being alone really scares me a lot, but I know that’s how I’m going to end up.’ Now she is crying hard, gulping air, talking randomly. ‘Like, if I get a Cat 2, I feel like I’m letting everyone down.’
After 10 minutes she sits down. But there is something odd about the atmosphere - hot grief has met ice-cool air. Hands go up for feedback.
‘No one else is thinking about you, why do you think anyone notices you?’
‘Don’t you get it? The purpose of being here, and getting consequences, is to teach you how to pick yourself up. If you don’t mess up, you go home.’
I am completely taken aback. As they rattle out their spiteful attacks some sound bored, like waitresses running through a menu, but others are imaginatively vicious. After the next has shared, a girl stands up and points at her victim’s acne.
‘Why is it that you feel so comfortable wallowing in your own crap? That’s why you have that stuff on your face. It’s because you’re hurting yourself on the inside.’ The family rep looks on with approval.
The rep for Renaissance takes a more pro-active role in her meeting. Her senior boys need no help on the feedback front - ‘You’ve got a really bad attitude. I’ve talked to you about that before. You’re lazy. That’s all you are, man’ - and so on, but she pulls a coup de grâce towards the end.
A boy stands and clearly thinks just once he is going to come off best. There had been a dispute over his ‘exit plan’, the arrangement for his imminent return home. He had said he was not going to live with his mother and staff thought he was. His mother had now written to confirm that he was absolutely correct.
‘So I just wanted to make sure,’ he says, with biting diplomacy, ‘that there were no other “misunderstandings” that need to be cleared up.’
His family rep stares hard at him hard, smarting. Defeat seems inescapable. The silence lengthens, and her eyes narrow.
‘You know what? I’m going to review your exit plan. It will have to go on hold.’
‘Miss! Miss, no!’ He is aghast, panic-stricken. ‘You can’t mean that? Why are you punishing me?’
She studies him. ‘I am not punishing you. You just gave me the idea. You have punished yourself.’
Why would students want to stand up and share, or give this kind of feedback? Scott Burkett, a student who left two years ago, explains: ‘You can only move forward in the programme if you share intimate details of your life. If you don’t share, you’re not “working the programme”, and they’ll take away your points. In a meeting, your rep will suddenly pick on you and say, “Right, I want to hear something private, right now. Come on. Or do you want to go to OP?” And I’m going through this inventory in my head real fast, thinking what will hurt least to say? Because you tell her secrets and then she uses them against you later. Like, say a guy mentions problems with his girlfriend, a month later she’ll have him up, and she’s saying, “You don’t think she’s waiting, do you?” She’s laughing at you behind your back. “How many of your friends do you think she’s sleeping with right now?” So I start telling her something, and she just says, “I’m not listening to that, that’s not deep,” and she calls for the guard to take me to OP. And I’ve got until he gets in the room to give her something better, or he’s taking me.’
Points and privileges are awarded to students who tell on each other. If you don’t tell on someone for breaking a rule and get found out, you lose points. ‘There is zero trust,’ Scott explains. ‘You can’t trust anyone. It’s not us against them. It’s everyone against you.’ Scott remembers a new boy being caught with incriminating used tissues; masturbation is strictly forbidden. ‘And they got him up in front of everyone right after dinner, and the upper-level kids just ripped into him, this little 13-year-old kid. It was kind of the entertainment for the night. That’s what I mean about breaking kids.’
Students also take part in seminars - phenomenally confrontational three-day sessions which are calculated to induce what approaches mass hysteria. Participants must swear a vow of silence, shrouding what takes place in secrecy. Many credit these emotionally intense encounters with transforming their lives, whereas others describe them as brutal manipulation.
Parents cannot visit their child at Tranquility until they, too, have attended a seminar in the States. They attend further seminars together with their child and many consider this to be the programme’s most valuable attribute. ‘Awesome,’ marvels Jim Mozingo, ‘mind-blowing.’ But this dual approach ensures that the only people outside Tranquility with whom students are allowed contact become insiders, too, co-opted into Tranquility’s special language and belief system. And parents have a financial incentive to believe and proselytise. For every new customer they can recruit, a month’s fees for their own child are waived.
What Wwasp has created is a perfectly watertight world in which all criticism is, by definition, discredited. From former students, it merely proves they are still dealing in ‘manipulations’. If parents are unhappy, the ‘poor results’ they got only indicate that they failed to support the programme. Staff are bound by a confidentiality clause, and any who leave and speak out are cast as ‘disgruntled former employees’ with personal axes to grind.
Only one potential gap exists. A licensed psychologist must perform an evaluation of every arrival. He also offers students optional one-on-one and group therapy, and is paid directly by parents. He is not employed by Tranquility because, as he stresses, ‘I need to be independent. I represent the kid and the family. That’s very important.’
Dr Marcel Chappuis was a juvenile court psychologist in Utah for 30 years, and has a PhD in clinical psychology. His manner, however, is more man-in-pub than medical, suggestive of both impatience and amusement at the teenagers’ problems. He looks like Tom Selleck, and on his desk is one book, ‘a national bestseller’ called Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway.
