Camp Fear

Gina Score was the latest teenager to die at a juvenile boot camp. Why do so many states still insist that humiliation and abuse will straighten out troubled kids?

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In a town the size of Canton, South Dakota, population 3,195, plenty of people knew that 14-year-old Gina Score liked to steal things.

She stole Press-N-Go fingernails worth $2.99 from the ShopKo in Sioux Falls, stole four Beanie Babies from Brower’s Gifts and Collectibles in Canton, stole $60 from a sleepover girlfriend, even stole candles from her Lutheran church. Outwardly, Gina didn’t seem troubled — she babysat for neighbors, wrote cute poems, and smiled radiantly for pictures. But she confided to social workers what they surely guessed: Kids can be cruel to eighth grade girls who weigh 224 pounds. Sometimes Gina cried herself to sleep.

Supported by her parents, Gina endured years of programs and punishments intended to change her behavior: community service, individual and family counseling, group care, house arrest, fines, restitution, probation, juvenile detention. Nothing really worked. Finally, in June of last year, after yet another parole violation, a judge placed Gina in state custody until age 21 and sent her to a military-style boot camp for teenage girls located at the State Training School in Plankinton.

Like boot camps in two dozen other states, the Plankinton boot camp and a counterpart for boys in the town of Custer were set up to treat children like military recruits. Kids were forced to rise before dawn, perform rigorous exercises, and march like soldiers. Phone calls and visits from parents were prohibited for the first month, and the slightest rules violations were met with swift punishment. As in many other states, the South Dakota boot camps were part of a political campaign by a tough-on-crime governor; Bill Janklow, a popular Republican and ex-Marine now in his fourth term, promoted them as a commonsense solution to juvenile crime. Despite widespread abuses at boot camps from Florida to California, many politicians and frustrated parents have found salvation in the camps’ simple goal: to reduce troubled teenagers to their emotional core, back to frightened children, so that their minds will open long enough to imagine a life without drugs, crime, and self-hatred. As a boot camp warden from Texas explains, “We want to turn their lives upside down.”

Five days after Gina Score arrived in Plankinton, she and 15 other girls from Cottage B began a mandatory 2.6-mile jog at about 6:30 a.m. on the gravel roads outside Plankinton’s razor-wire fences. What happened that morning is detailed in medical reports and eyewitness accounts by inmates and staff members at the boot camp. The girls trotted past sprawling farms of corn and soybeans and a small community cemetery; but it’s doubtful that Gina appreciated the pastoral scenery. She must have been panicked. Gina was severely overweight and “hated to run,” as her mother later recalled. The temperature and humidity were both around 70 and climbing.

Within a block or two, Gina started lagging behind. As the girls reached each corner of the rectangular route, where they were allowed to rest briefly and drink water, they waited for Gina to catch up. Two youth counselors repeatedly shouted for Gina to keep moving, sometimes interlocking their arms with hers just to keep her going forward down the dusty roads. At roughly 7:45, after the other girls had reached the front gates, Gina staggered and collapsed 500 feet from the finish. Several girls tried to help her up, but staff members, believing one inmate who said Gina had acted this way before at a halfway house, were convinced they had a “behavior problem.”

“Quit faking!” several girls recall a supervisor shouting. “You’re embarrassing us.” Everyone knew the boot camp credo: Quitting Is Not an Option. When four girls encircled Gina to give her shade, counselors ordered them to back away.

A staff nurse who checked on Gina at 8:05 said her vital signs were normal and that she was simply hyperventilating. An hour later, Gina struggled to her feet and began slowly walking back to her cottage. A few hundred feet later, within sight of her air-conditioned cottage, she collapsed again. Her eyes were dilated, her skin pale, her lips purple. She urinated on herself and began frothing at the mouth. Her eyes rolled back in her head. Even when a farmer’s manure truck rumbled down the road beside her, Gina didn’t budge. The staff still thought she was faking; several girls recall them laughing and telling jokes as Gina lay on the ground. The camp’s director came out to assess the situation, but he told the staff to “wait out” Gina, so no one called for an ambulance.

“I was crying,” says Christi Battis, a former inmate. “All the girls were crying. … How could she be faking it when she was pale blue and wasn’t even brushing the flies off her?”

