The Evolution of a Program
In 1996, the year that Tyler arrived at the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center, van Rybroek was still struggling to climb out of what he recalls as his “pit of despair.” What had begun as a noble experiment in trying to help one of the least sympathetic groups of criminals appeared to be running off the rails. During the center’s first year, 36 of its employees had ended up in emergency rooms after being attacked and beaten by youth.
The boys would arrive from other juvenile prisons in high-security transportation gear: handcuffs and ankle-chains, and sometimes also with nylon masks to prevent them from spitting at staff workers. In many cases, they came to Mendota directly from having been locked in solitary confinement for as much as three months at a time, with just an hour or two out of their rooms a day. Mentally disturbed to begin with, many became wild after such treatment. Psychiatrist Deborah Umstead, who began working at Mendota in 1998, remembers seeing some of the newcomers running full-tilt into the walls. Shortly after she arrived, an inmate punched her in the head.
To his frustration, van Rybroek’s first order of business became security; the shrinks were going to have to learn to behave more like wardens. He hired more psychiatric techs to provide backup during therapy and invested in padded uniforms for them, but the center continued to struggle to achieve a balance between providing a caring environment and safety for the staff and wards. In 2007, after repeated requests from the staff and following two riots in 48 hours, he agreed to let supervisors use pepper spray in emergencies. The spray causes temporary blindness and skin irritation, but provides a powerful deterrent. “I’d held out because I’d worried that it might be abused,” van Rybroek said. “But therapy just isn’t possible unless and until everyone feels safe.” Over the past four years, staff members have resorted to the spray 119 times, although van Rybroek said the frequency of incidents has steadily declined, as has the number of injuries to employees and inmates. There have been no more riots.
As parenting guides tell us, raising children well takes both love and limits. The cell bars and pepper spray set the limits at Mendota, while the love—or a close equivalent—comes from a particularly devoted group of therapists and techs. As he strengthened security over the years, Van Rybroek took great care with his hiring, weeding out employees who seemed, as he described it, “more interested in the control aspects than helping youth save their own lives.” He obliged all employees dealing directly with the kids to be rigorously supervised, with frequent opportunities to talk with each other about the powerful feelings—“countertransference,” in psychiatric parlance —so often provoked by the Mendota youth. This has made his team both cohesive and unusually accountable.
For instance, after Umstead, the psychiatrist, got punched in the head, she sought her colleagues’ help to understand what she might have done to contribute to her assailant’s anger. The kid had attacked her after she’d denied his request to call his mother, a decision she’d made after he’d spoken out of turn several times in her therapy group. In retrospect, she said, she realized she’d acted too hastily. She’d overscheduled her sessions in her first months on the job, becoming so busy that she’d missed an opportunity to talk over the problem with the boy involved, instead of merely reacting. She vowed that in the future she’d try harder to avoid getting overextended.
Mendota’s strategy made a crucial difference for Tyler, the robber. He spent close to two years at the center, on the high side of the average stay. In his first few months, he got into fights with other kids and lost privileges for “gang talk” and sexual slurs to female employees. Yet over time, he attended his therapy sessions, got his tattoos removed, and turned a corner. Therapists located an aunt who was willing to have him come live with her, and he was released on probation in late 1997.
Within three months of leaving the Mendota center, Tyler was rearrested and convicted of one count of possession of stolen property. He pled guilty and was sentenced to five years’ probation. But since then, he hasn’t had a single additional arrest—nor even a traffic ticket—and no hint of renewed violent behavior, according to Caldwell, who regularly tracks Mendota veterans through state databases. The last time Caldwell checked, he told me, Tyler had married and started a small business.
Tyler’s progress might seem like small potatoes, particularly considering the youth’s rearrest so soon after his release. Yet considering his earlier history, it was cause to celebrate. His case offered early evidence that van Rybroek and Caldwell were doing something right, and as more years passed, the two psychologists could see that Tyler’s case wasn’t an anomaly.
