Trouble In Paradise
Early one morning when I was 14 years old, 3 men burst into my room and shook me awake. They handcuffed me, dragged me outside, put me in the back of a rental car, and so began a journey for me that would span half the globe and lasted two and a half years.
I spent 22 months in WWASP’s Paradise Cove, an all-boy program in Western Samoa, and 8 months in casa by the sea, another WWASP program located in Ensenada, Mexico. I was also briefly held at the Brightway Youth Hospital in St. George, Utah, a center WWASP ran for the purposes of evaluating its new students before sending them to their more permanent programs.
While these programs were different, with dissimilar campuses, located in different countries, and with different staff, they all had a few major things in common: their strict, sometimes harsh, and occasionally brutal system of rules and punishment, their so-called “seminars”, and their consistent neglect and mistreatment of the youth entrusted to their care. While I was being held in their programs, I had a chance to experience all of these things firsthand.
It is my goal here to give a brief sketch of what life was like in these programs.
Paradise Cove was, for me, like waking up from a nightmare only to discover that it’s all too real. The food was terrible by any standards. Not only was it not balanced or nutritious, it was often spoiled, cooked improperly, or tainted. Due to the poor food, I lost over 120 pounds, 60 alone in the first two months. (This is a picture of me when I left Samoa):
Suffering from the poor nutrition, my body began to break out in boils, and like almost all the boys there, any cut I received would immediately become infected and begin to ulcerate. Also contributing to this last was the unsanitary living conditions. Flies fed on the rotting food slops and then landed on our cuts, often in such thick numbers it was impossible to swat them all. Many nights I would awaken in the dark and discover cockroaches crawling on my face or my body. We had no hot water for showers. We were not usually given antibacterial soap- if we wanted it, it had to be sent from home. Scabies ran rampant, driven not by sexual contact, but by the cramped sleeping and living conditions. Here is a picture that shows a typical hut, or “fale”, where 15-30 boys lived.
The huts were about the size of a small bedroom, perhaps 10 ft by 15 ft. Here is a picture of the bathrooms and showers.
The bathrooms had no doors, and until a boy had achieved a certain level of points and trust, he was required to have a staff member watching him while he used them. As you can see, the showers were open sided, so nudity in them was not permitted. Instead we showered while wearing a pair of shorts. The water flowed from one stall down to the next, eventually discharging directly into the ocean, where we were forced to swim every day. As a side note, the septic tank and the sinks also ran off into the ocean.
The facility was not walled, but instead was surrounded by a tall cliff that functioned more effectively than any wall. Only one small path ran down the side of the cliff face, meaning that any supplies such as food, water, or building supplies had to be carried down on someone’s back. That someone was nearly always a student. The staff used us as free source of labor. We hauled, scrubbed, weeded, carried rocks, and did whatever else they decided needed to be done.
While this is just a quick glimpse of the neglect in paradise cove and does not really even begin to cover what went on, I want to go ahead and move on to the rules in the interest of time.
The rules, as I mentioned before, were extremely strict, and punishment could be exceedingly harsh. The rules manual I was shown my first day was 4 or 5 pages long, and the rules were divided into 5 categories by the seriousness of the offense and thus the resulting punishment, category 5 being the worst. Cat 1 offenses including things such as talking out of turn, sarcasm, swearing, and also included some pointless and ambiguous offenses such as burping without permission, making facial expressions, and non-verbal communication (meaning any hand gestures or sign language, pointed looks, etc.) Cat 1 consequences weren’t a big deal, but enough of them could land you in more trouble. Cat 2 and higher offenses got you sent to the worksheet room, a larger hut where you sat cross-legged on the ground with your hands on your head and listened to hour-long tapes about things such as the life of Henry ford or the symphonies of Mozart. After the tape ended, you were required to pass a quiz about the tape in order to get credit for it. After you collected a certain number of tape credits (varying by level of offense), you could leave and go back to your group. Every two to three hours, everyone in the worksheet room was required to do an hour long set of brutal calisthenics, called “Skills”, by way of additional punishment. This form of punishment was used often. Failure to complete the required pushups, sit-ups, etc, even if the failure was physical, resulted in a category 3 offense. Category three and higher offenses carried the additional punishments of losing levels in the program and of required time in the isolation room. Iso, as we called it, was a hut with three 4 ft by 4 ft stalls, concrete floors, and a tin roof. Each stall could be closed off completely with the use of Dutch doors. Cat 3 meant one day in iso minimum, cat 4 two days, and cat 5 three days minimum. Cat 4 offenses included making plans to run away and masturbation. Cat 5 offenses included self-inflicted injuries, being physically out of control, and running away. Boys in iso were required to sit cross-legged with their hands on the head. Failure to do so occasionally resulted in being hogtied. They were given water twice a day, allowed to use the bathroom once, and fed once or twice. The meals were a glass of water and a bowl of white rice, which were left out so that the water would warm and the rice would cool to room temperature. The iso box got very hot because of being enclosed with no windows and having a tin roof. Boys often came out covered in scabies and fungal rashes.
Fungal rashes and scabies were treated by applying an acidic solution to the affected region (generally your …groin) to literally burn the affected skin off. Needless to say this was painful. After returning to America, I found out most rashes and scabies can be treated easily with a topical cream. I won’t go further into the medical treatment for the reasons I mention before, except to say there was no doctor on site, in fact, no doctor within an hour’s drive of the facility and I never saw any proof any nurse was trained or licensed for that job in any way, nor did I ever see any reason to think they were.
