Illustrations by Marc Holmes.
I was a pretty normal kid, for the most part. I grew up in Maryland as the fifth of seven children. My parents were devout Christians and spoke of God often. I loved being outside, so I played in the woods behind my house, climbing trees and building forts.
I never really liked school, and I got in trouble a lot as a kid—but never for anything too serious. As a teenager, I pretty much dicked around. If I did go to school it was to hang out or find my friends so we could skip school and smoke weed. Instead of going to high school, I enrolled in a home-schooling program and worked full time, chopping wood and other various jobs.
Around 15, I got some different friends, then got into heavier drugs and drinking. I was getting arrested and had a lot of attitude. I would mouth off to cops’ faces. My friends and I were dealing coke and other illicit substances out of my room, which I had locked with several screwed-in padlocks. I wasn’t listening to anyone and wanted to get my own place to continue distributing. Looking back, I can’t believe how I was acting. My brother is that age now, and if I saw him act the way I did, I would smack him in the face with a shovel. By 16 I was slipping away, and it was putting a huge strain on my girlfriend and my family.
I remember the night it happened. It was a regular, calm night. I was hanging out with my sister and dad, before falling asleep on the couch in my boxers. At around two or three in the morning, two guys burst in the front door and held me down. I tried fighting back, but they were both twice my size. They told me they were from West Ridge Academy and that they now had legal guardianship over me. They grabbed my pants from my room and carried me to their idling van, where they sat on either side of me and put the child-locks on. As they were carrying me out I saw my dad in the hallway. “I’ll tell your friends you’re out in Utah now,” he said. I remember looking at him like, “I’m gonna make sure you never forget this.”
They drove me to the airport, my ticket already procured, and got onto the flight with me to Utah. No one said a word to each other. As I sat on the plane, I felt the anger building up inside me. Halfway through the flight I went to the bathroom and just broke down. I put my head against the wall and freaked out for a few minutes before silently walking back to my seat.
I got to the campus in the woods in the middle of nowhere and saw a bunch of kids walking in single file lines in different colored shirts. They didn’t explain anything to me, except that I couldn’t contact anyone. They just stripped me down, took my necklace off, shaved my head, and put a bright yellow crew shirt on me. I was now a part of West Ridge Academy youth residential treatment center.
When I got there it was lunchtime, so I went to the meal hall with everyone else who had a yellow shirt on. We were told that we couldn’t talk to anyone. So, I sat there eating in silence and looked around. To my right, this kid had his head down on the table not eating, just looking completely defeated and depressed. To my left, another kid was just staring at his food, not eating either. I learned later that this was the start of his hunger strike and that his plan was to get sent to the hospital so he could escape from there.
After lunch we were put to work clearing a field for a baseball diamond they wanted to make. We worked in silence until it was dinnertime, after which we were told to shower before bed. In the shower I broke down again, harder this time. It all became very real; I felt like I was thrown in a river with no way out. My anger turned into this sorrow and self-pity, a deep loneliness. When it was time for bed they showed us to a big, empty room. The 15 or so of us lie down on the cheap carpet and tried to sleep. A few staff sitting on chairs watched us all night. Surrounded by other people breathing in the dark, I never felt so alone in my entire life.
Every kid wore one of four colors, depending on how much trust they had in you. You start off with yellow, which means you have no privileges. For the first few weeks I dug holes, worked in the fields, and scrubbed toilets all day. I wasn’t allowed to speak to anyone, and no one was allowed to speak to me except for staff. I worked, ate, and slept. Someone was watching me 24/7—even when I went to the bathroom. It sucked. The best part of my day was walking from one job to another. We walked in a single file line, hands behind our back, and I got to be alone with my thoughts for a moment.
All I could think of during those first few weeks was, “How the hell do I get out of here?” They told me nobody had ever successfully escaped from West Ridge, but that kids tried all the time. I heard stories about escape attempts gone horribly wrong and started to believe it. They have ties with the local police system, and the way they monitored us was pretty incredible. Someone checked up on us every hour of the night with a flashlight, and the doors to our cabins were tripped with alarms. If you wanted to go to the bathroom, a staff member had to deactivate the alarm with a code and escort you to and from the toilet.
