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The Rocky Road To Rehabilitation

Becky welcomes you to Tillamook Youth Accountability Camp!
He stood at complete attention: chin up, back ramrod straight, arms firmly pressed against his sides. His hair was shaved military-style (precisely 1/8 of an inch), and his polar blue shirt was buttoned all the way to the top and sealed with a navy blue tie. I could see my reflection in his shiny black shoes.

This 18-year-old Cadet would stand that way - unmoving, unflinching - until someone instructed him otherwise. And that someone was going to have to be me. Not particularly accustomed to dictating another person's movements, I granted him permission to sit rather shyly. He obeyed. For the first time, we established eye contact.

"You may use 'I' statements," a voice boomed from behind me. It was the Colonel.

Having been returned an iota of his individuality, the Cadet let his guard down ever so slightly. "Ma'am, what do you want to know, ma'am?" he asked.

"Tell me about your family," I suggested.

A new group of Cadets learn to march military-style
"My real dad is in prison for robbing a bank. My real mom did a lot of drugs when she was pregnant with me. I guess you could say I was a crack baby. Then she gave me away to some friends when I was eight months old," Cadet Bud's* story came tumbling forth.

He went on to share how his troubles with the law started at age 13, when he got caught stealing guns from a house with some friends. That began a 5-year cycle in which he went from one juvenile detention program to the next. When the loving family who'd raised him lost custody, he got caught in the court system, which shuffled him in and out of foster homes. Along the way, he developed a substance abuse problem, got his girlfriend pregnant, and stole cars to make ends meet.
A drill sergeant shows Stephanie how to hang clothes TYAC style

In short, Cadet Bud was on the fast track to a life in the state penitentiary. Fortunately, fate intervened. Someone somewhere down the line recognized his potential and sent him to Tillamook Youth Accountability Camp (TYAC), an alternative to traditional juvenile detention centers that runs a little like a military boot camp. Within a few months, it turned Cadet Bud from a self-proclaimed "hellion" into a responsible young man.

"They've taught me how to control my anger, how to improve my relationships with my kids and family, how to work as a team, how to get along with different types of people. Basically, they've taught me how to live," he said.

You've probably heard of "boot camps" for juvenile offenders before. They've made a lot of headlines lately. Two years ago, a 14-year-old girl named Gina Score collapsed during a forced 2.7 mile run at one in South Dakota. Even though she was frothing at the mouth, the staff decided she was "faking it" and left her under the blazing sun for three hours. She died soon after, with a body temperature of over 108 degrees. Human rights groups have written extensively about similar abuses at other boot camps, including shackling youth in a spread-eagle fashion after cutting off their clothes, putting them in isolation for 23 hours at a time, handcuffing them to beds, and dousing them with pepper spray.

Truthfully, it was hard to shake these horrific images from my mind as Becky and I drove down the Oregon Coast to Tillamook. Even though TYAC has little in common with state boot camps, I entered its tightly secured facility with my eyes wide open for signs of abuse. When I emerged six hours later, however, TYAC had not only blown away my preconceived notions, it had seized me with the inspiration to work there someday!

Everything at TYAC is done with military precision - even lining up shoes
What makes TYAC so different? It operates on the simple philosophy that people can be changed for the better. First-time juvenile offenders are divided into two platoons of 26 "Cadets" apiece and taught self-discipline and teamwork in 16 weeks. Cadets don't "graduate" until they demonstrate responsibility for their crime, empathy for their victims, and a willingness to become contributing members of society.

How do they do it? Well, each day starts at 6 a.m. sharp. Cadets have 10 seconds to jump out of bed and stand at attention before the drill sergeant arrives to conduct the first "count-off" of the day. They then have 12 minutes to wash their face, brush their teeth, shave, get dressed and make their beds "military style" with 45-degree corners. Once their beds have passed inspection, the cadets head outside for stretching, pushups, sit-ups, and laps. For some, this is the first time they've ever implemented exercise into their daily regimen.
Cadets can earn six credits toward their high school diplomas

Breakfast is served promptly at 7. Only senior cadets (known as "Level Four") are allowed to talk during meals. They then have half an hour to take their medications (40 percent are on drugs like Ritalin) and prepare for their school or workday. Those who study can earn up to six credits in math, science, and English toward their high school degrees. Since there are usually fewer than a dozen students per class, they get lots of individualized attention from their teachers - which many of them have never had. Cadets who work, meanwhile, do everything from building houses for Habitat for Humanity to volunteering with the Forestry Service. This is often the first time they've ever contributed positively to their community.


