Teens Abused and Imprisoned in Drug “Treatment”
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Teens Abused and Imprisoned in Drug “Treatment”

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Imagine being held captive for 12 hours in a large warehouse where you are required to sit perfectly still and completely upright in a chair, and if you slouch slightly those around you will sit on every part of your body—five or more teenagers—your calves, your thighs, your back, your arms and your face. You won’t be able to breathe, they’ll cover your mouth and they might bust your ribs, but you won’t be able to see a doctor.

Now imagine that you must sleep in a locked room with an alarm on the door (for only three or four hours), you are not allowed to shower without someone watching, you are rarely allowed to use the restroom, you pee all over yourself and get multiple bladder infections, you are completely sleep deprived and then have to go back to the warehouse and keep your eyes open for 12 hours, unless you want the kid sitting next to to pry your eyelids open with their fingers.

A Clockwork Orange for Drug-Addicted Teens

This was life at Straight, Inc., a “drug treatment” facility that opened in 1976, closed down in 1993, and had outposts in California, Virginia, Texas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Georgia, Maryland, Ohio and Florida. Publicly backed by Nancy Reagan and the Bush Sr. administration, the facility weathered a huge share of criticism, lawsuits and even a 20/20 expose in 1983 and a similar examination on 60 Minutes in 1985. But the “survivors” of Straight Inc., adults who spent their teen years trapped in a literal inescapable hell and fortunate enough to not have committed suicide (as many have) are still telling their stories.

An Investigative Journalist Puts Out a Podcast

Huffington Post investigative journalist Jason Cherkis posted a podcast on January 30 that interviews former Straight victims and their parents. The tales are harrowing, and it’s near-impossible to believe that what transpired in the Straight Program could have possibly taken place on US soil in the 70s and 80s, given the fact that so many of their practices were completely illegal.

Run by Art Barker, a failed stand-comedian and AA member (who obviously misunderstands AA), Straight Inc. utilized “peer pressure” to kick kids off drugs—even though many who attended didn’t have drug problems to begin with—in an effort to mimic the way peer pressure supposedly led kids to take drugs in the first place. Barker pulled in $3,000 per kid.

Behind Closed Doors

We all know what it’s like to want to be a part of, and sure, maybe when we were 14 we smoked some weed because everyone was doing it. But at Straight Inc, peer pressure means something else entirely.

At the facility, newbies were called newcomers, and teens who had been in the program a few months were called “oldcomers.” The oldcomers screamed and berated the newcomers, telling them they weren’t worth anything, and monitored their day-to-day actions to make sure they were staying in line.

“He wouldn’t let me sleep if I didn’t so certain things, or if I didn’t do my so-called moral inventory,” says a Straight survivor named Mark.

Trapped

The teens weren’t allowed to leave Straight Inc.,which is against the law, regardless of whether or not they’re minors. From 10 am to 10 pm they sat in a warehouse in the same chair, flapping their arms like chickens to be picked to share—and “sharing” meant yelling about how screwed up they were as human beings. Then they spent their evenings at a “Straight House” sponsored by parents of teens who also were in the program. Here they were kept captive and locked in their rooms, unable to communicate with the outside world, and even eat when they needed to.

“It was very monotonous, hypnotic, confrontational, physically painful, and no one was getting enough food or water,” says Mark.

Listener Discretion Advised

Check out the full-length podcast to hear all the gritty details and the devastating personal stories. As Virginia Slims used to say, we’ve come a long way baby.

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About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.