Give Me That Old Time Religion: Cruel and Usual Punishment inside Christian Homes for Troubled Teens
From the very beginning of juvenile “correctional” institutions religion has been one of the driving forces. Religion played a key role in the development of the New York House of Refuge in the early 1800s, as it did throughout the history of American prisons for both youths and adults. The reformers of the late 18th and early 19th century spent a good deal of time and energy complaining about the “moral decline” of the country. Little wonder that “immorality” would be a common charge leveled against juveniles (particularly girls) throughout the 19th century and beyond. In fact, the first institution for youths was St. Michael's Hospice in Rome in the late 1700s. In a fascinating, but often neglected article, Thorsten Sellin described the historical development of this institution as follows:
Its origin goes back to some of the earliest attempts made in Rome to combat the increasing pauperism and the mendicity accompanying it. To its history, no fewer than six separate institutions made important contributions: the home for boys founded by Leonardo Ceruso, called II Letterato, in 1582; the hospice for the poor, erected by Pope Sixtus V, in 1586-1588; the home for boys founded by Tomasso Odescalchi in 1684; the orphanage for girls and the home for the aged poor, founded by Pope Innocent XII in 1693; the house of correction for boys, founded by Pope Clement XI in 1703; and, the house of correction for women, founded by Pope Clement XII in 1735.
Throughout the ensuing history of institutions for dealing with juvenile offenders religion has played a role. I had often wondered why this continuous belief that something magical would take place when offenders were placed inside huge “edifices.” What was the reasoning behind this belief? The short answer is that the idea came from the use of monasteries to sort of “cure the soul” of sin. This makes perfect sense because the original design of early institutions was based upon the notion of the offender as a “sinner.” The Quakers, who helped create the famous “Pennsylvania plan” of prisons (starting with the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia), firmly believed in this and their prisons reflected this belief. The offender was allowed only the bible to read and the only outside visitors were ministers. In fact the name “penitentiary” comes from the word “penance.”
As most of those who have attended Catholic schools are aware of, religion can be very punitive. In fact, one could make an argument that religion by definition if punitive, as one is taught to be fearful of “God’s wrath” when they sinned. A recent study found a strong correlation between religiosity and punitive attitudes toward offender. This is nothing new, previous research has consistently found this to be true.
So it should come as no surprise to learn that across the country several “homes for troubled teens” operated under the auspices of religious organizations have come under close scrutiny for extreme harshness. One of the most recent revelations centers around some homes in Missouri and elsewhere. An excellent article has been released that exposes some harsh treatment within several so-called “Christian” homes.
The article begins with a program called New Beginnings Ministries. One girl who was sent here “testified that she was monitored day and night by two ‘buddies,’ girls who'd been there awhile and knew the drill. They accompanied her to the shower and toilet, and introduced her to a life of communal isolation and rigid discipline. Girls were not allowed to converse except from 6 to 9 p.m. each Friday. They were not allowed contact with their families during their first month, or with anyone else for six months.” She said that “most girls are ‘broken,’ having been told that their families have abandoned them, and that the world outside is a sinful, dangerous place where girls who leave are murdered or raped.” The article further notes that “The girls' behavior was micromanaged down to the number of squares of toilet paper each was allowed; potential infractions ranged from making eye contact with another girl to not finishing a meal.” The girl told the writer that she “suffered from urinary tract infections and menstrual complications,” and said “she was frequently put on redshirt, sometimes dripping blood as she stood. She was also punished with cold showers, she said, and endless sets of calisthenics after meals.”
This story is found at the very beginning of this article. In a follow-up commentary I will provide more examples of such cruel treatment.