An Inside View
I spent two days at the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center during a week when the maple trees surrounding its grounds were exploding in bright orange, red, and yellow. Pictures of pumpkins and ghosts hung in one of the classrooms, together with a sign reading “Welcome, Spooky Friends!”
The center sits on a grassy slope overlooking Lake Mendota, where it vies for postcard views with the homes of some of Madison’s wealthiest families. Royal-blue banners waving outside the walls trumpet the optimistic philosophy inside: “Respect. Hope. Help. Heal.”
The banners, as well as badges asking “How Can I Help?” worn by all the center’s staff members, were designed by the center’s CEO, Gregory van Rybroek, a former seminary student, who, at 57, has receding gray hair and bemused-looking blue eyes behind rimless spectacles. As he drove me to the center in his middle-aged Honda, he recounted how, in his sophomore year in college, he’d given up his plan to be a priest and changed his major to psychology. What didn’t change was the inspiration he’d discovered in Matthew 25:36 (“I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me”), which led him, while still in graduate school, to a job ministering to our society’s most frightening, least sympathetic members: criminally insane patients at the state mental hospital.
Van Rybroek rose through the hospital’s ranks to become its clinical director in the early 1990s. One of his first tasks was to solve an urgent problem: aggressive, mentally ill youth from institutions like Lincoln Hills, who’d been sent to the state hospital for treatment, were attacking other patients. State budget analysts readily agreed on the need for a new, maximum-security youth center. To van Rybroek’s surprise, Wisconsin legislators not only approved the new project, but followed his suggestion that the facility be governed by the state health department, rather than prison authorities.
His surprise was understandable. America traditionally has had little sympathy for juvenile delinquents. Back in 1646, the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed the Stubborn Child Law, decreeing that children who disobeyed their parents could be put to death. Over the next two centuries, even preteens were sent to adult prisons and chain gangs. It was only in the late 19th century that progressive reformists steered courts toward more humane treatment of young lawbreakers. The first juvenile court was established in Chicago in 1899, the idea being that malleable youth would benefit more from rehabilitation than punishment.
This approach lost momentum during the crack-cocaine-fueled crime wave of the early 1980s. Panic over the rise of violent youth gangs led to a wave of harsh new laws, with 29 states mandating that minors be tried as adults for some crimes. In Wisconsin, as in several other states, children as young as 12 have since been tried in adult courts for murder and gang-related crimes. In recent years, the pendulum seems to be swinging back, for instance, with the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that life without parole for minors constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Yet most of the draconian state laws remain on the books.
In 1995, the same year that the Mendota center opened, Princeton’s John DiIulio made his famous prediction that a “tidal wave” of 270,000 bad seeds—“radically impulsive, brutally remorseless” juvenile criminals, whom he dubbed “superpredators”—would hit the streets by 2010, raping, robbing, murdering, and dealing deadly drugs. While DiIulio later apologized for that forecast (which turned out to be as erroneous as it was inflammatory), it reflected a widespread terror of dangerous young men that left little room for sympathy. Making matters worse, psychologists themselves offered small hope that violent and aggressive kids like Tyler could ever be rehabilitated. A major review in American Psychologist published in 1995 concluded that no single approach had yet proven effective.
Thus, from its origins, van Rybroek’s project was boldly countercultural, reflecting his passionate conviction in nurture’s power over nature. Over the years, he and his Mendota collaborators designed and implemented a web of costly, energy-intensive strategies, united by the goal of prying the young inmates out of their reflexive anger and withdrawal through sturdy, warm relationships with the therapists and frontline staff workers, known as “psychiatric techs.”
Van Rybroek and his close colleague, psychologist Michael Caldwell, dub their basic approach “decompression,” a reference to the way that deep-sea divers are slowly returned to the water’s surface. It operates on the assumption that young criminals like Tyler aren’t bad seeds, destined to be psychopaths from birth, but kids who probably started out life mentally ill in some way and have been “compressed” into reactive defiance by years of harsh treatment.