I had gone from this cocky kid who listened to no one, made his own rules, and did whatever he wanted, to basically being someone’s bitch. They had complete control over everything I did. I was stuck at this place, following orders, unable to talk to anyone, and with no idea when or how I would ever get out.
I learned pretty quickly that fighting back wasn’t gonna get me anywhere. Anyone who broke the rules—showing up late, not standing up straight, not tucking your shirt in, not being clean shaven, talking back to staff, showing disrespect—were subjected to humiliating punishment. They made you do push-ups, run laps, stand in the corner with your head against the wall, or, if it was really bad, put you back into a yellow shirt. If you showed disrespect to a female staff, you were completely screwed. They instilled a type of fear in us; the more you resisted the worse off you were gonna be. So I kept my mouth shut and bent over, so to speak, when I needed to.
About 10 years ago, West Ridge Academy was known as Utah Boys Ranch. The punishments used to be way worse. You’d hear about how they used to have Tuesday night therapy sessions for homosexuals where they would "treat" their urges by putting IcyHot on their own genitals. You’d hear horror stories of physical abuse. I didn’t know whether to believe them or not. You could never be completely sure why someone was there, but we suspected some were still at West Ridge because they were gay.
When it was Utah Boys Ranch, it was a Mormon camp. They used to have to read the Book of Mormon and confess their sins to a bishop. We were encouraged to read the book and talk to the bishop, but it was optional when I was there. West Ridge still retains Mormon values, but you don’t have to be a Latter-day Saint to go there. Along with a "tough love" attitude, they used a combination of Mormon values and Alcoholics Anonymous methods to treat kids. If you were a devout Christian you probably would get out slightly sooner.
I stayed in a little house with ten or so other teenagers, who were all in the same boat as me. A lot of them had trouble with drugs and authority, and some of them were mentally unstable. Some were court-ordered to be there. Some were sexual deviants, like they had committed bestiality or other acts. One kid used to draw with his own shit on the wall. We called him Poocasso.
Poocasso at work.
Everyone appreciated everyone else’s frustration, and that sense of going through something together helped us. Your progress was assessed by your head counselor, who had the final say over what happened to you. He could get you into a different shirt and, one day, send you home.
Every house was joint-run by a married Christian couple and an assistant. We woke up early and said prayer every morning, cleaned our sleeping space, and then went to the dining hall for breakfast. We helped prepare breakfast or clean the kitchen afterwards, depending on which house you were in. After that, if you were privileged enough you went to class. Since I was still in work crew, I still just did labor all day. We went to bed every night at 10:30. There was pretty much nothing in our rooms except beds so that we couldn’t hurt ourselves.
A few weeks in, my counselor met with me and told me I was going to be transferred to the outdoor program, which is where I heard they sent the worst kids. I hadn’t been that bad, so it surprised me. The next morning they took me and two or three other kids up to the mountain with backpacks. We started off with group team-building activities, like walking together tied by ropes. We slept outside every night and would hike miles around the mountains and Utah desert every day. At the end of each week we would stock up on our weekly food rations at the small convenience store at the mountain base and head back up. Every so often, they would take us all out separately to a random place in the woods and leave us there for three days. You were supposed to write in your journal, pray, and have time alone with your thoughts.
The first time, they took me out into the mountain around midnight and said, “Stay here. We’ll come back and get you.” I woke up in the morning completely disoriented like, “What the hell is this?” and tried to find someone else. I walked for hours and started to get worried. I ran into someone else from the outdoor program in the woods who told me they thought I was trying to escape and had set the search and rescue helicopters on me. I remember thinking how intense the helicopters were and really believing that the security was as serious as they said it was. The next time they left me in the forest alone, I stayed where I was.
They brought me back to campus after a few weeks, and upon getting positive feedback from the outdoor staff, my counselor put me in a green shirt. I could now talk to other campers and go to class. We went to church every Sunday. Like I said, West Ridge was strongly religious—mostly Mormon—but they let you choose your own denomination at church as long as you prayed and told them about it. I still hadn’t spoken to anyone from the outside, and since I had no internet, phone, or computer, I had little idea what was going on in the real world.
