The lockdown rabbithole – how Paris Hilton is shining a light on an industry of for-profit prisons for children

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Content warning: This article describes the physical, emotional and sexual abuse of children and young people.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Paris Hilton. Beyond her character in the reality series The Simple Life, she consistently comes across in interviews as funny, savvy and surprisingly likable. So when the headline Paris Hilton Opens Up About Alleged Abuse in New Documentary popped up in my newsfeed, I was an easy target for the clickbait. Hilton, the article outlined, was about to release a documentary containing allegations that the Utah boarding school that she attended, Provo Canyon School, subjected her and her school mates to abuse and torture, including allegations of physical, sexual and psychological abuse, sleep deprivation, brainwashing and solitary confinement. Huh.

Later that afternoon, the creepy Google algorithm must have been hard at work on reading my mind, because the first video in my recommendations was titled I See You Survivor, posted by a woman named Amanda Householder, whose parents ran the boarding school Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch, where she alleges girls as young as eight years old were subject to religious indoctrination, forced labour and exercise, deprived of education and subject to physical and sexual abuse. 

So began my deep dive into what critics and survivors label the “troubled teen industry,” an international network of extra-judicial private prisons for young people, masquerading as therapeutic boarding schools, military academies, wilderness experiences, boot camps or drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs.

While the United States has a long history of using the boarding school model to force assimilation, the genesis of these for-profit “treatment programs” can be traced back to Synanon, an organisation founded by Charles E. “Chuck” Dederich in 1958. Dederich was a former alcoholic opioid user and Alcoholics Anonymous enthusiast, who after an LSD trip and reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “self reliance” arrived at the realisation that “dope fiends” needed more than the confessional “sharing” model popularised by the Alcoholic Anonymous movement. Opioid drug users needed greater accountability, Dederich argued, with addicts living together in an ascetic community. To further facilitate this accountability, he created The Game, a form of peer-based group-therapy, where participants took turns at sharing no-holds barred, brutally “honest” assessments of each other, with the idea that tearing each other down would lead to participants building honesty, resilience and integrity. Screaming and shouting were encouraged. While initially, physical violence and threats of physical violence were prohibited, Dederich would eventually break this rule, then abandon it entirely. Thus, the modern concept of “tough love” was born.

The concept of attack therapy practiced in the Synanon Game would later be clinically debunked as ineffective and psychologically damaging, and Synanon would eventually descend into a cult which practiced forced marriages and divorces, abortions and vasectomies, with Dederich eventually pleading no contest to a charge of conspiracy to commit murder after placing a rattlesnake in the letterbox of a lawyer who had filed a number of lawsuits against the organisation. But prior to this, the Synanon community had a successful run in the 1970s functioning as a court-ordered juvenile rehab that received funds from nearby Marin County and the wider California area. Seeing the financial possibilities in this area, two of Dederich’s followers approached him with the idea of recreating the Synanon environment exclusively for adolescents, with parents paying for the privilege. And in the climate of President Nixon declaring the War on Drugs, a burgeoning conservative backlash against the new left and counterculture that would see significant cuts to social security, rising income inequalities and moral panics surrounding everything from satanism to Dungeons and Dragons to black masculinity, this turned out to be a shrewd business decision.

The first youth program based on the Synanon model was named CEDU, the name of which, depending on who you ask, is either an acronym for Charles E Dederich University, or a contraction of the phrase “see yourself as you are, and do something about it.” Founded in 1967 by furniture salesman and former Synanon member Mel Wasserman, the program was styled as an unlicensed “therapeutic boarding school,” where adolescents would work through a daily program of attack therapy style encounter peer group sessions known as “raps,” interspersed with forced manual labour (including the students acting as an unpaid contractual workforce for many businesses in the schools’ communities), intensive outdoor education and long sessions of compulsory physical affection initially involving both staff and students, a practice known as “smooshing.”

As part of the “tough love” regimen, all aspects of life were restricted, including diet, dress and grooming, mail and communications. Even music was categorised as permissible or prohibited; even speaking about a band such as AC/DC would be deemed to be an infraction. Qualified therapists were rarely present, and psychiatric medications were initially banned, and later strongly discouraged. Graduation through the levels of the program involved participation in “seminars” based on large group awareness training, which commenced in the evening and ran from anywhere between 12 and 72 hours. Despite this entire education system being based on a number of fads that well and truly had passed by the beginning of the 1980s, CEDU became a multi-facility education empire, with the last of its facilities remaining open until 2005.