Finally, at 10:47, three hours after Gina collapsed, two physicians happened by and ordered that an ambulance be called. Six minutes later, paramedics were giving Gina oxygen, but on the way to the hospital, her heart stopped. In the emergency room they sent chilled IV fluids through Gina’s rigid body and packed her in ice, but a rectal thermometer peaked at 108 — the highest it would go. Internally, she had literally begun to cook. With her organs shutting down, repeated attempts to restart her heart were futile. At 12:39 p.m., Gina was declared dead. “It was,” said emergency room physician Jerome Howe, “the worst case of heatstroke I’ve ever seen.”

Gina Score’s death shocked the sensibilities of South Dakotans, who trusted state-run boot camps to protect and educate troubled children as well as straighten them out. But for those familiar with the juvenile justice system nationwide, the scandal was simply the latest outrage in a decade-long tale of abuse at boot camps. There are currently an estimated 4,000 kids in approximately 50 military-style camps nationwide. At least half a dozen children have died in detention, and numerous state and federal investigations have concluded that hundreds of others have been subjected to physical and emotional abuse.

Juvenile boot camps got their start in the mid-1980s, when officials in Louisiana and Georgia experimented with putting teenage boys in military-style settings. At first the camps housed young burglars, drug abusers, and auto thieves, but before long they were filled with a surprising number of truants and petty shoplifters, like Gina Score. The burr-headed ex-military men who usually ran the camps may have rubbed liberals the wrong way, but at first glance they hardly seemed like sadists. Like many voters who supported boot camps, they genuinely believed that for kids immune to other forms of correction, nothing short of a radical departure from their lives would get their attention. “Nobody can tell me from some ivory tower that you take a kid, kick him in the rear end, and it doesn’t do any good,” declared then-Governor Zell Miller of Georgia, an ex-Marine and early proponent of boot camps. Politicians eager to appear tough on crime could soon point to images on the local TV news of previously smart-mouthed teenagers marching crisply, doing push-ups, and shouting, “Sir, yes, sir!”

Yet in state after state, public officials have ignored persuasive evidence that most boot camps don’t work. A growing body of research, from private studies to federal investigations, has shown the camps rarely reduce recidivism or save the fortunes their promoters promise, and often permit horrific abuses of kids by underpaid and undertrained staff.

A study by the Koch Crime Institute in Kansas found that “the fear of being incarcerated at a boot camp has not deterred crime,” noting that nearly three out of every four children who pass through the camps are back in detention within a year. The National Mental Health Association concluded that “employing tactics of intimidation and humiliation is counterproductive for most youth” and has led to “disturbing incidents” of abuse. In Georgia, U.S. Justice Department investigators found kids being forced to crawl on their hands and knees to lunch, clean floors with their T-shirts, and run in summer heat while carrying tires. “The paramilitary boot camp model is not only ineffective, but harmful,” the investigation concluded.

Abuses have been both far-reaching and extreme. At the Arizona Boys Ranch, a military-style boot camp that enjoyed wide political support, the staff made an incontinent 16-year-old boy, Nicholaus Contreraz, sleep in soiled underwear, eat meals on the toilet, and carry a yellow trash basket filled with his own vomit. On March 2, 1998, Contreraz collapsed repeatedly during strenuous physical training, prompting one staff member to say he deserved an Academy Award for faking. He died that evening from a massive, undiagnosed infection. According to the Los Angeles Times, the Boys Ranch had sparked nearly 100 complaints of child abuse in the previous five years, including reports that staff members hit one boy in the head with a shovel and burned another with hot water so severely he needed skin grafts.

In Maryland, where Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend championed military-style boot camps for kids, a yearlong investigation by the Baltimore Sun revealed how guards at the Savage Leadership Challenge routinely kicked, punched, and brutalized teenage criminals. When new inmates arrived at the camp, guards dressed in military fatigues would yank the shackled teenagers off the prison van and drive their faces into the dirt with a forearm to their backs if they so much as wiped a tear.

