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good thing my parents never heard 'bout this

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The last resort

When you have a teenager on the rampage, who are you going to turn

to? In

America, parents send their troubled offspring to Jamaica's


Bay - a 'behaviour-modification centre' which charges $40,000 a year


'cure' them. Decca Aitkenhead, the first journalist to gain access to


centre in five years, wonders if there isn't too high a price to pay

Sunday June 29, 2003

The Observer

Were you to glance up from the deserted beach below, you might mistake

Tranquility Bay for a rather exclusive hotel. The statuesque white

property stands all alone on a sandy curve of southern Jamaica,


by palm trees, gazing out across the Caribbean Sea. You would have to

look closer to see the guards at the wall. Inside, 250 foreign

children are locked up. Almost all are American, but though kept

prisoner, they were not sent here by a court of law. Their parents


to have them kidnapped and flown here against their will, to be

incarcerated for up to three years, sometimes even longer. They will


be released until they are judged to be respectful, polite and


enough to rejoin their families.

Parents sign a legal contract with Tranquility Bay granting 49 per


custody rights. It permits the Jamaican staff, whose qualifications


not required to exceed a high-school education, to use whatever


force they feel necessary to control their child. The contract also

waives Tranquility's liability for harm that should befall a child in


care. The cost of sending a child here ranges from $25,000 to $40,000



Opened in 1997, Tranquility Bay is not a boot camp or a boarding


but a 'behaviour modification centre' for 11- to 18-year-olds. An

American Time magazine journalist visited in 1998, and since then no

media have been allowed inside. With all access denied, there has been

little coverage beyond sketchy reports based on hearsay - even the


community knows almost nothing of what goes on. My discovery of

Tranquility Bay came only by accident in 2000, while living nearby,


all my approaches since then were, like every other media request,



The owner is an American called Jay Kay. He doesn't trust the media,

because 'they go for sensationalist stuff. Nothing has really


things in a way that is factual.' On the other hand, he believes


who saw inside Tranquility would support and admire it, and blames

criticism on ignorance. So Kay has been in a dilemma. His business is

expanding, and he is turning his attention to the UK, for he believes

there is a large untapped market of British parents who would ship


children straight off to Jamaica if only they knew about Tranquility.


British government, too, he hopes, might send him children in its


'If social services was interested, at $2,400 a month I bet they can't

offer our services for that.'

This spring he decided to grant me and a photographer unprecedented,

exclusive access. If he didn't like the result, 'Hell will freeze over

before anyone getsin here again.'

The first impression once inside Tranquility Bay's perimeter walls is


disconcerting quiet. Students are moved around the property in

silence by

guards in single file, 3ft apart - a complicated operation, because


and boys must be kept segregated at all times, forbidden to look at



Tranquility has a language of its own. The vocabulary is recognisable,

but its use has been delicately customised, so that boys are 'males',

girls 'females', and they are all divided into single-sex 'families'


about 20. The families have names such as Dignity, Triumph and Wisdom,

and are led by a staff member known as the 'family mother'

or 'father',

addressed by the children as Mum or Dad. The 200 staff are all


Along with multiple guards known as 'chaperones', the family mothers


fathers control and scrutinise their children 24 hours a day. The only

moment a student is alone is in a toilet cubicle; but a chaperone is

standing right outside the door, and knows what he or she went in to


because when students raise their hand for permission to go, they must

hold up one finger for 'a number one', and two for 'a number two'.

Corporal punishment is not practised, but staff

administer 'restraint'.

Officially it is deployed as the name suggests, to subdue a student


is out of control. However, former students say it is issued more


as a punishment. One explains: 'It's a completely degrading, painful

experience. You could get it for raising your voice or pointing your

finger. You know you're going to get it when three Jamaicans walk in


say, "Take off your watch." They pin you down in a five-point


and that's when they start twisting and pulling your limbs, grinding



Before sending their teen to Tranquility, parents are advised that it

might be prudent to keep their plan a secret, and employ an approved

escort service to break the news. The first most teenagers hear of

Tranquility is therefore when they are woken from their beds at home


4am by guards, who place them in a van, handcuffed if necessary, drive

them to an airport and fly them to Jamaica. The child will not be


to speak to his or her parents for up to six months, or see them for


to a year.