About a month in, when I was really bitter, I wrote a letter to my parents. I told them that I had changed, that I had seen what I’d done wrong, that I was willing to live differently and just wanted to come home. I wanted to know what was going on with my friends and girlfriend. Mostly, I wanted to go home. My councilor read the letter and withheld it, deciding that I wasn’t sincere. A few months later I got a letter from my girlfriend, which was the first contact I had had with the outside. They had read her letter too and waited months until they thought I was ready to see it. Eventually, I was able to write back and forth to people, and my friends started sending me letters.
As I moved up to blue shirt, I figured out which staff not to piss off. A few of the staff were there specifically just for discipline and security, and they definitely were taking advantage of the power trip. The vice principal was the wrong guy to annoy. We were eating breakfast one time, and he thought we were being too rowdy so he flipped over the table and yelled, “EVERYONE OUTSIDE, NOW!” We went outside in our t-shirts and pants, single file in the snow, and he started drilling us like it was boot camp. He made us run laps around camp, and he would stop the slowest one to get them into the pushup position. He did that until there was one runner left, and then everyone got down and did pushups in the snow. We had to make sure our clothes didn’t get dirty because that meant more pushups, so we stuck our hands in the snow and kept going until he told us to stop.
Another time, the staff heard a rumor that there were drugs on campus, so they got everyone into the cafeteria and told us to lie down on our stomachs with our hands behind our backs. We lie there for three and a half hours while he cut open mattresses and looked in every crevice until he found it. Some of the campers were starting to get pissed off towards the end and were talking back to the staff. Every staff on duty was in the cafeteria, in case the 150 or so of us tried to use our number against them.
One kid had a perfect track record, had been promoted to red shirt, and was ready to graduate—to go home. A few days before his release, he got in an argument with the principal and punched him in the face. The principal slammed him onto the ground and put him into a chokehold until he stopped resisting. The kid was pretty big, maybe 180 pounds, but the principal was more like 260 and had been getting in fights with kids for a long time. We all stood there shocked, knowing that one wrong step and we could get in trouble too.
I started getting used to the place. I went on a streak of good behavior and not making mistakes. I was able to call home once in a while, and they even let me visit my brother, who lived a few hours away on some weekends. When I called my parents I made an effort to sound happy, because any lashing out would set me months backwards. I was able to read all of the letters my girlfriend was sending me, and write back without getting censored. I got promoted to red shirt, which is the highest you can get. I was delegating tasks to other kids and was the leader of my house. I was still purely just motivated by the desire to get out of there, but it was becoming easier. They started talking to me about graduating, and one day I packed up and left.
"I can't attribute everything I am to West Ridge, but I'm happy."
I got home on April 29, 2007. It had been almost a year, and I was 17 now. I was officially the son of my parents again. I still had a little bit of resentment towards them but genuinely had missed them. Mostly it was just nice to be out of West Ridge. I hadn’t seen my girlfriend in a long time, so that was a big deal. I finished up a few more homeschool credits and graduated high school that year. For a little while I started down a self-destructive path again but had the clarity this time to see it for what it was and change it.
Sometimes I get asked if it was worth it, if it is a good program. It worked, but it took a long time to work. At the time I hated it, but good things have come from it. The outdoor program inspired me to pursue my love for nature, and I’ve hiked over 1,200 miles since. The experience gave me an appreciation for my freedom and taught me how useful it is sometimes to keep my mouth shut. As for my parents, they really were just worried and had good intentions, however radical the outcome was.
It definitely sucked—I advocate standing up for yourself and not compromising your principles, but I’m not sure what would have happened if I hadn’t gone. A few of the friends that I had have since gone to jail, passed away, or have unwanted children. It’s just a lifestyle you can’t sustain after a certain point. I can’t attribute everything I am now to West Ridge, but I’m happy—I’m close with my family and don’t battle with drugs and alcohol anymore.
I went to University of Maryland for a bit afterwards, but didn’t want to get a bachelor's degree just to say I got one. I wanted to go in with some vocation and purpose. So I’m going out west now to study construction management. My dream is to one day build my own house.