The harsh punishment in boot camps has often outweighed the crime. Many states have placed not only gang members or others guilty of violent crimes in their facilities, but also those known as “status offenders” — runaways, truants, and curfew violators. In the social service jargon of South Dakota, such kids are called CHINS, children in need of supervision. “Incarcerating CHINS goes against every moral, ethical expectation about what is right for children,” says Dr. Susan Randall of the South Dakota Coalition for Children.

News reports and lawsuits have prompted several waves of reform. Camps have been closed or their methods drastically altered in Louisiana, Georgia, Arizona, Maryland, North Dakota, Colorado, Oregon, and Utah. Dozens of guards and corrections officials have been fired or prosecuted. All but a handful of states have stopped locking up status offenders. And some camps now place greater emphasis on drug and alcohol treatment, intensive counseling, basic education, and training in life skills.

But many facilities continue to rely on the kind of abusive, veins-bulging, in-your-face humiliation that their political sponsors apparently believe is still the norm at real boot camps run by the U.S. Armed Forces. The military realized some years ago, however, that explosive anger and unfair, degrading punishment develop neither esprit de corps nor mature soldiers. Yet child advocates who suggest that shouting and bullying might not work well on abused and troubled kids have been all but drowned out by the boot camp industry’s tough-love mantra: We must break kids down to build them back up.

“I’ve heard that one before,” says Paul DeMuro, a corrections expert in New Jersey who has been appointed by courts to evaluate juvenile institutions in more than 20 states. “It might work if they’re middle-class kids free of deep psychological problems. But with kids who have been abused and neglected, educationally deprived, subjected to summary punishment — it’s a disaster waiting to happen.”

As a teenager, Bill Janklow would have been a likely candidate for a boot camp. Growing up in a small South Dakota town in the 1950s, he once fired shots at the town water tower, he says, “just to hear the bong.” He often skipped school, and made enough of a nuisance of himself that a judge advised him to enter the Marines at age 16. Janklow credits the Corps with straightening out his life — but his troubles weren’t over. As a legal-aid lawyer on a South Dakota Indian reservation, he was charged with assaulting a 15-year-old girl with the intent to rape. Janklow denied the accusation, and the prosecution was eventually dropped, but a tribal court barred him from practicing law on the reservation. (Years later, when author Peter Matthiessen detailed Janklow’s time on the reservation in his book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, Janklow sued, keeping the book out of print for years.) The assault allegation didn’t hurt Janklow’s political career, however. In 1978, after serving as state attorney general, he was elected governor.

Janklow inherited a state with a reputation for progressive juvenile facilities; for years, other states sent juvenile justice officials to study South Dakota’s vocational, wilderness, and job-skills programs for kids. But during his third term, Janklow became determined to set up boot camps that harkened back to his days in the military. He demonized juvenile criminals, calling some of them “scum” and speaking of kids and their families in dismissive tones.

“Most of them come from a lousy home,” the governor told Mother Jones. “No discipline, no respect for others or themselves, huge problems in school, can’t read or write.” In 1996, the state opened its first boot camp, a facility for boys in the western town of Custer. The Plankinton facility for girls followed in 1998.

Janklow was undeterred by the dismal track record of boot camps in other states. “Everybody in America debates whether or not they work,” he declared. “We in South Dakota have always been able to make things work.”

But from the beginning, serious mistakes plagued the facilities. Janklow hired a former Marine drill instructor and lumber salesman to run the boot camps, and a loyal Republican county prosecutor to head the state Department of Corrections. Neither man had any experience running prisons or working with juvenile prisoners. In turn, the two hired staff with little or no background in social work, paid them little more than $7 an hour, and called them “counselors.” Contrary to virtually all recommendations by child-advocacy groups, South Dakota placed CHINS and other status offenders in the camps, including many children who were emotionally disturbed or sexually abused.

At Plankinton and the boot camp for boys in Custer, drill instructors used a manual that spelled out their goal for the first-day induction: “overwhelming the students with stress and anxiety.” A videotape of the induction process shows five cowed teenage girls standing at attention in the Plankinton gym, just as Gina Score did, as staff members scream within inches of their faces. “I saw one induction, and that was enough,” says Don Jones, a former group counselor at Plankinton. “I thought it was barbaric.”

