"Trickery at Tranquility Bay" - Ryan Pink, 1999
When I was fifteen years old I was expelled from Cy-Fair Independent School District in Houston, Texas, after two girls to whom I had sold LSD were hospitalized.
That was the fourth year in a row I had been expelled from school, the first time being in the sixth grade for possession of a controlled substance. The district had lost its patience with me.
I was ordered to attend a non-district school operated by the juvenile justice department. Only eighty kids from every district in the Houston metropolitan area – an area with a population over four million – attended the school. As I was introduced to the school, I was told by the police officer in charge "this is where we educate the future inmates of TDC."
The system had lost hope for me.
After several failed drug tests, and several charges of disorderly conduct, school officials informed my parents that I was going to be incarcerated by the state.
My parents had not lost hope for me.
Instead, they sought out a long-term rehabilitation facility where they could place me. Their choices were limited, but one organization seemed to be everywhere they looked. That organization was WASP.
I was enrolled in Carolina Springs Academy, a WWASP affiliate, in October of 1999. I was barely sixteen years old. I would not leave WWASP until two months before my eighteenth birthday. I spent six months at CSA. While I was there, any type of order on the boy's side of the facility was apparently non-existent.
I was able to get a hold of drugs and alcohol. I never went to school, and never cooperated with the program. Caroling Springs Academy was unable to control me. I was transferred to Tranquility Bay, another WWASP affiliate located in Jamaica, in April of 2000. My partying days were over. Tranquility Bay was a hard slap in the face. Tranquility Bay had none of the American comforts I had grown up with – warm water, air conditioning, adequate meals, washing machines, etc. Though I am going to attempt to, I could never accurately describe what it was like living at Tranquility Bay.
The following is a short story I won a citywide award for in El Paso. There were a few technical things I changed in the story – because leaving them in would have affected the flow of the paper. For example, the guards at Tranquility Bay were called "Family Fathers" and the units were referred to as "families." Each family had a positive name – like Respect or Honor. My family's name was Dignity.
(I wrote a poem once in which I described how ironic it was when I was standing silently in line, with my head forward, my face expressionless, my body covered in sores and liver spots - and "my father" was calling me dignity. You don't feel very dignified when you're hungry and tired and a man you barely know is screaming at you, "Dignity, line up!")
To save the pace of my story, I didn't clarify these things – I didn't use WWASP jargon. I used words outsiders could identify with. Words like "guard," "unit," and "inmates," but the conditions and events in the story are completely accurate. (Even those creepy audiotapes. I thought I was in some kind of sci-fi novel.)
Here it is:
Lessons in Obtaining Happiness and Inner Peace: A Typical Day in My Tropical Paradise. (An audiotape)
By habit, I was already awake before the screaming began. As soon as the wake up call started, I quickly reminded myself that I had become a machine, and I wasn't really there. The silent commotion began immediately. Two hundred young men spilled out into the hallway and outside into the courtyard to line up for headcount.
There was no talking; we were not allowed to speak during the daily schedule. We lined up in our units, and the guards began to count us. The totals were shouted into the radios to the guard who was working sickbed, and he tallied the count. The guard working with my unit motioned for us to head to the shower area.
The shower area consisted of an eighteen stall wooden shower with a single pipe running down the middle, spilling water out of eighteen separate holes. The water was cold. The guard let us know time was running, and he turned on the pipe.
We had three minutes to shower. I washed my body quickly and mechanically. When I was through, I stepped out of the shower and got back in line. We then headed towards the clothesline. We broke line to hang up our towels. Before I returned to line, I used the pipe by the ditch to brush my teeth and rinse the mud from my feet.
We went back to the dorm to do our room jobs. I was in charge of the floor in room 208, and I was good at it. I had mopped and swept every morning for the past eleven months.
It was a small room, a few square feet, and I was done rather quickly. I had a few spare minutes before we had to leave, and so I picked up my tattered copy of The Grapes of Wrath and read what I could. Most of my reading was done this way - only in bursts. I finished one page before we were called back into line.
We went to the classroom to listen to the morning audiotape. It was about the secrets of living a productive life. The same one we listened to yesterday. I took notes as I always did; there would be a quiz tonight to make sure we paid attention. The tape lasted thirty minutes.
We lined up for breakfast and headed down to the cafeteria. The meals were laid out on the table, and we walked in order, grabbing our plates. Breakfast was boiled cabbage and fish. The food itself didn't depress me any longer. I was used to it. I just wished that there had been more. There was never enough, and I was always hungry.
The guard put in the breakfast audiotape, and we ate in silence, listening to the tape. I was not able to take notes in the cafeteria, taking a pen out of the classroom was dangerous. If caught with one, there would be trouble. So I did my best to memorize a few key points from the tape over the fifteen-minute meal. "Based on results you have exactly what you intended." When time ran out, we stood as a line and stacked our plates by the kitchen door.