In all seriousness, living in Samoa was like living in a page out of lord of the flies. Fights, beatings, stabbings, drug use, corruption by the staff, abuse, dirt, sickness, and neglect were widespread and common. Every day was a struggle to survive, to keep your head above water, to keep moving forward towards getting out. But perhaps the worst part of all was that in Samoa, as in all WWASP programs, you never knew how long it would take to get out. We were denied what even the worst criminal in jail has: a date, a goal to look forward to, a motivation to keep on going. The only good thing I can say about Paradise Cove is that thankfully it was shut down by the Samoan government shortly after I left.
After I left Paradise Cove, I went to casa by the sea in Ensenada, Mexico. I spent 8 months there. While I have heard many complaints about Casa, and most are valid by any reasonable standard, to me, after Paradise Cove, Casa was a dream come true. There we had real mattresses to lay on the floor instead of bedrolls. Even though the buildings weren’t heated, at least we slept inside. There was hot water if you showered early enough. And the food was, if not good, at least edible, and I managed to start gaining weight back. The worst parts of Casa to me were the fact that you had to speak Spanish all the time (and I knew none), and the Americans who ran the facility. The program was owned by Dace Goulding, who was educational director at Paradise Cove, and co-directed by Jason Finnlayson (who went on to own and direct Academy ay Ivy Ridge) and Jade Robinson, who now owns and runs Horizon Academy. My biggest problems were with Jason. He was very rude and cruel. Often, he would pretend to drop me in levels just to see if I would get upset, or would call me in and claim he knew I was doing something against the rules and give me an opportunity to confess, just to see if I would confess to something I was actually doing wrong. His favorite game, though, was to call all the upper levels out and make us run up a mountain across the street from the facility. If you didn’t make it up the mountain in a certain amount of time, you got dropped in levels. The exact rules of this game varied, but it was always clear he just wanted to see people get upset.
In Casa, the isolation room was euphemistically called “R&R”. It was similar to Paradise Cove’s, but instead of a small stall, it was a room with a tile floor empty of furniture. Students were required to lie on the floor on their stomachs with their arms crossed behind them and their ankles crossed, or they were required to kneel down with their arms and ankles crossed and were made to rest their entire weight on their crossed ankles. If you don’t think this sounds painful (or even if you do) I encourage you to try this out yourself, then try to imagine what hours or days felt like in that position. As in Samoa, failure to comply in the isolation room brought on “being restrained”, which is generally another euphemism for being beaten, sometimes with fists and feet, sometimes with sticks, chairs, or other objects.
School in Casa was essentially the same as in Samoa: a large room where students sat and worked. You would check a book out, and then read the chapter until you felt you had it down pat. Then you would go to the teacher and ask for the test on that chapter. You would take it, and it would be graded later that day or the next day. If you didn’t get at least an 80, you had to do it over. The teachers weren’t really teachers, rather they were more like monitors or proctors, there merely to hand out the tests and make sure no one cheated. School went at your own pace, there were several times in Samoa where I completed an entire half-credit class in a day. There were also times where I pretended to work and just read a book instead, getting nothing done for months. Still, I ended up nearly a year ahead of my class, and didn’t graduate solely because I wanted to experience at least one year of high school. However, I was in for a rude awakening. I had trouble getting credit for many of the classes because the accreditation of WWASP was questionable. I actually ended up not ahead, but behind my class and I had to take summer school to catch up. Finally, I got frustrated retaking classes and dropped out and got my GED.
Eventually, after nearly 30 months to the day, I graduated the program and was allowed to come home. The program encourages parents to make students sign and follow a “home contract,” a strict list of rules detailing the student’s requirements they must fulfill to be allowed to come home and be part of the family. Mine included attending church twice a week, a list of chores, what music, movies, and videogames I would and wouldn’t be allowed to listen to, watch or play, who I could be friends with and who I couldn’t, and what activities in which I could be involved. The program encourages parents whose children who do not follow their home contract or whose children turn 18 and choose to leave the program to be excluded from the family, to be allowed no contact and never be spoken to again. It is seen as a way of discouraging slipping back into bad habits. WWASP also offers a guarantee that if you are not satisfied with the final product, you may return it and it will be replaced. In other words, you may send your student back for free if they slip back. Needless to say, they are much worse to you the second time, although many kids simply run away to avoid being sent back. I slept with a knife under my pillow until I turned 18. I would never have allowed myself to be sent back, whatever it took. I had a close friend in Samoa named Corey Murphy. One day, his mother told him she was sending him back to the program. He went in his room and shot himself.
I left the program, but in many ways, the program has never left me. I still have nightmares, perhaps once a week, where I dream I am back in the program. Sometimes it takes me a long time to come back to where I am and realize I’m not back there. The nightmares are never of the time I spent there, only of going back. I left 7 years ago this April, and yet the memories still haunt me. Things can still get tense between my parents and I. while my father has apologized for sending me, my mother never has, and perhaps she never will. That may be the worst part of all of this. Parents, scared for their kids, have their own love for their children used against them, twisted into paranoia until they feel their children are in such mortal danger that they have no other option but to send their children away to be cared for by complete strangers, in a place they’ve never seen. I’ve seen it all firsthand. I’ve lived it. It’s terrible, but it’s real and until something is done, it will continue happening to thousands or tens of thousands of American teens every year. Let’s be part of the solution, not the problem.