Three WWASP Programs in Two Years at 15 Years Old
J.S wrote the following journal entry during a harsh flashback. Over two years, she was sent to three different WWASP facilities for smoking pot twice and getting caught drinking alcohol. J.S is a program graduate, graduated from high school with honors, and is now attending college. She is dedicated to creating awareness of the child abuse and horror that is occurring right in America’s backyard, to American teens. As quoted in her original submission, “These schools need regulation and oversight, and a great number of them need to be shut down for GOOD.” I have nothing but immense respect for survivors like J.S who are willing to share their stories with the world. For many of us, there were no resources to help us when we returned home. We were completely alone. By sharing our stories, we can offer a sense of community and solace to those just released from a WWASP institution or other “troubled teen” facility.
If you have a story that you would like to share, please submit to email@example.com.
That one thing made me lose trust for everyone, but for good reason. There’s no reason to trust anyone because whether you trust them or not, they’re gonna fuck you over. My mom didn’t want me and shipped me to my dad’s, and two months later my dad shipped me off too. They promised it would only be for three months and that I could come home right afterwards. They said it was a nice place. Those two years were the worst experience of my fucking life. It’s so hard to think back on those two years, and no one gets it. I mean some other people who went to those places get it. It doesn’t affect me as much as it affects some other people. A girl I knew slept with a gun under her pillow after she got out just in case the escorts tried to come get her again. She said she would rather go to jail than back to a WWASP school. But no one I KNOW knows what it’s like. After I got out I didn’t talk to many people
from the program because I wanted to forget I was ever there, that it ever happened. No one I talk to knows what it’s like to not even be allowed to make eye contact with people, NO COMMUNICATION, even nonverbal , ALL DAY. I felt like I was living the same day over and over again every day, in complete silence.
In the first place, my letters were monitored, so I tried so hard to get my thoughts through to my parents without being blatant. Every letter was thoroughly read to make sure no one talked negatively about the “program”. Talking bad about the program in a letter would get you major consequences, and you would get complete SHIT for it. I mean the whole room would go around in a circle and tell you everything you have been doing wrong. Talking bad about the program was one of the worst types of wrong. One of my emails home (my first WWASP school emailed our letters for us since we weren’t allowed on the internet, the other schools only let us write handwritten letters) got “deleted”, and to this day I think they deleted it because I said something about the rat the girls kept seeing or the run attempt that a bunch of girls tried to make before I got there. Letters were the only way we could talk to our parents (no talking to anyone else, even grandparents/aunts) and phone calls were a while away if you were new. I was average and it took me six months to get my first phone call. And once I got that phone call I got one once a month for fifteen minutes ( it was monitored of course, it would end if I said anything I wasn’t supposed to).
In the first place, we weren’t even allowed to write in a journal. We could only write for school, and EVERY page we wrote had to be checked and signed off on to make sure it wasn’t a journal or note. I was so confused about what was happening to me that I honestly don’t know how I made sense of it. Sometimes I pretended like I was locked in a teen war camp or being tested on obedience and conformity by scientists. My mind was so blank, I became so unstimulated. I had to try and think of things to fill my mind in the seemingly neverending silence. My life seemed so unreal. I had to stare at the back of girl’s heads for a large portion of my day. Not even a glance from the back of the girl’s head in front of you was allowed, glance from the back of the head and the upper level or staff watching the line would get you. Same happened if you pivoted with the wrong foot when making a corner in line. And then staff would forget to take you off line structure, no moving any part of your body, even your eyeballs. You were stuck like that until they remembered to take you off, they forgot a lot because they got caught up in talking and we had to be in line structure anytime we went from room to room.