In 2001, Caldwell began collecting data on Mendota veterans. Three years later, he published his first findings in a report for the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry. In that study, he followed 248 youth who’d been admitted to the program over a two-and-a-half-year period. He compared 101 of the boys who’d undergone a full course of treatment at Mendota to the 147 who’d been seen only briefly by the program’s therapists before being sent elsewhere, having been deemed less violent and unmanageable than the group that got treatment. Among other differences, Caldwell found that in the four years following their release, the boys who hadn’t received treatment at Mendota—the supposedly less problematic kids—had killed 16 people. The Mendota veterans hadn’t killed anyone.
In a separate study, published two years later in the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, Caldwell calculated that despite the Mendota center’s substantially higher daily costs, it saves the state money—roughly $7.18 for every dollar spent—by avoiding the expense of imprisoning recidivists. Caldwell told me that he’d actually low-balled this calculation, since he’d left out any estimated costs of the lives or property lost due to new crimes.
As thorough and comparatively effective as the program is, it’s no panacea, Caldwell cautions. In fact, about 25 percent of the Mendota veterans have been charged with a new violent crime within three years of their release. Several have been convicted of “substantial battery,” meaning an assault that leaves someone seriously injured. Some youth have seriously injured Mendota employees—a crime requiring them to be transferred to an adult prison. All the same, the general reduction in recidivism for these kinds of kids, who are so particularly prone to make crime their life story, is a major achievement. For context, consider that nearly three out of four youths released from state-run facilities are convicted of some new offense within three years, according to a 2011 report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Caldwell’s painstaking data analysis over the years amounts to yet another of Mendota’s expensive advantages over other juvenile justice programs. Facilities elsewhere in the nation might well be achieving similar results, yet haven’t won the same respect because they haven’t devoted resources to data collection and publication in peer-reviewed journals. One such project is the Capital and Serious Violent Offender Treatment Program, established in 1988 outside Giddings, Texas, and featured in Last Chance in Texas, a laudatory 2005 book by John Hubner. The Giddings directors claim that their intensively therapeutic strategies, incorporating role-playing and cathartic, group reenactments of crimes, have reduced the likelihood of its participants’ being reincarcerated for a felony offense by 43 percent—which would make it nearly as successful as the Mendota center. Yet at this writing, they haven’t submitted their findings to professional review.
Caldwell and van Rybroek say their next research project is to try to pin down more precisely how the Mendota program has been achieving its success. Answering this question might help others replicate Mendota’s results, which is why some analysts suggest this work is overdue. The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, for instance, lists the Mendota center on its Internet registry of “evidence-based” treatments—a rare honor—yet includes the criticism that the “content, duration, and intensity of training and support are not clearly defined,” and “no tools are available to help monitor fidelity.”
“The world wants a cookie-cutter guide, and we don’t have one,” retorts van Rybroek, who says he thinks Mendota’s success results from an interconnected “constellation” of factors, including its quirky history and leadership. Even so, he told me, he and Caldwell have been working to produce a “nonformulaic” manual that may help colleagues dealing with fledgling psychopaths, as well as parents of kids who are extremely provocative, rebellious, oppositional, and exasperating.
I can understand van Rybroek’s impatience with the search for easy answers: some pill or eight-step process guaranteed to civilize the most savage youth on the planet. It’s reasonable to assume that if anything like that existed, we’d know about it by now. What I saw, instead, at Mendota was a striking combination of nature and nurture—extraordinary people in an exceptional environment—keenly focused on keeping kids like Tyler and Brandon from being pushed off the proverbial ice. No parent and very few therapists could aspire to the varied and felicitous advantages Mendota has managed to maintain through economic booms and busts: the idealistic leadership, financial resources, supportive collegial atmosphere, and, not least, steel bars and pepper spray. In other words, don’t try this at home. Yet at least in this one place on earth, that Erma Bombeck adage to love your child the most when he deserves it the least, sounds less like a bleeding-heart–liberal refrain than a call to the noblest part of us—the part truly capable of giving a “diseased soul” the human connection he at once most needs and seems most keen to destroy.
Katherine Ellison is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and author of five books, most recently Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention.
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