Who says there's no such thing as a free lunch?

Lunch is from 12 to 1, and school or work continues until 3:15. Then they have a good hour and a half of intense physical training, military drills, and cadences. After a quick shower, the Cadets eat dinner, take their medications, and prepare for three hours of "treatment groups." These include intensive workshops on substance abuse, anger management, life skills, problem solving, and something called "cognitive restructuring," which teach the Cadets how to change their criminal mindsets. Discussion is a major component of these treatment groups.

Lights are turned off at 10 p.m. sharp.

Throughout the day, Cadets must rise whenever a staff member enters the room and call them "Ma'am" or "Sir." They address one another as "Cadet," followed by their last name. Personal pronouns like "me," "my," and "mine" are prohibited. When a Cadet refers to himself, he must say "this Cadet." Indeed, there are rules for everything -- from the way they hang up their clothes (shirts and coats face the left of the locker and trouser legs face the right, with every button buttoned, zipper zipped, and snap snapped) to the order in which they line up their shoes beneath their bunks (from right to left: boots, dress shoes, running shoes, and shower shoes). Their mail is opened. They can't watch TV, listen to music, or read magazines. They are permitted only one 10-minute phone call a week. Surveillance cameras carefully monitor every move they make.

Stephanie hangs with the Colonel of TYAC - Terry Younkin
Sound intense? That's the idea. TYAC takes these kids away from everything they've ever known, breaks them down and builds them back up again. Terry Younkin, the director (or "Colonel") of TYAC, explained why these tactics are needed.

"We've got kids who have been sexually abused by their parents. We've got kids whose parents do drugs, sell drugs, and make drugs. We've got kids who used to live in tents on the street. The only way they have managed to stay alive is through sheer survival instincts," he said. "They have never known structure or discipline."

Indeed, the bulk of the Cadets seem to have been born and bred for a life of crime. Younkin said that 73 percent have a family member in jail.

"Many of these kids think it is a rite of passage to be locked up," Younkin said. "Their moms did time, their dads did time, and their uncles did time. We are trying to break that cycle, but it isn't easy. We had one kid who cleaned up while he was with us, but when he returned home, his stepfather started manufacturing methamphetamines in their living room. So he got addicted all over again. Another time, a mom brought her son a batch of pot brownies during visitation hours! This is what we are dealing with here."

According to one of the female drill sergeants, rigorous discipline is the only way to get through to the Cadets. "I had to learn that nurturing doesn't help them," she said. "They've had that before, and they don't respect it. To do these kids good, you have to be tough."
Stephanie's new dream is starting an alternative rehabilitation project for young women

Does this "tough love" work? TYAC has only been around for three years, but the results look promising thus far: 74 percents of its graduates have kept out of trouble. Perhaps the greatest testament to TYAC's success is the fact that its graduates have joined the struggle to keep it funded. Even though it's an amazing program, TYAC has to go before the State Legislature every two years to fight for its existence. Several graduates have already testified on how deeply the camp impacted their lives this year. The Cadets Becky and I interviewed will probably be adding their names to that list before long.

"Here at TYAC, I've learned that if you've got a goal in life, you can't let anything hold you back from it," Cadet Bud said. "I wasted four years being locked up. Now I want to be the best husband and father I can possibly be."

Cadet Tory echoed his comrade's response. He was sent to TYAC after burglarizing a house to support his alcohol and drug habit. His pride in his work and commitment to TYAC's discipline system affirm his own rehabilitation.

"After this, I plan on joining the military and traveling around the world and having a family and being a well-known contractor in the state of Colorado. I plan to prove this place good," Tory said.

In many ways, he already has.


* As per the request of TYAC, only Cadets' first names are used.

Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Jennifer - A day at juvie - doing time in your teens
Nick - The birth of gangs: a violent reaction to poverty
Irene - Don't mess with Texas or 'Old Sparky' may call for you!
Neda - The prison industry - too many people, too many prisons
Nick - Police brutality is a problem that needs our attention