After breakfast we headed back up to the dorm to have a unit meeting with our case manager. There would be a few moments, maybe a minute, when we could have a hushed conversation of sentence fragments before the case manager came into the room.
When the unit filled up the room, we all sat around against the walls. The guard sat outside the door, writing up his shift change report. The young man next to me asked, through motions and whispers, if I had heard Litho being restrained last night.
I nodded to let him know that I had heard the restraint. Another guy joined in the conversation of grunts and gestures saying that he had heard Litho's nose had been broken, and he was taken to the doctor in Kingston this morning. I hadn't heard that.
The conversation ended abruptly when the guard stood up to come into the room. He wanted to know who was talking. We were silent, waiting for him to leave. His eyes scanned the room, moving from face to face, searching for a hint of guilt. All of us suddenly became very interested with things on the floor, or the back of our hands - avoiding all eye contact.
The guard stood in the center of the room until the case manager came in, carrying a plastic chair. She sat down, and for half an hour we were allowed to ask questions about our family and express medical concerns. We were not allowed to inquire about release dates. I told the case manager about my ringworm and the liver spots. A few more people complained about scabies and sprained muscles. She wrote everything down in her blue notebook and promised that it would all be taken care of. I knew she was lying.
When the meeting was over, we headed to room 204 for a bathroom run. This was the time to go if I needed to. I wouldn't get another opportunity until this evening. We stood in line outside the door and took turns going into the restroom. The guard gave us each eight squares of toilet paper before we entered the restroom. We had two minutes.
As soon as everyone was done using the restroom, we went back to the classroom for a period of school. There weren't enough teachers for every unit in the facility, and so we were expected to teach ourselves out of the textbook, a rather hopeless task when dealing with algebra.
If I was careful, I could sneak a chapter from The Grapes of Wrath, but if I were caught I would be placed in Staff Watch and on my face for a few days. Staff Watch was the disciplinary unit of the facility. The average stay was about one or two weeks. Inmates in Staff Watch spent the day lying on their faces, not allowed to move. If someone were to move repeatedly without permission, even to look up, he would be restrained.
His arms would be twisted behind his back, and his ankles ground into the linoleum floor. This was not a restraint by definition, but more of a cowardly beating which left no marks or bruises.
I hid my Steinbeck novel in between the pages of my algebra textbook and read what I could while the guard strolled around the classroom. I was careful not to become too involved in the book that I lost track of the guard's position. Yet I was also able to escape my reality as I read if only for a few moments.
I found my redemption in a word on a page in a book about repression. I was free.
We stayed in the classroom for two hours before heading outside for P.E. this was one of the upsides of the day. We could go outside the twenty-foot walls and play soccer in a large dirt field littered with rocks.
There were four guards placed around the field observing us. We had to chase several goats off of the field before play.
We played a particularly violent sort of soccer on this field. All the anger, frustration, and hatred stained energy inside of us found its way out of our bodies and onto the soccer field. We bit, kicked, pushed, tripped, spit, punched - we fought our way through soccer games as if we were fighting for our lives.
We were playing another unit and emotions were high. I was the goalie, and I was a good one. I attacked the ball like a rabid pit-bull, and if my head was kicked in the process, it was well worth it. Having a goal scored on me felt much worse than a swift kick in the teeth.
Our unit was a much better soccer team, and so the game went slowly for me. The ball stayed on the other side of the field most of the game. I talked a friend who was playing forward into trading positions for a few minutes. When I jumped into the middle of everything, I became an animal. I never learned how to properly kick a soccer ball, but I was an expert on running people over.
A hotshot guy from the other unit who used to play soccer in high school broke free with the ball and started down the field. Someone from our defense met him mid-field and ran his foot into the other guy's knee. The guy from the other unit immediately fell to the ground and grabbed at his knee.
The defensive back passed me the ball, and I ungracefully began to make my way up the field. I didn't see anyone run up behind me; I only felt a hand grab a fistful of my hair as I was thrown to the ground. I fell forward onto the dirt and rocks below me. I slid on my face a few feet, and the stones on the ground sliced up my face.
A brown cloud of dirt rose into the air, and I was blinded as I picked myself up off the ground. I was trying to wipe my eyes out when I was hit again - this time from the side. I hit the ground, and my elbow jammed into my ribs, knocking out what little breath I had left. I couldn't get back up. I was bringing myself up to a kneeling position when the guards called for a line. I had to shake off the pain and make it to the line before I got into trouble for making the unit late. I wiped the blood from my lip, stood up, and limped across the field into the line.
It was lunchtime. We went to the cafeteria and grabbed our plates. The guard put the lunch audiotape on, and we sat down to eat. Lunch was a bun and cheese. We had some powdered milk as well. The bun and cheese was my favorite meal. I slowly nibbled on my bun, savoring every last bit of flavor.