I was always mad I couldn’t see out the gates. I felt like the outside world didn’t even exist to me. I existed nowhere, time unmoving, while the whole world continued on for two years. After I got out of a week-long teen intervention program at a hospital I didn’t think anywhere could restrict your freedoms more, I had absolutely NO IDEA what life could get like, none. The whole time I was in the three WWASP schools I felt like what they were doing was wrong, but everyone else seemed to believe in these practices so much. I always heard “trust the program”. It was hard not to believe what everyone around me was saying all the time. I had to keep my disbelief in the program a secret, or else I would NEVER get out. I had just turned fifteen when I got into the program, and my parents told me every letter they sent me that they were “committed”, I would be there until my eighteenth birthday if I didn’t “graduate” the program. (Get through all six levels of the program.) Generally, eighteen year olds who left when they turned eighteen (the day where they were allowed to leave by their own volition, therefore not graduating the program and “walking” from it) weren’t allowed home. They were given a bus ticket to an unknown and far from home city, given usually between five and twenty-five bucks, and a not fully guaranteed bed in a homeless shelter. My parents, like most parents, were “program parents”, they believed in everything the program did and let their kids know that this is what would happen to them if they chose to leave when they turned eighteen.
If you said something bad about the program in a letter home, you would not get ANYWHERE close to graduating from the program. If you kept “manipulating”, your ass would end up in an orange shirt all the time. In an orange shirt (people on “staff buddy” had to wear orange shirts constantly to be watched more closely), you had to stay arms length from a staff member at all times, you weren’t allowed to talk to anyone at all throughout the day, and you had to strip down in front of staff before you took your nightly staff supervised shower. I never felt like I was being sexually looked at by the staff, it was just procedure for us to have to strip, turn around in a circle in front of the staff, and take a shower in a partly clear but blurry shower in front of them. During the weekends, “staff buddies” had to spend all day in a room where tapes played constantly, and you just mindlessly filled out these tests on the tapes. All day. When I was on staff buddy I somewhat looked forward to the weekend (even though I wanted to shoot myself a hundred million times from listening to so many damn tapes and filling out so many damn tests) because for like thirty minutes we actually got to talk. We were only allowed to talk to one person, and that one person had to be an “upper level”, someone who had been in the program a long amount of time and who was well trusted to be a proud supporter of the program. This was the only time during the whole week where we were allowed to talk, and it felt good to just be able to SPEAK. Everyone else got to speak a couple times a day at least. You were put on staff buddy for anything from manipulating, from breaking rules and not being “accountable” (not taking full responsibility for breaking a rule, even if you didn’t do it and someone just thought you did it), not doing something you were told to do like getting out of bed or eating all your food at meals, not telling enough of your “issues” from your past life, and all new girls were put on staff buddy. Staff buddy lasted until you decided to “comply” with the program.
See the thing is, the whole idea of the program was renouncing your previous life. I didn’t see a need to renounce my previous life. I felt as if I was normal. I knew that I wasn’t going to go home and be perfect. I admitted I made mistakes that I didn’t want to make again (I took ecstasy once). I knew that I would drink occasionally after I left, or have a hook up with a guy every once in a blue moon (not sex or anything even), and even smoke weed (I still don’t see anything wrong with smoking pot and I will always be pro legalization). My thoughts weren’t allowed. I couldn’t speak them and I wasn’t supposed to even think them. After you start to renounce your previous life COMPLETELY, I mean you need to be crying that you would be dead if you wouldn’t have been lucky enough to be sent across the country to an isolated prison-school, you can start to comply with the program. You see, it wouldn’t be so bad for everyone to have to renounce their old lives if everyone there NEEDED to renounce their old lives. Some people definitely needed a change in their life, although I still don’t think anyone needs an environment as extreme as a WWASP school. Some were there for prostitution, drug dealing, living on the streets, or heroine addiction. You definitely hear every type of horror story imaginable, many girls who went there had REALLY hard lives. But a lot of people were there for getting caught drinking once or twice, or trying pot, or smoking cigarettes, or things that a lot of normal teens try. Some were there for things as simple as talking back to their parents too often. I felt so bad for those girls because usually they were like thirteen and could be stuck there until they were eighteen and they really didn’t need these harsh methods at ALL. I even met many teens who were sent to the program just for being gay. No teen was “too good of a kid” to get sent to the program. If they could take every teen in America into their gates, they would. During my time in the program I never understood why I thought this was so wrong, but now I know it’s because generally there is a rule in psychology that you put someone in the least intrusive and shortest inpatient treatment possible, if they even need inpatient treatment at all. WWASP was putting any kid in the most intrusive, longest term treatment available. *Brightway Adolescent Hospital, a WWASP run intake center in Utah, shut down for allegations of abuse and for having identical
action plans for everyone- send them to a WWASP school.
