Kids Health

My Mom Sent Me to a ‘Concentration Camp for Wayward Teens’

They stored us in a warehouse. For 12, sometimes 15 hours a day, we sat there, packed into rows, confessing fake sins and brutalizing each other. We sang songs about it: “Here at Straight, feel great! Nine to 9, feel fine!” There were thousands of us in warehouses across the country. We were bruised, often bloodied, terrified kids who’d been disappeared by their parents, signed into notorious “tough-love” program, Straight Inc.

Straight’s marketing was slick. Billed as a last resort for teen drug addicts, Straight had the U.S. government and the British royalty singing its praises. After all, it’s hard not to trust a place when Princess Diana, in all her doe-eyed innocence, is there on the news smiling at the incarcerated children. Especially when she’s seated next to first lady Nancy Reagan, who deemed Straight her “favorite anti-drug program.”

One of Straight’s lies was that song, “Nine to 9.” We weren’t in the warehouse from 9 to 9; we were there from 8:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. On Fridays, it was midnight or 1 a.m. because Fridays, we had our never-ending late-night open meetings, then our bi-weekly bloodbath, review. In review, we used attack therapy, spit therapy and fist-swinging, head-cracking motivation. We forced each other to “get honest about our moral defects,” to admit we’d been druggie whores before Straight.

Straight’s other big lie was that we were addicts. Most of us had barely done drugs. For instance, me. In September, I smoked weed for the first time. In October, I ran away from my abusive home. In November, a Straight staff member with an intake quota diagnosed me as a 14-year-old drug addict. I had drunk beer once, tried weed three times. My mother signed me in by writing a fat check. She continued to write checks for 16 months.

Straight came down hard on us younger kids, who didn’t have much of a past to reveal. Our dramatic confessions in open meeting were the grist that moved the money mill. We had to stand up, with our brand-new scrubbed faces and our hand-me-down dork clothes, and tell the hundreds of parents how Straight had saved our lives. We had to describe the thousands of lines of coke we’d snorted. The hundreds of men we’d screwed for drug money. The smack we’d shot up. The vodka we’d swilled. The houses we broke into. The fires we started. If we didn’t have coke lines or house fires, we learned, hard and quickly, to lie.        

We learned from watching the horror show around us. For kids who didn’t comply, who didn’t “confess,” life at Straight was ugly. There were no windows in the warehouse, so no one could see in. The doors were guarded, so no one could get out. Like I said. We learned fast how to lie.

Here were my lies. My one time drinking beer and three times trying weed became, “I drank alcohol, smoked pot and Thai weed and hash and took over-the-counter and prescription drugs to try to kill myself.” Those “over-the-counter and prescription drugs” were in reality a handful of aspirin and a swig from a little brown bottle labeled Ipecac

But the “trying to kill myself” part was true. Like so many other kids in Straight, my childhood had been a merry-go-round of loss, neglect and abuse. My father died when I was 1; my mother got remarried — this time to an alcoholic child molester — and checked out. By the time I hit 12, I was ready to be dead. Instead, at 13, I ran away. A month later, after my 14th birthday, I got locked up in Straight.

First phase in Straight was hell, and we were kept there, away from our parents, until we deep, zombie, brainwash-believed we were addicts. That everything before Straight was our own fault. During first phase, we were belt-looped — an upper phaser’s fist clamping our waistband, pulling it up into a wedgie and steering us around with knuckles in our spine — every time we stood. I was on first phase for 10 months. I finally got second phase when I apologized to my step-father in front of 300 people in open meeting for "making him molest me."

On first phase, we stayed in host homes, where we were locked and alarmed into an upper-phaser’s empty bedroom at night. When 60 Minutes did an episode on Straight, a host dad described asking staff, “‘What if my home were to ever to, uh, catch on fire during the night?’” He got staff’s standard reply: “‘If your child was on the street, the child would die. In the case of a fire, the child would die. So you’re not any worse off.’”

We were stared at as we used the toilet. If we cried, we were whiney babies who needed diaper therapy: instead of pants, we’d wear a diaper all day. If we asked for extra saltines at snack time, we were greedy brats who needed toilet paper therapy: our upper-phaser would hand us three squares of toilet paper after we used the toilet. Exactly three. Period.