But it wasn’t until Gina Score died that the public started to pay attention to abuses at the boot camps. State Rep. Pat Haley, a former Democratic chairman of the state Corrections Commission and once a prison guard himself in Minnesota, began receiving anonymous calls about boys being molested at the Custer facility. “I was always very careful about these allegations,” says Haley. “It’s an easy issue to politicize. But when I started checking into things, I couldn’t believe what was going on.”

What Haley learned, now confirmed by children, staff, and videotapes, is that kids in the boot camps who were considered discipline problems were shackled by their wrists and ankles to beds or concrete floors — a restraint called “four-pointing” — sometimes for 24 hours a day. Male guards often took part in cutting off the clothes of girls who were four-pointed, ostensibly to prevent suicide. Male guards also patrolled the showers, a particularly traumatizing practice for the 75 percent of Plankinton girls who reported to counselors that they had been sexually abused as children. Some kids were pepper-sprayed naked in their cells and denied medication. Children considered violent were kept in total isolation, more than 23 hours a day in small cells, for as long as two weeks.

Kids responded by rioting, slashing themselves with shanks and broken lightbulbs, and trying repeatedly to commit suicide. “Because of the incredibly punitive culture, kids and staff were at war with each other,” says Marc Schindler, an attorney with the Youth Law Center in Washington, D.C. “They pushed and pushed the kids until all they wanted to do was resist.”

South Dakota has instituted some better-late-than-never reforms in the wake of the scandal: Janklow closed the Plankinton boot camp in June, citing “management problems,” and the state has placed stricter guidelines on punishment throughout the system. But the Custer boot camp remains open, and the governor praises it as a “model facility.”

Earlier this year, the Youth Law Center filed a class-action suit against the state on behalf of several children. “We’ve filed lawsuits against juvenile facilities in 19 states over the last 20 years, but some of the practices and policies in South Dakota are the worst we’ve ever seen,” says Schindler. “We’ve never seen girls four-pointed spread-eagle on their backs and their clothes cut off. And the isolation cells — that’s as bad as anything we’ve ever seen. It’s unconscionable.”

The snarling crackle of a Harley’s warm exhaust pipes fills the parking lot of the First Congregational Church in downtown Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on a warm July evening. A mammoth man with a reddish-blond beard, sunglasses, and “Bad to the Bone” T-shirt steps off the bike.

“Where’s Margaret?” he asks.

Rick Anfinson, the biker, is here with Vicki, a petite soccer mom; Ralph, an auto-body repairman; Bill, an 81-year-old consumer activist; and Edith, a grandmother. They are all waiting for Margaret Gramkow, an energetic, ruddy-cheeked mother who last year started the Parents Who Care Coalition, a group of 130 parents whose children have spent time in the state’s juvenile facilities. As the meeting begins, their stories pour out.

Rick’s son Henry, a 16-year-old who was incarcerated at the Custer boot camp, says guards shackled him to a board upside down in nothing but his underwear for refusing to do push-ups. Vicki’s 16-year-old son used to sneak out his window of their home at night. “Once he was gone 10, 11 days,” she recalls. “He had taken our car out of state. We called the police, but the minute you tell them your child is missing, your child is designated as a CHINS.” The boy was sent to the boot camp for four months and placed in state custody until he turns 21. “My husband and I did what we thought was right,” Vicki says. “I regret the day I called anyone at the state. I tell everyone now, ‘Don’t ever call.'”

Ralph’s son, Jeff Kitchen, is a strong, stocky 18-year-old who used to wrestle on school teams and play Little League baseball. Ralph says Jeff has been on medication since he was seven for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and that he committed several petty crimes, including vandalizing some school band equipment. After spending a month at a psychiatric treatment center, Jeff was sent to the boot camp in Custer.

“I just about shit in my pants,” Jeff recalls of his induction day. “There’s no way to describe how I felt.” Jeff was given the standard burr haircut and issued khaki pants and shirt, socks, T-shirt, boots, and sneakers. He admits that when guards got rough with him he clawed, punched, and kicked them. “Once, the drill instructor took away my journal that we were supposed to write our thoughts in and read it to the platoon,” Jeff says. “He made fun of me. I told him to go to hell.”

The teenagers became tight allies. “No one went anywhere alone, because the guards would beat you,” Jeff says. “They’d pepper-spray you for cussing.”