Every night in bed I would wish and even sometimes pray (I’m atheist so this was praying was completely out of character for me) that my dad would end up deciding to honor his ‘I’ll only be there for three months” promise to me. I knew I could handle three months of that place… and then I would tell him how insane the place was.
When I first got to the program, I thought I could reason with the people who worked there and tell them I didn’t need a long term program. I figured that there were some sort of standards that showed that someone needed to be locked up and gated in and put in this kind of environment. After I got many letters telling me that I would be there until I “graduated the program”, no matter what,
(graduating the program took a drastic minimum of 12 months, and a maximum of five years), I kind of freaked out. I had a panic attack and I was crying a lot and I was threatened to be put in isolation.
After a few months, I was still feeling the same way. I was more used to the way of life but I still thought it was straight up WRONG. I distinctly remember one day when I was in the shower, I was just staring blankly at the shower wall. (Showers were another aspect of the completely structured days of my life: we had seven minutes to get out of line, get undressed, shower, get dressed, and get back in line. If we were a second over seven minutes, you got consequenced. Anyway, I was just staring at this shower and I started crying, I couldn’t believe what my life was like. I didn’t want to conform and be like everyone else, because they sounded crazy to me, but if I didn’t I would be there for 3 years, until I was eighteen. (The thing is you couldn’t just pretend to change, you couldn’t just follow all the dumb rules and get out. If people thought you were “faking” your change, they would tell you in front of all your peers and staff members, and you WOULD be there longer. If a lot of people thought you were faking it, you would probably have to go back to level one, where you began, and in essence start your minimum time of twelve months over again. ) I couldn’t imagine being there for even a year, let alone three. 365 of those days seemed IMPOSSIBLE to me. (I thought of things in numbers of days a lot because all days were the same.) After I cried over all this for a little bit I got mad at myself. I told myself to tough up, I was left there and no one was going to come “save” me. I realized what I had to do if I was going to get out. My
full self had to believe in the program. I had to hide my thoughts, beliefs, and my personality. I even had to hide this from myself. If I let myself think too much, people would start to know that I was “faking” my program. I couldn’t be myself again until I got out of the program.
In the second place I went to, I remember hearing about a riot that the boys had. I wondered why we couldn’t do that, too. Everyone was too scared to come together and riot because all we could think about were ourselves. We had to get OUT, and the only way out was to be what the program wanted us to be. I have to say, whoever thought of WWASP is really smart because I have no idea in hell how someone can deny you such basic freedoms as speech and movement to the point that no one even has the ability to QUESTION these restrictions. Most didn’t even question these restrictions in their own mind.. “trust the program.”
One of the hardest things I had to watch was in my second facility, where I continually saw many girls get really sick and not cared for. They would get bitched at for being sick. Instead of being taken to the doctor, they were yelled at for being “liars” and “overdramatic”. OF COURSE they were faking their illnesses for a chance to go to the doctor and get out of the facility for an hour, so they weren’t taken to the doctor. One girl fainted on a daily basis, she injured herself greatly because she didn’t know when she was going to faint. She complained that there was something wrong with her, this had never happened to her before. She was yelled at for “faking it”. Another girl had some weird eating thing, she was supposed to be on a strict diet but they weren’t giving her the right food. She got peanut butter and jelly for every meal (we all stared at her in jealousy, we would KILL to have peanut butter and jelly…), they weren’t giving her the right food that she was supposed to be eating, and she kept fainting. It got to the point that she had to stay in bed all day, every day. She could barely talk and couldn’t walk at all. To let us know that she had to go to the restroom, she would roll off her bed and onto the floor. If we didn’t hear her hit the hard floor we at least saw her after a little while. Two students would pick her up and carry her to the bathroom. I carried her sometimes, and I was carrying dead weight. She couldn’t hold herself up at all. They stopped giving another girl the Paxil she had been on for a matter of years. I’m pretty sure she was going through withdrawals because she was shaking and shaking and constantly dry heaving. She was crying and couldn’t speak. The whole facility was sitting in the same room as her (we all slept in the same room.. bunk beds all lined up next to each other, and this room was also where we did most of our daily activities) because we were having a quiet time and all were sitting at the end of our bunk beds. I was in the bunk next to her, and it was hard for me to hear her loud crying and dry heaving right next to me while no one was doing a thing to help her. The room was silent because no one was allowed to communicate, and all anyone could hear was the girl. Me and a few other girls got her a wet towel to try and soothe her a little bit and we were trying to help her sit up just in case she ended up throwing up. The staff got mad at us for trying to help her and made us stop. When we left for
dinner, I was the last one in line. I put myself last in line because the woman who ran the program came to talk to the girl who was so sick. Her dry heaving and inability to speak had gone on for two hours. I wanted to make sure that the woman would help her, maybe take her to the doctor or SOMETHING. I heard her yell at the girl. She kept yelling for the girl to speak, even though the girl couldn’t speak at the moment. She yelled that she knew the girl could talk and that she was faking it. I was so angry, but this
was the lady who ran EVERYTHING, there wasn’t anyone to talk to that had authority over her, at least no one that I had the ability to talk to.
