LAST CHANCE IN TEXAS
The Redemption of Criminal Youth
By John Hubner
Random House 2005
Book Review by Karen S. Austin
Journalist John Hubner was given unprecedented access to the Giddings State School in Texas. This facility is known as one of the most aggressive--and most successful--treatment programs for violent young offenders in the United States. Giddings is home to "the worst of the worst": four hundred teen offenders convicted of crimes ranging from aggravated assault to murder. Hubner observed group sessions through a one-way mirror and also spent much time speaking with the teens. He checked the events reported and the narratives of the youths against police records, interviews with victims of the crimes and case files. Youths who fail to meet the tough criteria for parole from Giddings will be sent to adult prisons to serve out long sentences, hence the "Last Chance" in the title.
The underlying philosophy is that if youth offenders are simply put in a cell to "do time", all they have to do is sit there and feel sorry for themselves. This is "easy time". They convince themselves that they have been wronged. In contrast, Giddings looks like a prep school. However, the kids do hard time. They have to face themselves and deal with the events that got them there. They examine what they did and take responsibility for it. The result is the key: KIDS WHO GO THROUGH THAT DO NOT GO OUT AND REOFFEND. A three year study tracked graduates of the Giddings Capital Offenders program. After thirty-six months on parole, only 10 percent had been rearrested for a violent offense and only 3 percent were rearrested for a violent crime in the year following their release. In contrast, a California study showed a recidivism rate of 74 percent within 3 years for youth serving prison time.
This is not a comfortable book to read. These children have grown up to inflict on others the violence and abuse that was inflicted on them. At Giddings they participate in traumatic group therapy sessions where they recount their own sufferings and their crimes. The outpourings of suffering and anger lead to remorse and ultimately to empathy. An especially moving and effective part of the process is the participation by some parents of murdered children. These courageous parents share their stories--and their grief--with these young criminals, allowing the teens to truly grasp the pain they have caused their victims. This type of confrontation is what opponents of the teen help industry believe is abusive. The Giddings program shows how powerful and effective it can be.
What struck me were the many similarities to the treatment techniques used in the teen help programs such as emotional growth boarding schools, wilderness programs and substance abuse treatment centers. Some of the main components appear to be firmly rooted in well-accepted principles of cognitive-behavioral therapy; other techniques are considered unproven by mainstream psychologists. It has been difficult to isolate its many components in a way that would allow rigorous therapeutic research. Giddings, just like many teen help programs, relies on a connection among every aspect of the program. Every behavior, whether in the classroom, the lunchroom or the athletic field, is checked and evaluated. If two students scuffle, they are separated, everyone grabs a chair, forms a circle and tries to figure out what happened and why. In the group sessions, tough, hardened kids will be sitting with arms around each other or stroking another person's hair. They have learned to give and receive affection in a way that they were unable to do growing up.
I would recommend this book as a "must read" for any parent with a struggling teen. It allows great insight into the pain of the most extreme young criminals. There is horror, but there is also joy and progress. There are results that are not always explainable and techniques used that may appear extreme and painful to the participants. "Last Chance" defines the feelings many parents have as they make the difficult decision to send their child to a residential program. Hubner's book shows that there is ALWAYS hope.
[Karen Austin practiced law in Texas for 25 years. She learned of the Giddings program during a seminar on Forgiveness and its role in the criminal justice system and the litigation of torts. She is the parent of a son who attended two emotional growth programs from 2003-2004 and who is now a freshman in college and a daughter who is a senior in college. Her personal mission since 2003 has been to help other parents with struggling teens through outreach in her community as well as through on-line message forums. She recently moved to Nashville, Tennessee where she practices law and continues her support work in her new community.]