The second program was an in-patient residential youth drug and alcohol rehabilitation program The Seed, founded in Florida in 1971 and funded by a federal government grant. A 1974 Congressional hearing would find that The Seed used methods “similar to the highly refined brainwashing techniques employed by the North Koreans,” however the program was not closed until 2001. The Seed, and its associated spinoff Straight, Incorporated, founded by Mel Sembler, a prominent Florida businessman who later became the United States ambassador to both Italy and Australia, were profitable businesses. Young people enrolled in the program would be billeted to a host family of a child already in the program, whose parents were instructed to lock the children inside their rooms at night. Each day, the children would be driven to the program headquarters, which were usually windowless buildings in semi-industrial areas. Once there, the young people would sit in straight rows of fold out chairs, and engage in a humiliating arm flapping movement dubbed “motivating,” the rationale for which was that the display would signify the degree to which the participant was motivated to confess to the myriad of wrongdoings they had allegedly done and how much they deserved their plight.

The only way to progress in the program was for a participant to make confessions deemed acceptable and authentic by staff and their peers. Many survivors claim that they were compelled to exaggerate or fabricate confessions in order to sate their judges’ need for increasing demands of “getting real” and “getting right.” And in this case, their judges were their peers. The program was nearly exclusively staffed by former graduates, and its functioning depended on the labour of “unpaid trainees.” The qualification required in order to become a therapist or other worker for the program was to have graduated from the program. In blurred categories of “student,” “trainee” and “therapist,” whose membership was fluid depending on who was being promoted, or demoted, by others in the program, the young people observed each other in all aspects of their lives, including showering, dressing and using the toilet. Food was severely restricted, with most survivors reporting a diet almost exclusively of peanut butter sandwiches and cordial. Both former President George H W Bush and former First Lady Nancy Reagan publicly endorsed Straight, Inc, with the latter taking Diana, Princess of Wales on a tour of one of its facilities during an official visit. 

These two organisations commenced a wave of private, for-profit extrajudicial prisons for young people, who, depending on state regulatory schemes, will label themselves as therapeutic boarding schools, emotional growth schools, boot camps, private military academies, wilderness experiences, residential care facilities, or behaviour modification facilities. The “client” (usually the young person’s parent or guardian, although large numbers of state judicial, youth justice systems and even state care and mental health systems have mandated children to enrol in these programs) are subject to an elaborate marketing campaign, assured the young people will receive qualified and effective therapy, a balance of training in mainstream education and practical life skills, and a structured routine that will allow them to thrive. In their advertising, programs have claimed remarkably successful treatment rates for a wide range of conditions, including alcohol and drug dependency, mental health conditions, personality disorders, ADHD and neurodivergence and disordered eating. Some parents have enrolled teenagers for as little as music tastes, dyed hair and piercings deemed to be unacceptable. Some programs have even suggested they may be a useful experience for a child experiencing “boredom.” Some programs have practiced gay or transgender “conversion therapy,” and some are self-styled weight-loss camps.

The reality, survivors have claimed in successful lawsuits against programs, their insurers, and even states, is that these schools are essentially gulags. Non compliance with the “program” – which could be an infraction large or trivial, would result in both demotion and punishment, which may range from dishwashing or writing lines, to solitary confinement which may have lasted for weeks, physical restraint from staff and peers, forced exercise and labour (including labour such as moving rocks from one spot to another, before being ordered to move them back again), beatings and being forced to maintain stress positions.

The exact nature of each program is varied, depending on its jurisdiction, era and ideology of their founders. The Élan School, which ran from 1970 until 2011, combined the elements of peer attack therapy with a borstal atmosphere, ritual humiliation (including forcing students to sleep in dumpsters and wear bunny suits) and a practice known as “the ring” where disobedient students would be forced to participate in boxing matches against their peers until they were defeated. The school’s practices went largely unnoticed until 2002, when Michael Skakel, the nephew of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, was convicted of the 1975 murder of Martha Moxley. The evidence of confessions made during his time at Élan School was one of the most sensationalised aspects of the Skakel trial, which also opened the door to examination of the circumstances in which these alleged confessions were made. Skakel’s conviction was vacated in 2018, after he had spent 16 years in jail. 