After Jeff was moved to a facility for boys at Plankinton, he says, he experienced some of the same abuses that took place at the boot camp. He was four-pointed for entire days and was locked away in solitary confinement on at least five occasions for more than a week at a time. “The cell was about 5 by 10 feet with a concrete bed, no mattress,” he adds. “The only thing you got was a small blanket and your underwear, and you only came out for two cold showers. No books. No exercise. No school.” Jeff says he was so despondent, he once attempted suicide by taping a bread wrapper over his face. After nearly two years he was transferred to the state hospital, where he finally received the psychiatric care he needed. He was placed on medication, his father says, and quickly became “a model patient.”

I wondered how a kid who needed psychiatric counseling and medication survived being locked away for all but minutes of the day. “Did you at least have a window in your cell?” I asked Jeff.

“Yeah,” he said. “But it was against the rules to look outside.”

Staff members who have disagreed with the culture of punishment in Governor Janklow’s boot camps say they soon found themselves ostracized by supervisors. Don Jones, who worked at the juvenile facilities at Plankinton for 17 years, says a dozen teachers and counselors were fired earlier this year and that most, like Jones himself, have found it impossible to get another job in the state system. “We’re blackballed,” he says.

As the crisis in South Dakota’s juvenile detention system unfolded, Janklow took the offensive. He denied reporters, state legislators, and federal investigators entrance to the boot camps. He retaliated against an outspoken mother of an incarcerated kid by releasing unfavorable information from the child’s juvenile record to a TV reporter. To underscore why he called imprisoned kids “scum,” Janklow used an official state government Web site to post daily incident reports that prison staff filed against violent and disruptive kids. But the detailed descriptions of assaults against guards, suicide and escape attempts, fighting, and vandalism had the unintended effect of confirming what Janklow’s critics had been saying all along — that his failed policy of punishment over rehabilitation was making kids more violent. “The culture of violence in South Dakota’s juvenile facilities was not created by the kids,” says Rep. Haley, “but by Bill Janklow.”

Ted Klaudt, a Republican legislator, managed to get into the Plankinton boot camp and talk to girls about the abuses firsthand by showing up unannounced. Janklow responded a few days later at 10 p.m. by calling the staff member who allowed Klaudt in and threatening to personally fire him if he did it again. Then about 15 minutes later the governor rang up the girls’ cottage at Plankinton and ordered staff to awaken two children who had spoken with Klaudt so he could question them. He talked to them without their lawyers or parents present, even though he knew they would likely be witnesses in civil and criminal cases.

“He would ask a girl if she was four-pointed,” says Klaudt, who listened in on the phone conversations through a three-way connection. “He must have had their files in front of him because he would say something like, ‘Did you throw that soap at the guard? Don’t you think you should be punished?’ Can you imagine being a 15-year-old girl and this voice says on the phone, ‘This is Bill Janklow’? I think he sort of intimidated them. I thought it was very unethical.”

Janklow defends his late-night questioning, saying, “I’m hands-on. I want to know what the facts are.” When I suggested that some might interpret his calls as witness tampering, he responded angrily. “I would do it again this minute,” the governor told me. “How would they be intimidated? I was on their side.”

The governor’s call to imprisoned girls is one of many issues being examined by the U.S. Justice Department, which has opened both civil and criminal investigations into the treatment of youths in South Dakota’s juvenile detention system. “They’re looking all the way up the ladder,” says a source familiar with the federal investigation. “All the way to the top.” Two female guards who were present during Gina Score’s forced run have been charged with four counts of felony child abuse involving Gina and other girls. The guards have pleaded not guilty.

It would be comforting to think that the exposure of systemic, state-sanctioned abuse in South Dakota boot camps might prevent the harsh mistreatment of children at other facilities across the country. Yet for the past decade, despite the repeated failure of boot camps, state officials like Bill Janklow and their political supporters have clung to the misguided idea that foundering kids can be reclaimed with little more than relentless discipline. And as state after state has made the same errors in treating troubled kids, the most basic of lessons has been lost. “The common denominator in all these situations is the objectification of kids,” says DeMuro, the New Jersey corrections expert. “It gets almost spiritual, but the ability to punish humanely has at its core the notion that this person is me, and I am them.”


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