Let us say you are a new female assigned to Challenger family. You


with your family in one bare room, on beds which are pieces of wood on

hinges hung on the walls. The day begins with a chaperone shouting at


to get up. You put on your uniform and flip-flops (harder to run away


in silence and fold your bed against the wall. The room is now


bare. After performing chores, the family is ordered to line up, for


family mother to do a head count.

You are walked to a classroom to watch an 'EG' - a 30-minute video

intended to promote 'emotional growth' - on a theme such as why you

shouldn't smoke. Then the family is lined up, counted and walked to


canteen to eat a plate of boiled cabbage and fish in silence while

listening to an 'inspirational tape' broadcast loudly through the


urging you to, for example, eat healthily.

'If 70-80 per cent of the food you eat is not water rich, what you are

doing is clogging your body. Eat 80 per cent water-rich food. Try it


the next 10 days. Watch what happens to your body. It will blow your

mind.' Students have no choice in what they eat - there is a seven-day

plan of basic Jamaican meals which never changes, and eating less

than 50

percent of any dish is forbidden.

Morning routines vary between families. Some shower (three minutes,


water), others wash clothes (outside, in buckets, cold water), or

exercise (walk round the yard). At 9.30am, each family is moved into a

classroom for two hours. You continue the US high-school curriculum


you left off at home, but there is no teaching.

Watched by chaperones, you read prescribed course books, take notes,


sit a test after each chapter. Two or three Jamaican teachers sit at


back of the room in case you get stuck, and they may be able to help.


to mark the tests, they have to use an answer key sent down from the


After lunch and another inspirational tape come three further hours of

school, a second EG, plus an educational video about a historical


of note. There is a sports period, a family meeting, a final meal with

tape, followed by a period called Reflections, when you must write


what you have memorised from the tapes and EGs. You may also write


to your parents, and though staff can read your mail, you may write


you like. But Tranquility's handbook for parents warns them not to

believe anything that sounds like a 'manipulation', the programme's


for a complaint.

There is no free time, and you are never alone. At 10pm everyone is in

bed for Shut Down; the lights go off, and Tranquility is silent, save


waves crashing on to the beach below. Chaperones watch you through the

night. And the next day is exactly the same. As is the next, and the


'Yep, identical,' says Kay. 'Exactly identical. Now you see,' he adds,

with a grim nod of satisfaction, 'why kids are not happy here.'

Tranquility Bay is one of 11 facilities affiliated to an organisation


Utah called the World Wide Association of Speciality Programs. The

facilities are located in the States and Caribbean region, and


independently owned, all run the same programme, devised by Wwasp.

Jay Kay is 33 years old, and the son of Wwasp's chief director. He


the facility at the age of 27, after four years as administrator of a

Wwasp-run juvenile psychiatric hospital in Utah. Previously he had

been a

night guard there, and before that a petrol-pump attendant, having

dropped out of college. He has no qualifications in child development,

but considers this unimportant.

'Experience in this job is better than any degree. Am I an educational

expert? No. But I know how to hire people to get the job done.' There


more than a touch of the Jerry Springer guest about his looks - heavy,

shaven-headed, colourless, and a similarly deadening certainty of


'I've got the best job in the world,' he claims, but he carries


like a man who has learnt to expect the worst, and is seldom


Tranquility is basically a private detention camp. But it differs in


important respect. When courts jail a juvenile, he has a fixed


and may think what he likes while serving it, whereas no child

arrives at

Tranquility with a release date. Students are judged ready to leave


when they have demonstrated a sincere belief that they deserved to be

sent here, and that the programme has, in fact, saved their life. They

must renounce their old self, espouse the programme's belief system,

display gratitude for their salvation, and police fellow students who


A finely engineered reward-and-punishment system has been designed to

effect this change. In order to graduate, students must advance from

level 1 to 6, which they do by earning points. Every aspect of their

conduct is graded daily and as their score accumulates, they climb

through the levels and acquire privileges. On level 1, students are

forbidden to speak, stand up, sit down or move without permission.