The lunch audiotape was about the keys to effective problem solving. I had heard it before, and so I disregarded it.
When lunch was over, we went to the dorms to get our clothes for laundry, and then headed to the clothesline. We each grabbed a bucket and filled it up with water from the pipe by the ditch. The guard poured a handful of soap into each one of our buckets, and we swished the water around to make the soapsuds thick. I didn't have a brush to wash my clothes, so I scrubbed with opposite sides of the clothing. When I was through, I rinsed my clothes and hung them up on the clothesline.
The sewage pipe that ran out of the facility was broken, and sewage leaked out of the pump and under the clothesline. If a strong wind came, my clothes would fall into the sewage. It was a risky situation. When we were finished with our laundry, we headed back up to the classroom for another period of school. I was able to pull off a few more pages from the Grapes of Wrath, but the guard was looking at me suspiciously, so I put the novel away and stared at my algebra book.
Screams broke out from Staff Watch. Someone was being restrained. Other than one of the new guys, none of us looked up from our book This was a normal thing.
I stared at the pages in my book and listened to the screams. He was begging for them to stop. I could hear them laughing. I wanted to cry, but I knew there would be trouble if I did. I reminded myself that I was a machine and that I was not really there. I cleared my face of any emotion and waited for dinner.
Dinner was pork and pork, was dangerous. The day after a pork meal always left me feeling as if I had swallowed a cup full of nails and glass. There was never any meat in the pork, only fat and bone, and I could see the hairs on the hide sticking up.
I ate all of it, and if I could have had more, I would have. I didn't care about tomorrow's pain; I was hungry now. I listened to the dinner audiotape - A Guide for Building Healthy Workplace Relationships - and memorized a few key points for the quiz tonight. "It is always fashionable to wear a smile on one's face." I could already feel the pork in my stomach begin to cause problems.
After dinner was music time. Music time was my time. For half an hour we were allowed to sing, one person at a time. I sang as much as I could. It was one of the few times I could allow myself that type pf freedom. I left that dirty room and all of the loneliness when I was singing. I was home when I was singing.
The guys in my unit liked it when I sang. My voice would fill the room with songs of freedom and redemption, songs about home, and songs about love, songs that could make us forget where we were - and just for that moment we were safe.
We were home.
Half an hour later, I found myself back in my tropical paradise, standing in line. It was in the evening, and that meant the day was almost over. We had one more audiotape and the quiz left. We went back to the classroom and listened to the audiotape: Lessons in Obtaining Serenity through Effective Problem Solving.
The evening tape was always the longest and hardest to listen to. It went on forever, pounding its lessons into my head. I was tired, and I just wanted to go to sleep.
When the tape was through, we wrote what we learned from each tape and turned the paper into the guard, who would give it to the case manager tomorrow morning. She would review my (copy/paste) and mark down in her book: "Student is making significant progress."
We lined up back in the courtyard for evening headcount. The guards counted us and yelled the totals into the radio to the guard-working sickbed. We went back upstairs to our rooms and into our beds. Someone in Staff Watch began to scream. I held back the tears and reminded myself that I had become a machine and I was not really there.
I hated to go to sleep because I always woke up again in the
By: Ryan Pink
Graduate of Tranquility Bay August 2001
Follow-Up from Ryan Pink:
Since graduating Tranquility Bay in August 2001, I have intentionally avoided all contact with the WWASP organization. My above factual story was so unbelievable, that the judges for the City Wide Literacy Competition mistook it for fiction.
I work for The El Paso Time writing for their sports section. I have been very successful and excited about my future. I am currently enrolled at El Paso Community College and have applied for transfers to larger Universities. I have the utmost confidence I will be accepted.
The reason I wanted to share how I've been doing is because I know that what I wrote could be easily dismissed as the ravings of a bitter, unsuccessful graduate lacking direction. That is far from true.
WWASP is a dishonest, immoral organization. Seems like a pretty hefty accusation considering that many have entrusted their children to this organization. "Hear no evil, speak no evil." I am alive and well and I was in the program for two years.
However, my results would have been the same if I spent those two years in a state facility where I was headed. The clever advertising and an arsenal of feel good self-help seminars (or elaborate infomercials) convinced my parents to place me at WWASP.
WWASP is capitalism at its absolute worst. The organization is not in the business of "healing families" they are in the business of making money. Preying on desperate parents and soaking their bank accounts dry.
When I stated I would have had the same results in a state facility, my parents, on the other hand, would not have. They would have a lot of extra money right now. You see, in a state facility, their taxes would pay for me. Ironically, I would have most likely received a better education and definitely would have been fed. So, in the long run, a state facility probably would have been better than WWASP and certainly cost effective.
I understand many of you will discount my story since it is dated August 2001, but read the *sworn testimony of graduates in August 2002. Doesn't sound like anything has changed, including the sewage leak.
El Paso, TX