While I was there, one girl claimed to have been molested by a staff. The day that she arrived at the facility she seemed so normal. I mean sure she was completely freaked out by the way she was going to have to live from that point on, but I was able to hold a normal conversation with her about how she was a cheerleader back home. After she claimed that she was molested, she started acting crazy. She would talk and mutter to herself all day. The program taught that you HAD to talk about all your problems to recover, but they put a complete silence on talking about this event. NO ONE, not even her, was allowed to so much as mention the event. If you did you would get a cat 4, when you get a cat four you go to isolation, and in essence you start your minimum time of twelve months all over again. In one of the few times where we could talk, I asked her about it (this was a pretty ballsy move for program life) and she told me what happened and that they told her parents she was just making it up to try and go home without graduating. She told me that it was especially hard for her to make it through the days because she felt like she was constantly stuck in the place that she was attacked, and she couldn’t leave. She wanted to be sent to the school in Jamaica (known as the worst WWASP school) just to get away from the place where it happened. The only way to get out of a WWASP school was to get sent to
Jamaica, that’s where they sent the kids who wouldn’t follow rules. The staff always told us to be good so that we didn’t get sent to Jamaica, because they could beat us there. It felt so weird giving a girl advice to get sent to Jamaica where they could beat her, but I couldn’t imagine being stuck in a place where I had been sexually abused, she seemed so scared. The teens were so mean to her, too. Many people ignored her and someone threw a rock at her head one time. She seemed so alone and I risked being caught and having to go into the isolation room because it really seemed like she needed someone to talk to. To this day, I don’t know whether she was really abused or not. She definitely BELIEVED she was abused, that’s for certain.
In my third facility take downs and restraints were how order was kept;. You expected to hear someone scream bloody murder a couple times a day because you could hear them getting restrained. You weren’t allowed to see it, but you could definitely hear it. One girl told me she got restrained for talking during a meal. She tried to tell the staff member that she would stop talking and comply and take her consequence but they restrained her anyway. The worst injury I ever saw was a cast on a a girl’s wrist, but I wasn’t around all that long. The whole time that girl was being restrained she was screaming “STOP, your hurting me, please STOP.” They didn’t. After they restrained her two staff carried her by her arms and legs to isolation. I was an upper level at the time and was trusted enough to be in the hall that the isolation rooms were in, I saw them carrying her in and it was a sad sight. I’ve heard of people in isolation peeing or shitting on the floor because they weren’t allowed to use the bathroom. The isolation room was a small cell looking room with concrete floors and walls.
I knew I couldn’t trust a soul in the program, if I told a peer that I didn’t think the program was humane, they would tell staff what I had said. Everyone seemed to believe in the program besides me. I mean, really new girls were against it because they had never seen anything like it, but after a month they would start thinking like everyone else. It always happened, and I always wished that I could tell someone how I really thought of the program. On the outside though, I seemed completely different. I was a completely “changed” person, and would never go back to my old “patterns” such as trying to manipulate my parents or be disrespectful or smoking cigarettes. The few times I let myself openly think (as weird as it sounds I controlled my thoughts so that I wouldn’t let my real thoughts be noticed by anyone) I knew that I was still strong in what I thought. It WASN’T right that I was sent away for as long as someone wanted to make me stay with no type of unbiased judgments made as to whether that was an appropriate punishment.
