Survivor Testimony of Midwest Academy, Iowa Circa 2010
There are many reform schools in the United States. These schools, which are never really noticed because we do not like to think that we need them, operate largely unsupervised. Especially in the case of privately owned, for-profit institutions, government regulation and supervision is negligible, at best. I know this because I attended one. I felt the trauma of being institutionalized, of becoming a slave to a system designed to oppress me. I existed in a state of perpetual worry and paranoia, always having to watch myself, never able to relax, never knowing what was coming next, always having to worry about what rules I may be caught breaking that I had no way of knowing even existed. This is what transpired during my intake process…
“What do you think this place is?” Ahmad asked me as he and the other two unpacked my boxes.
“Behavioral institute,” I said simply. The three looked at each other and smiled a little uneasily.
“We prefer the term ‘leadership academy,’” the short skinny one said. His name was Jacob. The other two, Ahmad and Sydney, were both black (not that that mattered any). All three of them wore tan or dark blue dress pants, dress shoes, white dress shirts, and red ties. They told me to go around behind the couch and change into some of the clothes in the box, a white t-shirt, dark blue gym shorts, white socks, and white briefs. They told me to not even keep my boxers on. While I was changing, they were busy marking all my items with my initials.
After that, they asked me some health questions and told me to sign a “Consumer Rights Policy” sheet. I read through it, wanting to know what I was signing before I signed it. Little did I know that the words on that page were a complete and total joke, written only to appease the insurance companies and lawyers, and didn’t actually guarantee me any thing. In reality, I soon found out, I had fewer rights than a prison inmate or a World War II POW.
Midwest Academy is located just outside of Keokuk, Iowa, a town on the extreme border between Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri. We called it the “Ball Sack of Iowa” due to its location in the small southern extension of Iowa’s southeastern border. I was in the American heartland, though I might as well have been on Mars. There was wide open farm land all around the facility. Even if I had escaped, there was nowhere for me to run.
Had I known what it would be like inside those walls, they would never have gotten me in the doors alive. I would have made sure of that. To say MWA was run like communist Russia under Stalin would have been inaccurate. Indeed, the Russian people were much better off than we were.
It wasn’t communism. It was totalitarianism. You literally needed permission to scratch an itch on their face at certain times. In order to speak, you needed permission. Even laughing would be considered unauthorized communication between peers, and anyone doing it could earn themselves a “consequence:” a little, half sheet of paper upon which you had to write down what you did wrong, why, and what you will do in the future to prevent it from happening again. After that, you would lose points (in this case twenty-five points for a 210 Unauthorized Communication Between Peers) if the staff thought you were accountable. If he didn’t think you were accountable, you lost seventy-five points and had to spend time listening to motivational tapes sometime later on in ISS, or In School Suspension. In this system, you were guilty until proven innocent… and even then the chances of getting a consequence overturned were, at best, so low that it isn’t even worth mentioning. As an estimate, I’d say the odds of getting a consequence overturned would be 1.00×10-29%. The grievance process mentioned in the Consumer Rights Policy was another joke. Even though you are supposed to find out the results of your grievance within seven days, it frequently took weeks, or even months, to get one back.
You couldn’t even go to the bathroom without having someone standing at the door waiting for you. In school you had to face your computer, sit up straight, have both feet flat on the ground and uncrossed, hands on the table, and eyes open at all times. Even turning your head to look at the clock could earn you a 105a Unsat. School: -5 points. On a good day, you usually got between twelve and twenty two-points, and that’s without getting any consequences.
At night I would lay down on the top bunk (you had to earn the privilege of sleeping on the lower bunk) of whichever bed I was assigned to in the room that I shared with about ten other students. I would turn to face the wall of which the bed was on because to do otherwise would earn me a 303 Shutdown Violation (-50 points), regardless of whether I was in a position in which I could fall asleep or not. I would lie there the entire night. Shutdown was the only time I had any semblance of privacy other than when I took a crap. The door to the room would be wide open, and although the lights in the room were off, the ones in the hall were not. In some cases my bunk was arranged such that the head of the bed was literally in the door way, with the fluorescent light literally two feet away from my head. It was a 303 to sleep with your head at the foot of the bed (I had actually seen someone dragged off to OSS for that once), or under the covers even. The only thing I was able to do about it was to get a sleep aide added to the other three meds that I was taking at the time, and even that had a limited affect.
