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Digital Subscriptions > Newsweek International > 10th March 2017 > THE JESUS GULAG

THE JESUS GULAG

A Christian school for troubled youth was supposed to treat teens for drug addiction and mental health problems. But its extreme, fundamentalist program trapped them in a brutal world of forced nudity and sadistic beatings

It was October 2011, and Captain Charles Kennedy, a veteran policeman, was in the main office at the Restoration Youth Academy (RYA), a Christian home for troubled teens in Prichard, Alabama, when he caught a glimpse of something shocking on a closed-circuit monitor: a naked boy crouching in a isolation room as a light bulb shone above him.

GOD AWFUL: Solid Rock Ministries in Mobile, Alabama. Three oicials from the church’s program for troubled teens were convicted in January 2017 of aggravated child abuse.

Kennedy had been waiting for William Knott, the program’s manager, to return with some paperwork, and when he did, Kennedy asked about the boy, whose name he later learned was Robert. He wanted to know what the boy had done to deserve such treatment. Knott, a squat, powerfully built ex-sailor, calmly explained: “He’s got an attitude. He’s only been there for a day, and he’ll be there for another day or two.”

When Kennedy said, “Can’t you give him some clothes?” Knott ofered only a vague answer.

Kennedy had been investigating RYA for little more than a week, spurred by complaints by parents of kids in the program. RYA’s executives had promised parents “hope for their teenagers’ future, when hope doesn’t seem possible,” per its website. And many were grateful for that. “I was scared I would ind my son hanging from a rope or dead from a needle,” says Leslie Crawford, from South Portland, Maine, who paid $1,500 a month to send her truant, drug-using son to RYA.

“THERE IS MORE CONCERN ABOUT CHICKENS ON A POULTRY FARM IN ALABAMA THAN FOR CHILDREN!”

But what Kennedy found behind the school’s forbidding metal gates disturbed him. Knott had provided a tour of interconnected mobile homes and an adjoining cafeteria filled with quiet, unsmiling children. Afterward, he had allowed Kennedy to speak alone with one of the boys whose mother had called him. That’s when he learned firsthand about the teenagers’ accusations of abuse. As he investigated, he found that many of the school’s “cadets” were afraid to talk. But those who did left Kennedy with the impression that he had stumbled across something terrible. Boys told him they were often grabbed out their beds at night and forced to fight one another until one was beaten to a pulp. All of them were subjected to a brutal, daily regimen of exercises, sometimes naked pushups, jumping jacks and running in place. Drill instructors, including Knott, frequently punched or choked them as they worked out. On his first day in the program, one boy claimed, Knott crouched next to him, and, after yanking his head up by his hair, started pounding his skull against the floor while shouting, “You will exercise until I get tired!” Another told Kennedy he had been held upside down in shackles and hit with a belt, an allegation later supported by an eyewitness letter by another teen. (Newsweek has either provided anonymity to minors in the program or changed their names to protect their privacy.)

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