Sheriff says his program scares youths into better behavior. Experts say it’s child abuse.
Sheriff’s deputies pushed them against jail-yard fences and shoved them to the ground. They yelled and cursed within inches of their faces. They forced them to run for long periods, ignoring pleas for breaks, until some vomited.
Receiving this treatment: Kids and teens — one was 8 years old.
None of the children were in custody for breaking the law. But their unruly behavior had troubled parents, who had asked deputies to teach them a tough lesson.
Since its inception in 2013, hundreds of boys and girls have been sent to ’“Project S.T.O.R.M.,” a jail program in Chester County, S.C., that is designed to scare at-risk kids into better behavior.
The Herald was given permission to observe Project S.T.O.R.M — short for Showing Teens Our Real Mission — in June 2018 and in January. The Herald and The Charlotte Observer then shared video of interactions between deputies and children with six experts. All six criticized the program. Five called the treatment child abuse.
“It is physical abuse,” said Kenneth Dodge, a child psychologist who formerly headed Duke University’s Center for Child and Family Policy. “...This tactic would be called torture if the prisoner were a member of the Taliban.”
Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood, who created the program, disputes that it is abusive. But in a recent interview with The Herald and The Charlotte Observer, he acknowledged that his deputies can be “pretty tough.” That, he contended, is what it takes to deter some youths from crimes that will lead to something far worse — prison.
Nationally, such programs gained new attention in 2011 after the launch of A&E’s “Beyond Scared Straight” program, which featured Chester’s Project S.T.O.R.M.
But many studies have found there’s a fundamental problem: The programs don’t work.
Some studies have concluded that such programs may actually increase juvenile crime. The U.S. Department of Justice does not support the programs.
Criminal justice researcher Anthony Petrosino has analyzed numerous studies about “Scared Straight” programs and said “the evidence is that it could be more harmful than good.”
Melissa Sickmund, director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice, agreed.
“If this was medicine, the FDA would say, you’re not allowed to put this on your shelf in the pharmacy,” Sickmund said.
‘Is it getting through your thick head?’
In the city of Chester, about 45 miles southwest of Charlotte, sheriff’s officials say they have two goals during their long weekends with youths in Project S.T.O.R.M.: Break them down physically and mentally, then build them back up.
On a 91-degree afternoon in June, eight boys first gathered on hot asphalt outside an old American Legion building and were forced to do sit-ups, squats and push-ups.
When the boys paused, deputies got in their faces and yelled or made them do tougher exercises.
The boys were handcuffed, driven to the Chester County jail and led to a fenced-in yard where they were again forced to do physical activities. Deputies pushed some against fences when they stopped for a break or started to cry.
“The same pain you are feeling is the same pain you are putting your parents through,” one deputy yelled.
One 12-year-old boy said he was sent to the program for smoking and stealing food. He appeared dazed and cried as he ran around the yard carrying an orange traffic cone above his head. Then he fell to the ground.
“I’m hyperventilating,” the child said.
The deputy grabbed the limp boy off the ground by his arm and pushed him against the fence. The deputy told him to quit “faking.” The boy continued to run around the jail yard, crying.
About an hour later, the boy struggled to follow instructions during an intense physical exercise inside the jail. A deputy grabbed him and berated him.
“Is it getting through your thick head?” the deputy yelled, while poking his finger in the child’s temple several times.
Another boy, 11, said he was there for stealing. He was overweight and struggled to run laps inside the jail, complaining that he could not breathe. A deputy grabbed his arm and forced him down the steps. The boy appeared to have urinated in his pants.
Underwood says his deputies have to get tough to deliver the message.
“So these guys, they’re going to yell at them,” he said. “They’re going to be real strong with them.”
In some cases, he said, he’s had to chastise deputies who weren’t tough enough with girls in the program.
Inmates also play a key role in Project S.T.O.R.M., telling the young participants in blunt terms about the realities of jail life.
In one episode of “Beyond Scared Straight,” an inmate in Chester County told an 11-year-old boy named CJ: “Back here, locked up behind these walls, you will be somebody’s girl. When they use the toilet, you will wipe their behind.”
At night, the children in the June program were awakened early for physical exercise and got little sleep, according to sheriff’s Lt. Johnny Neal, who oversees the program. The sleep they did get was on a “hard metal slab,” Neal said. In January, they had thin mattresses.
Toward the end of the two-day program, the deputies soften, telling the participants to open up about their problems and encouraging them to take a better path. In January, one deputy told the them “you can do it.” Another said he was proud of them and offered a truant child a ride to school in the mornings.
The children also were ordered to write letters to their parents. “I’m mad, I’m sad and I’m in pain,” said one 12-year-old boy as he wrote his letter.
Deputies also try to improve the skills of parents, who are required to attend a 90-minute parenting class while their children go through the program.
“Because obviously what they’ve been doing hasn’t worked,” Underwood said.
‘This is my house!’
Nationally, prison-awareness programs — aimed at deterring youths from criminal behavior — proliferated after the airing of the 1978 documentary “Scared Straight!” Those programs waned after academic studies found they were ineffective.