Van Rybroek told me about one of the first times he’d practiced decompression, on one of his criminally insane adult patients in the early 1990s. The man, who’d recently had one of his legs amputated, had been scaring other hospital employees by screaming and throwing things at them when they entered his room, meanwhile digging his fingers into his wound, risking infection, in what seemed like a suicide attempt. Van Rybroek began by standing silently in the man’s doorway, slowly graduated to reading to him from the newspaper sports pages, and, over the course of several weeks, made his way into the room, to sit by the man’s bed, as his ally. He judged his tactic a success after the patient had begun using his crutches to leave his room and converse with other hospital staff members and inmates.
When van Rybroek first told me about decompression, I remembered a sign I’d seen a few years earlier at a conference for parents and teachers of children with AD/HD. “It’s the relationship, stupid!” it read, conveying the idea that your kid won’t hear anything you say if he or she doesn’t already trust you. Van Rybroek and Caldwell swear by the research of the psychologists Albert Bandura and Lawrence Sherman, who’ve argued that “prosocial” bonds help deter crime by giving people a stake in society, and thus a reason to work to control themselves.
Once I’d had the chance to see decompression in action at Mendota, it brought up another memory, this time from my childhood, of my older sister reading the scene from Antoine Saint-Exupery’s classic, The Little Prince, in which the prince meets a lonely fox. The fox complains of his “monotonous” life of hunting chickens and being hunted by men, and begs the prince to “tame” him. He then instructs the prince on how to do this, telling him he must be very patient.
“First, you will sit down at a little distance from me—like that—in the grass. I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. . . . But you will sit a little closer to me, every day.”
“I don’t know that anyone is born evil,” van Rybroek told me on my tour. “I think it’s fairer to consider that they’re born into life circumstances in which they don’t have a choice.” His many years at Mendota have strengthened him in this belief. Over that time, he’s noticed that more than 90 percent of the center’s veterans have grown up in poverty. More of their parents have been in prison than working fulltime jobs. And a large majority of these perpetrators of shocking crimes have been victims of crime themselves—whipped, beaten, deprived of food, and locked in closets and basements. One revealed that his parents had hung him from a rafter, cut him with a butcher-knife, and then, as if the hanging and cutting weren’t enough, rubbed black pepper in his wounds. “At one point, several of the boys found out that their parents had all used the same technique of tying them to rafters and beating them,” Caldwell told me. “They called themselves The Piñata Club.”
“These kids have come from hell,” van Rybroek said to me. “If you lived in hell your first 15 years, you’d be that kid. The only way you survive is being aggressive, because that’s how the world has been with you.”
Mendota’s staff therapists and techs work daily to coax such youth back to trusting relationships by means of consistently positive interactions with adults, including immediate rewards for good behavior.
After van Rybroek proudly showed me the center’s gleaming new indoor basketball court, we walked down a narrow hallway between the steel cells, where several doors were taped with “Happy Birthday!” notices and certificates recognizing progress or decorated with photos of basketball and baseball stars. Mendota’s clinical director, David McCormick, a stocky, mustached Packers fan, told me how he bakes brownies each month for the young rapists, batterers, and murderers he refers to as “knuckleheads.”
McCormick designed Mendota’s daily operating system, known as the Today-Tomorrow Program. It resembles a souped-up, rigorously monitored version of the “reward charts” recommended by parenting gurus. As the title implies, it’s aimed at delivering short-term consequences for good or bad behavior. Inmates suffer tightened security and loss of privileges for serious rule violations, such as threats or violence. When they behave well today, they’re rewarded tomorrow with incentives ranging from a half-hour of video games in the evening to being able to keep a satellite radio in their cells.
The 19th-century psychologist William James wrote that humans crave appreciation more than anything, and apparently fledgling psychopaths are no exception. McCormick proudly showed me the colorful stickers he puts on the boys’ charts to acknowledge their progress. He orders the stickers in English and Spanish. “Que bien!” read the Spanish ones. “Even big, lunky guys love stickers,” he says.
The stickers and birthday cards and brownies aside, I never lost sight that the Mendota center is a maximum-security prison. On my way down the hallway between the cells, I caught a glimpse of a pair of young black arms reaching out through a small window in a locked bathroom door. The boy inside, who was on lockdown status after breaking a rule, was preparing to be handcuffed before emerging from his shower.