Kids who didn’t confess to their addiction, didn’t sit up ramrod straight, didn’t scream and spit in other kids faces were misbehavers. Misbehavers were restrained. “Sit on him!” staff would yell, pointing at the kid who refused to sing a preschool song. Ten upper-phasers would lunge at him, tackle him to the floor and wrench his knees into place behind their own bent knees. If the misbehaver bucked, someone would straddle his chest. If he tried to fight with his teeth, hands slammed down on his mouth.

Restraints were effective because a kid who thinks he’s a badass — or thinks he wants to die — can’t do much when he’s crushed under 900 pounds of teenager. A girl won a $37,500 settlement against Straight after being “sat on” for 10 hours. A boy who won $721,000 described on 60 Minutes a kid who’d had seven ribs broken but wasn’t taken for medical care. I read about a guy who was sat on so long, his arm had to be amputated; he then went on to speak to groups of potential Straight parents about how he was so grateful to Straight for saving him, he was willing to sacrifice an arm.

We tried to kill ourselves. They wouldn’t let us. The host home bedrooms held nothing but a mattress and blanket. Our upper-phaser crawled the floor every night searching to see if we’d hid a spork tine, a toenail clipping. We had to get creative, chipping at thick flaps of industrial wall paint; storing them between gums and molars for 3 a.m. wrist carving. In long-sleeve weather, we were bolder. With covered wrists in our laps and eyes on the kid standing and confessing her “sins,” we used our pants’ zipper pull to dig for a wrist vein. 

Sometimes staff got sick of the arm-carvers. “Fuck it!” they’d yell at the upper-phasers assigned to hold the kid’s arms behind their back. “Let ‘em rot in the back of group.” Belt-looped past them on our way to pick up our meal trays, we couldn’t not study the designs the kids made, finger-painting with their own blood on the chair backs in front of them. 

When we tried to kill ourselves, there was no medical care. Because of course, a non-Straight doctor would never understand the "truth" (which, we were told, was that our sliced arms were proof of our manipulative druggie nature). Instead, we stood up for attack therapy. Only this time, instead of spitting in our faces, our peers sang to us.

“Nobody bakes a cake as tasty as a Tastykake!” the hundreds of smiling kids would sing, laughing at the "whiney baby" standing in the middle with the gauze-wrapped arms. In Straight, a suicidal kid was a Tastykake: sweet on the surface, but disgusting underneath, faking pathetic to cover their evil druggie core.

Princess Di, though? Nancy Reagan? They didn’t see any of that. Nobody did, because we had strict, sacred rules to keep our secrets safe: no cameras, radios or tape recorders In the building; what you see here, what you hear here, what you do here remains here; no talking behind backs and confidentiality at all costs. 

When the outsiders came in, the screaming misbehavers were gagged and restrained in the time-out rooms. When the lawsuits piled up and investigators came a-knocking, we brainwashed Straight-lings put on a show for the cameras. 

Yet a few did see through the charade. On 20/20, a Florida state prosecutor described Straight as "…a sort of private jail utilizing techniques such as torture and punishment, which even a convicted criminal would not be subject to." 

Washington Post reporter DeNeen L. Brown penned multiple articles with no-bullshit titles like, “Va. Cites Drug Treatment Center For Not Reporting Alleged Abuse; At Least 45 Violations Found Previously at Straight Inc. Facility.” 

But it was the ACLU that came closest, calling Straight “a concentration camp for throwaway teens.” They saw the truth that our parents couldn’t: Before we were trapped in that warehouse, we were just kids. A bunch of lonely, desperate kids.

The reporting and lawsuits eventually closed the program down. I believe my sudden “graduation” 16 months after my sign-in date was part of a hemorrhaging of clients. Straight needed to be lean and mean, hanging onto only its most lucrative clients, when doomsday arrived. Fewer kids made it easier to close up shop and reopen down the road with the same staff, the same programming, the same abuse drills and a new name on the sign over the door.

Today, only one Straight spinoff is still standing — in Canada. 

But I’m still standing too. Thanks to a caring high school English teacher and a string of pro-bono therapists, I’m one of the few Straight kids who was able to work through the depression and PTSD to carve out a happy life. I’m one of the lucky ones.

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