But more cropped up following the 2011 launch of A&E’s much-watched “Beyond Scared Straight” program.
No agency tracks how many of those programs exist nationwide. But most are run by local law enforcement agencies and are not regulated by state or federal government, experts say.
Underwood launched Project S.T.O.R.M. in 2013, soon after becoming sheriff. He has had a challenging job. Chester, a county of 32,000 residents, was battered decades ago by the closing of textile mills. It is now one of South Carolina’s poorest counties and its violent crime rate is above average.
And by 2013, it had become clear that “people committing crimes were getting younger and younger and younger,” Underwood said. Chester County had 81 criminals cases involving juveniles in the 2016-2017 fiscal year — a 56 percent increase over the previous year, according to the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice.
In 2014, “Beyond Scared Straight” propelled Underwood’s program into the national spotlight.
In one episode that year, a lanky 16-year-old named Daniel got into a verbal confrontation with a Chester County sheriff’s deputy. When Daniel failed to squat as instructed, the deputy grabbed his shirt and forced him to the ground.
Four deputies wrestled with the teen and one shouted into his ear: “You don’t come into my house and disrespect me. This is my house! You ain’t nothing but a (expletive deleted) guest.”
A deputy then barked an instruction: “Roll over on your back and put your thumb in your mouth like a little baby.”
Soon, Daniel was lying on his back, sobbing.
‘A reset button’
About 700 participants ages 8 to 17 have been through Project S.T.O.R.M., according to Robert Sprouse, chief deputy of the Chester County sheriff’s office. Many live in the county, but some have come from as far away as Texas and California.
Most are enrolled by their parents and have no arrest records. But some belong to gangs, and many have been suspended from school for fighting, stealing and other infractions.
Underwood said officials try to screen out youths with medical and mental health problems. But a Herald reporter spoke with the mothers of three boys in the program who said their sons had been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) before they attended their sessions.
Underwood says the deputies in Project S.T.O.R.M learn from observation but get no formal training. He said he had no documents that describe how the program is supposed to be run.
“I don’t want everybody to know how we do our program,” the 6-foot-4 sheriff said with a laugh. “You can eat the cake. But I’m not going to tell you how I made it.”
Parents are charged $75 to enroll their children — money that goes toward food, clothing and other operating costs, sheriff’s officials say. But Underwood said he and his deputies care so passionately about the mission that they do the work for free.
After youths leave the program, deputies follow up with their parents, Underwood said. So far, he said, only a small percentage have reported that their children got into trouble afterward. Children have let him know how much they learned from the program, he said. Sheriff’s officials could not provide documents or exact statistics showing how youths fared after leaving the program.
“Once they leave here, they pretty much have a reset button,” Underwood said. “…They know what it’s like and they don’t want to come here.”
One 15-year-old in the January session said he was “going down the wrong path” by lying, stealing and being disrespectful to his parents. On the first day of the program, he said, he wanted to leave. But by the second day, he realized his parents “sent me here for a reason.”
The teen said when he returned home, he was going to apologize to his parents. “I will try my best to change,” he told a Herald reporter.
‘A birthday he won’t forget’
Not all parents have seen their children change for the better, though.
One mother dropped her son off at Project S.T.O.R.M. in January, on his 14th birthday.
“I am hoping it will be a birthday he won’t forget and he’ll take this and start doing what he needs to do,” she said after dropping him off.
The teenager had been suspended from school after lying, stealing and getting bad grades.
“I have tried therapy, counselors, trying to get resources out of school, and no one or nothing is helping,” the mother said.
Two weeks after going through the program, her son was back in trouble. He’d been accused of stealing a computer from school. He had also climbed out of his bedroom window in the middle of the night. She started using surveillance cameras to monitor him.
Another mother said her 12-year-old son had been suspended from school multiple times for fighting and for destroying a computer. Putting him through the weekend program, she said, was “a last resort.” Shortly after a Herald reporter showed her video footage of the program, the mother said she wished the deputies had not told her son he could come home so quickly. That way, she said, the program might have had a bigger impact on him.
Several days after her son returned home from Project S.T.O.R.M., the mother said she noticed no improvement and wondered if he “accomplished anything” during his stay.
Michael Teague, a psychologist who in the early 1990s was in charge of providing mental health treatment to teens in North Carolina’s youth prisons, said that discipline and structure can be good for delinquent youths. But if officers demean or physically threaten youths, such programs can do more harm than good, he said.
Teague, who now runs his own psychology practice in Raleigh, questions the wisdom of using a military boot-camp approach with youths. Boot camps aren’t designed to make soldiers better people, he noted. They are designed to make them better soldiers.
“Is that what we want?” Teague asked. “For (these youths) to become better killers?”
Shakial Johnson, of Chester, went through Project S.T.O.R.M several years ago. Now 20 and a father of three, he says the program has proved to be “no major factor” in his life. He said he was incarcerated by the time A&E aired the “Beyond Scared Straight” episode that featured him in 2014.
Since 2016, Shakial has been arrested several times, for charges including burglary, assault and unlawfully carrying a pistol.
“Jail ain’t nothing I ain’t used to,” he said.
Observer Staff Writer Gavin Off contributed.