Later on, they got rid of ISS and created essays to go with the consequences. A Category One consequence, such as a 105a, was -5 points and a 75 word essay. Cat. Two’s, like the 210, were 250 words and -25 points. A Cat. Three, such as the 303 or the infamous 308 Blatant Rule Violation, was 500 words and -50 points. You had to finish your essay before you could do anything else, even if it was in the middle of school. If you refused to do your essay, or refused to do anything else for that matter, they threw you in Out of School Suspension, or OSS, which is just a euphemism for solitary confinement. In order to get out of OSS, you had to write a 1,000 word essay, finish any other essays you may have, and all of this after twenty-four hours of sitting in a little white room with a stinky cement floor, and bright fluorescent lights on 24/7. And that’s twenty-four hours of good behavior, longer if you’re acting up.
This reform school was, put mildly, hell on earth. Not only did they do the above things to you, they also limited you to sending only one typed letter per week to your parents, and receiving mail from only your parents on Tuesdays and Fridays. (FYI: The Consumer Rights Policy specifically said that you “have the right to send and receive mail without restriction.”) They also lied to our parents by omission and exaggeration. They said whatever it took to keep us there so that our parents would have to shell out more money.
It was also emotionally and mentally, well, abusive is the only word to describe it. The only thing consistent in their “teachings” was their inconsistency. They were hypocrites. They cared more about making a profit and maintaining their authority over us than anything else. They even went so far as to sacrifice their own mission, to teach us leadership and morals, to maintain control. There were two sets of rules, written and unwritten, which frequently contradicted each other. The set of rules that the staff would go by changed from moment to moment based on which one allowed the staff to flex more of their muscle. The only way to know if a staff member was going to invoke the written or unwritten rules in regards to a specific incident was to ask yourself “Which rule, written or unwritten, will be of the greatest inconvenience to me?” The answer to that question was, 90% of the time, the rule they would enforce. The entire system was designed to maintain absolute authority over us.
To call what I did in that hell-hole in the ball sack of Iowa ‘living’ would be like calling a ride on a World War II cargo plane 1st Class accommodations on Bill Gates’s private jet. I didn’t live at Midwest. I existed there. I was no more alive than the ink that makes up the words on these pages. No, that’s not true. At least this ink is doing what it was made to do where it was meant to do it. It’s fulfilling its purpose. At MWA, I was like a shark in an aquarium. It is a fact that sharks do not live all that long in captivity. The space is too small for them. Sharks constantly rub up against the walls of their enclosure, causing open sores that never get a chance to heal and inevitably become infected, leading to terminal illnesses.
In describing what we went through, I believe the words of Thomas Jefferson, as written in the Declaration of Independence, sums it up perfectly:
“Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.”
In 1989, the United Nations put into effect the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This is a legally binding document which all nations that ratify it must abide to. Unfortunately, the United States has not ratified it. Article 12, Paragraph 1 of the Convention states: “States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.” People throughout my life have always told me that I am very mature for my age. MWA systematically gave my views little to no weight at all, much less allowed me to even express those views freely. The argument could be made in their defense that the Convention states cites, “…capable of forming his or her own views…” as a requirement to give my views any weight. This argument is faulty, however. There is a big difference between “his or her own views,” and, “his or her own views that are aligned with ours.” Other notable infractions of the Convention are Article 13, Paragraph 1 with regards to freedom of expression; Article 14, Paragraph 1 with regards to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; Article 15, Paragraph 1 with regards to freedom of peaceful assembly; Article 17 on access to mass media; and Article 31 on the right to leisure and rest, and to freely participate in activities.
According to John Stuart Mill, who was quoted in Children, Parents, and the Law, “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over [anyone], against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good … is not a sufficient warrant.” (Harris & Teitelbaum, 29) What Mill is saying is that people have a right to their own body and their own well being. This is aligned with the Principle of Individual Freedom.
One can, of course, argue the utilitarian approach which states that the end always justifies the means. There are two problems with that. The first one is that one must take into account all the consequences, including those that are not obviously seen. The second is even if the end justifies the means, what happens if the end is never realized? Are the means still justified even if the intended end was never achieved, especially if the means were traumatic? Very few people graduate from MWA, and very few that do are able to keep from “going back to their crap,” as we called it. Considering the success rate of places like MWA, is it really worth it to traumatize our youth, for any reason? I don’t think so.
Harris, Leslie J., and Lee E. Teitelbaum. Children, Parents, and the Law: Public
and Private Authority in the Home, Schools, and Juvenile Courts. New York:
Aspen, 2006. Print.
United Nations 44th General Assembly. “Convention on the Rights of the Child.”
The Circumcision Reference Library. The Circumcision Reference Lib.,
n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2010.
Jefferson, T. (1776). Declaration of independence