That’s how it was. No unbiased judgment at all. No one cared that my dad and stepmom, the two parents who had sent me to away, were both using drug addicts/alcoholics. No one cared that this WASN’T my parents last resort, that they in fact sent me to the FIRST place their google search took them. I got caught skipping study hall, and in anger my dad googled “troubled teen”, he called the first phone number on the list, and took me an hour later to the first place the lady recommended. His only question was “will they take her immediately?”. He didn’t so much as look for a review on the school.
After he sent me to the school on a promise that he and my stepmom would come and get me in three months, he not only told me I would “stay until the staff decide I was ready to leave”, I would not ever be allowed to live with him again. I felt like I was losing so much at one time.
Things just got harder after I got out of the program. For two years everyone had moved on with life while I felt like I was in a time cocoon. A week before I graduated, my dad told me on a phone call that he divorced my stepmom of 12 years. I didn’t get to say goodbye to her or my two stepbrothers. They had been family to me for as long as I could remember. I didn’t find out that my mom and stepdad of fourteen years were getting divorced until my mom showed up for graduation without my stepdad. These divorces were such a shock to me because all I had was letters, where my parents made their life out to be just fine, it was all about ME, and what I was doing to do better in my life. You can’t see divorce coming if your not there for the warning signs, I hadn’t been able to emotionally prepare myself to lose four family members within a week because I hadn’t seen it coming WHATSOEVER. It was hard
to get out of the program with all their teachings that didn’t even fit into real life’s problems, on top of dealing with things that I had never had to deal with in my life.
Going back to a regular high school was the hardest thing. I hadn’t so much as talked to a boy in two years, I hadn’t even been allowed to look at boys. I hadn’t been allowed to talk freely, now I was listening to people talk CONSTANTLY. I could take Advil without opening my mouth to show someone I swallowed it, I could walk places by myself, look out windows, touch money, there were no more gates. I felt so dumb in school because school hadn’t been a priority in the program. We taught ourselves from old textbooks and took a test over the chapter after we read it. It was easy for me to get used to this kind of school, I blew through it making all A’s. They had to make me stop taking classes because I was moving too fast. At one point I was a teachers assistant and basically had the same responsibilities of the teacher. I graded and passed out tests and books, just like the teachers did. There were no projects, no papers, no homework, and no real teaching. I missed sitting in classes listening to teachers tell me about
things. I could have graduated four years of high school in under two years there, but they deleted classes that I took so that I could come home and be in my same graduating year, as by my mothers requests.
After I got home I lived in fear of getting sent back. My mom would try to use all the program’s teaching on me, and I would freak out every time she said anything that I had heard while I was in the program. I couldn’t even bear to think about it. If I had been in any trouble I would sleep with a knife under my bed because I knew my parents would call the escorts if they wanted to send me back. There was NO WAY IN HELL I would have gone voluntarily like I had the first time around. The escorts came and “kidnapped” kids in the middle of the night. They took them from their bed, handcuffed them, and took them to the school, all at the high price paid by the parents. After I turned eighteen and I couldn’t get sent back anymore, I started messing up. I skipped a lot of school and started getting messed up a lot. My mom constantly threatened to kick me out, but nothing worried me anymore because I was free of my fear of the program. Acting out was my way of finally feeling free of the program. I ended up learning my lesson and cleaning my act up and I learned my lesson ON MY OWN, like I would have learned my lesson if I wasn’t sent away for two years. I had never been given the chance to learn my lesson through experience, I got sent away the same month that I first experimented with cigarettes and pot and being a high school student.
I am now going to college in the fall, and many people ask me how I can manage to leave my family and go all the way across the country to go to college. I only answer in my head, and that answer is easy. My parents took me all the way across the country and left me for years, shuffling me from state to state, WWASP facility to WWASP facility, in my eyes they left me the moment they left me in my first facility and wouldn’t listen to any of my pleas for help. I pleaded in my letters even to be sent to juvie, I said please you can keep me punished, but please send me somewhere else to punish me, just send me to juvie. I don’t try to tell them how I feel about the program anymore because I tried so hard while I was there and they wouldn’t listen, and its too late for them to help me now, I’m already out.