‘One of the groups I do here, it’s called Rape And Molest. They struggle with a lot of guilt in that group. You know, a lot of these girls dress and act provocative. They get involved in substance abuse. They place themselves at risk and then they get taken advantage of. Now, we always say no means no. We’re real clear about that. But then we say, you know, you’ve got to look at how you market yourself. Girls can be hard work to help,’ he chuckles. ‘They are so much more dramatic than boys!’
He also sees 30 adopted children - a remarkable ratio out of 250 students. Without irony, he tells me that adopted kids ‘have more issues with trust. You know, attachment and abandonment. These are the programme’s most difficult students. But they have to get ownership of the fact they were part of the problem, the reason why they were sent away.’
Dr Chappuis thoroughly enjoys working at Tranquility, and it shows. ‘It’s a lot of fun! I love it. Just the satisfaction of seeing these kids change.’ Here for two weeks a month, he visits other Wwasp facilities during the other fortnight. Wwasp must therefore account for most of his earnings. If parents want therapy for their child, they have no choice but to employ him, ensuring that the lone chance of an outside voice has successfully been eliminated. How Dr Chappuis can be described as independent is thus something of a mystery.
His good cheer only falters on the subject of criticism, at which point his great height and moustache become distinctly aggressive.
'People who say this place is too harsh, they’ve never had their own troubled kids. If you criticise it you don’t know what the hell you are talking about. And if you think you have had experience, then I challenge the success of your experience.
I see 100 kids across this facility. I’ve got experience, and I will go nose to nose to you if you want to talk about it. I will go head to head with anyone. You get all kinds of people whining and complaining. They don’t know what they are talking about.’
And the truth is that I do not have my own troubled kid. He is right. I have no idea what it is like to be the parent of a teenager taking drugs, running away, sleeping around, breaking the law. I cannot imagine what it feels like to fear for my child’s life.
Tranquility parents say they know. They believe the programme is necessary and are usually very happy with the results, and who else is in a position to judge?
The US legal system has more or less agreed that they are right. In a crucial 1998 test case, a Californian court ruled that a parent had the legal right to send a child to Tranquility. Parental choice was sacrosanct.
What happens inside Tranquility would be illegal on British soil, but the facility falls under Jamaican jurisdiction and parents here are as free as Americans to send their children where they like. A spokesman for the Children’s Legal Centre in the UK confirmed, ‘I can’t see anything in the law that would stop a British parent from sending their child there. It is appalling, but it is down to the Jamaican government.’
And what incentive have the island’s authorities to intervene? National attitudes to child care are not famously progressive, Jamaican children aren’t involved and Tranquility is a major employer generating tax revenue. It’s easy to see why Wwasp locates facilities abroad in developing countries.
Four overseas Wwasp facilities have been closed down by local authorities in the past seven years. The latest occurred just last month, in Costa Rica, following claims of physical abuse and squalor by an ex-manager. But providing Tranquility meets Jamaican sanitation standards, it remains untroubled by government attention.
Emotional abuse is a more nebulous matter. Internet message boards are busy with former students chronicling the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. One writes, ‘At least once out of every three nights I wake up sweating and almost in tears from nightmares of being returned to Tranquility Bay. To this day, I am afraid that somehow I would have to return.’ But most students are already emotionally damaged when they arrive, with a quarter on medication for bi-polar, oppositional defiance, or attention-deficit disorders.
‘Show me one kid that they can prove has ever been psychologically damaged in my programme,’ demands Kay. ‘To have a clinician say yes, it was as a result of this? I would find that highly suspicious.’ And his confidence is probably justified.
There is very little that any opponent of Tranquility can do to prevent it continuing to do business. I don’t doubt the sincerity of Kay’s belief that far from damaging children’s lives he is saving them. ‘If I have kids, and they start giving me a problem, well they are going straight in the programme. If I had to, I’d pull the trigger without hesitation.’ And Tranquility parents undoubtedly believe they are doing the best for their children.
Once a year, Tranquility Bay has a Fun Day. There are sports and special food; girls can braid their hair; staff are smiling. And there is music. Ceaseless, bass-heavy, deafening music. It sends the teenagers out of their minds. They can’t stop dancing. Everywhere, students are dancing, demented with fever, as if a switch has been thrown and a surge of energy unleashed through the grounds.
I meet a student’s aunt visiting from Texas. ‘Oh, you would not believe the change in her! It’s amazing, the way they change a kid’s life. She’s so polite now, I wouldn’t know her. They all look so happy!’
A song by Usher is playing, and the words burn through the hard Caribbean heat. ‘You remind me of a girl that I once knew. See her face whenever I look at you.’ The Texan’s niece pauses her dancing. As she stoops to take a drink of water, I catch her face, and think she looks like the saddest girl in the world.
The people responsible for this should be sent to “behavioral modification” centers for life.