Rough Love

Kids from South Florida and beyond are sent to Jamaica to straighten up. Or else.

Winston waded into the water and swam to a nearby peninsula. "I actually made it. But all over this peninsula there are cactuses, and by the time I [got] to the other side, I was already all cut up and shit, and I had stepped on so many cactuses and got bit by so many mosquitoes that I was just worn out. So I just said, 'Fuck it.'"

He was returned to Tranquility Bay by boat just as the sun was beginning to rise. He claims no medical treatment or bandages were offered, even though he had sprained his right ankle and his body was covered in cuts and bruises. As punishment, he was taken to an "observation placement" room. OP, one of the most controversial aspects of the WWASPS program, is where children are sent to reflect. Winston contends he was forced to lie on his stomach atop a towel on the floor — he was left for hours at a time with his head turned to one side, arms at his sides, palms up, and legs outstretched. He was forbidden to sleep, rise, move, or speak. Winston says he was allowed to stand only to eat meals, use the bathroom, and exercise.

"You lie down from when you wake up until you go to sleep, from six in the morning until probably nine o'clock at night," he says, running his fingers through his sandy brown hair. "One staff [would] kick my ankle 'cause he knew I had a sprained ankle."

Robert Neubecker
Robert Neubecker

Every 24 hours, he says, he was reviewed by staff. Failure to show remorse earned him another day in OP. He claims he was released back into the student population 46 days later. "I know 'cause I fucking counted the days," he scoffs. Shortly after he was let out, he misbehaved and was sent back; he claims to have spent another 77 days lying on his face.

Jay Kay said in 2003 that "the purpose of [OP] is to give the kids a chance to think.... 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." He also stated the length of stay is "in [the kids'] hands.... The record is actually held by a female," who, on and off, spent eighteen months in OP.

Shannon Levy-Rowley alleges she was sent to OP in early 2001 as punishment for a suicide attempt. "That's true," her mother confirms. "I was told during my weekly phone call with staff. I mean, for Shannon to try and jump off a balcony and try to commit suicide her first week there and for them to put her in observation placement where she has to lie on her stomach 24 hours a day, that's not how you treat somebody who has a problem."

Shannon claims she lay in an OP room with no ventilation and was constantly monitored. "If we had to go to the bathroom, we had to leave the door open so they could sit there and watch us," Shannon recalls. "I had gotten into a dispute with staff and I had gotten restrained for it and I was still crying.... I fell with all my weight onto the floor onto my chin. It split open and was bleeding.... I needed stitches, but they waited till the whole facility fell asleep to sneak me out to the hospital."

Shannon, who told her story to Montel Williams on his talk show, claims she complained of pain in her jaw for the following year but was largely ignored. "The information that I have doesn't indicate that was the case," WWASPS president Ken Kay states. "A lot of things, like records of weight and followups ... didn't indicate that she was having any problems."

But the Jamaican branch of UNICEF, the international children's-rights agency, wants Tranquility Bay to abolish the use of OP. "This kind of method is definitely something which is not in accordance with the convention on the rights of the child," says Bertrand Bainvel, head of UNICEF Jamaica. "There is a high possibility that it falls under the definition of child abuse."

Bainvel states the Jamaican Ministry of Education inspected TB and ordered children be given mats to lie on. WWASPS president Ken Kay says OP is no longer used. Kids are now given "time-outs," he says.

Twirling her long, straight hair around her small fingers outside a coffee shop in Plantation, Susie — who asked her name be changed — slowly shakes her head, grinning. The petite blond, now 22 years old, admits she was a boisterous teenager. But she says she never contemplated suicide until arriving at TB.

Susie was sent to TB in November 1997 in part for instigating fights at school. Her father was incarcerated when she was born, and her mother ran off when Susie was a toddler. Her grandparents raised her in Plantation. She was thirteen when her grandparents (who declined to be interviewed) sent her to Jamaica and recalls being, for most of her thirteen-month stay, the youngest person there.

A combination of things, Susie claims, drove her to attempt suicide. She contends the compound was filthy — raw sewage ran underfoot — and she was made to take cold showers. She claims she was often sent to bed without food because staff "ran out," and recalls spending most of her stay in OP. As punishment for bad behavior, she claims her incoming and outgoing mail was stopped, which left her feeling abandoned. She was not permitted to call home because she never made it past Level One.

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