they have earnt enough points to reach level 2, they may speak without

permission; on level 3, they are granted a (staff-monitored) phone


home. Levels 4, 5 and 6 enjoy significantly higher status. In

addition to

enjoying privileges, such as (strictly limited and approved) clothing,

jewellery, music and snacks, they are employed for three days a week

as a

member of staff, and must discipline other students by issuing


Every time a member of staff or upper-level student feels a student


broken a rule, they 'consequence' them by deducting points. Rule-


is classified into categories of offence. A 'Cat 1' offence, ie


your eyes, is consequenced by a modest loss of points. A 'Cat 3'


eg swearing, costs a significant number, and may drop the student's


beneath their current level's threshold, thus demoting them and



'You know,' offers Kay, 'if people want to talk about the length of


programme, it's up to the child. If a parent wonders why their kid is

here so long, well gee, we are doing our part, maybe you need to ask


little Joey why he is not moving forward. Everyone knows how to earn



The strategy of coercing children to rewire themselves is the concept


is most proud of, for he believes it places troubled teenagers'

redemption in their own hands. The choice is theirs.

'For years, we just believed if you make the kids do what you want


to do, then they will make the change. But what we figured out was,


not get them to come to the conclusion that they need to make the


themselves? That's what makes this programme special. It's up to


Students who fail to grasp this formula are forcefully encouraged to


the message. One girl currently has to wear a sign around her neck at


times, which reads: 'I've been in this programme for three years, and


am still pulling crap.'

When most children first arrive they find it difficult to believe that

they have no alternative but to submit. In shock, frightened and


many simply refuse to obey. This is when they discover the


Guards take them (if necessary by force) to a small bare room and make

them (again by force if necessary) lie flat on their face, arms by


sides, on the tiled floor. Watched by a guard, they must remain lying

face down, forbidden to speak or move a muscle except for 10 minutes

every hour, when they may sit up and stretch before resuming the

position. Modest meals are brought to them, and at night they sleep on

the floor of the corridor outside under electric light and the gaze

of a

guard. At dawn they resume the position.

This is known officially as being 'in OP' - Observation Placement -


more casually as 'lying on your face'. Any level student can be sent


OP, and it automatically demotes them to level 1 and zero points.


24 hours, students in OP are reviewed by staff, and only sincere and

unconditional contrition will earn their release. If they are

unrepentant? 'Well, they get another 24 hours.' One boy told me he'd

spent six months in OP.

I didn't think this could be true, but it transpired this was not even

exceptional. 'Oh no,' says Kay. 'The record is actually held by a

female.' On and off, she spent 18 months lying on her face.

'The purpose of observation,' Kay offers, 'is to give the kids a


to think. Hopefully, it's giving the kids a chance to reflect on the

choices they've made.' And indeed it is often in OP that a student

decides to stop fighting. In this respect, OP works. In fact, the


rate of OP can be understood as a perfect distillation of Tranquility

Bay's ideology. If your son is willfully disrespectful, the most


gift a parent can give him is incarceration in an environment so

intolerable that he will do anything to get out - where 'anything'


surrendering his mind to authority.

'I say to the parents,' says Kay, leaning back in his office

seat. 'The

bottom line is, what's the end result you want? Getting there may be

ugly, but at least with us you're going to get there.'

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there was also a NYTimes article about this place back in June. that article was far more critical and disturbing. i can't access it on NYTimes.com though without paying. :/

here's the abstract:

Tranquility Bay in St Elizabeth, Jamaica, is oldest foreign outpost in booming network of behavior-modification programs for American teenagers; it has reputation as harshest of them all; many who have been there describe life of pain and fear; others say program saved their lives; school's methods have spawned fierce supporters and critics; it is becoming battleground for warring camps of parents and children, growing number of whom oppose program; fight may shape future of parent organization, Utah-based World Wide Assn of Specialty Programs and Schools, known as Wwasps, one of biggest and most lucrative businesses of its kind; some students describe being restrained by staff members who twisted their arms behind their backs until their hands touched their heads, inflicting intense pain without bruises; no long-term studies of 1,500 youths who have been to Tranquility Bay, or 300 who have graduated, have been done

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