The World Wide Associated Programs of Specialty Programs and Schools (WWASP) ran facilities from 1998 to 2005 in the United States, Mexico, Costa Rica, the Czech Republic and Samoa, and used long periods of restraint in stress positions, forced exercise and the confinement of young people in dog cages to enforce compliance with their program, which was largely based on listening to self-help tapes and seminars created by a company called Resource Realizations (or Premiere Educational Seminars) a spin-off of the notorious large-group awareness training organisation Lifespring. Seminar exercises including forcing students to choose who would be given seats on an imaginary lifecraft, and who they would choose to perish. Others, such as the Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch, were affiliated -either officially or unofficially to religious organisations, most notably Independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormonism).

Perhaps the most shocking case I found during the deep dive was that of Lulu Cotter, whose successful lawsuit against the Straight, Inc. spin-off program KIDS of Bergen County was covered extensively in Maia Szalavitz’s excellent book Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids. By all accounts, Lulu was a good kid who had a difficult life. Growing up in a working-class, single-parent family, her mother was a factory worker who worked long hours of overtime, initially to send one of Lulu’s older siblings to the rehabilitation program. Like too many young people, by the age of 13, Lulu had experienced sexual violence at the hands of multiple perpetrators, but was an otherwise bright, happy and healthy child, who enjoyed fashion, spending time with friends, and her favourite artist, Madonna.

The KIDS of Bergen County program, which eventually received Medicaid funding, was strongly focused on ‘family therapy’ – mandating that parents and all siblings over the age of eight attend long evening sessions, which mostly involved listening to the ‘confessions’ of their family members within the program. Before one of these sessions, Lulu had purchased a new outfit enviable to any eighties adolescent Madonna fan – black pleather pants and a cropped lace t-shirt. Despite being warned that the outfit was not appropriate for the family therapy session, she wore it anyway.

This event would dramatically and permanently alter the rest of Lulu’s life. On October 27, 1984, the untrained KIDS staff insisted that Lulu’s outfit was concerning enough to warrant an “interview,” without her mother or support person present. This interview, which lasted into the night and took place over several hours, resulted in Lulu, who had never before skipped class, or even tried alcohol or cigarettes, being admitted into the program.

During the 2003 civil trial in which Lulu sued the program’s insurers, it became apparent that her intake notes had been lost, if they were ever gathered. Even the program’s directors admitted they could not recall the specific reasons for her intake, and during testimony variously suggested “over eating” or a “sexual disorder,” neither of which any staff member at KIDS was qualified to treat. For the rest of her teenage years, Lulu would not receive education, participate in extracurricular activities, date or attend her high school prom. As the KIDS program involved those at the first stage being billeted to others’ homes, she barely saw her mother. Instead, she was subjected to 12-hour days in a windowless warehouse, “motivating” in order to be called upon to confess to her “druggie behaviours.” One of the people who had sexually abused Lulu, also an adolescent in the program, at times sat right next to her. She was frequently restrained and beaten by peers and staff for various infractions. Eventually, she would injure herself, for which she was physically punished further. By the time she turned 18, and with no high school education, Lulu honestly believed that she would have no life outside of KIDS. She would not escape until she was 27 years old.

But the troubled teen industry is not a historical quirk relegated to the Reagan era. The Circle of Hope Girls Ranch was not closed until late August 2020, despite multiple complaints to made to media, state and federal authorities from its opening in 2006. Provo Canyon School, the facility attended by Paris Hilton, remains open, despite corroborated abuse claims dating back thirty years. Nor are these treatment programs a quirk of the United States’ laissez-faire approach to federal regulation. In 2018, a teenage boy from Tasmania in the state’s care system was sent to a program in the Northern Territory, where he alleges he was verbally abused, scruffed and pushed around, and made to sit in isolation on a milk crate for hours at a time.

A 2015 Rolling Stone article quoted that there have been 86 deaths in youth residential programs, although activist Liz Ianelli notes that this does not account for those who die from injuries, suicide or overdose after leaving programs, tallying 101 deaths of people under the age of 40 from her school alone. If we have long reached scientific consensus that tough love does not work, we must acknowledge that the reason parents and state authorities are mandating children to these facilities is for punishment and correction – which bears the question, what misdeed is so egregious that we would insist that children receive an open-ended sentence to a facility where conditions described are harsher, and far less regulated, than most adult jails? And what is the rationale for sending vulnerable children in need of care or experiencing mental illness, to such a facility?

Paris Hilton’s document is truly excellent, and can be watched here.

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