Private Corrections Institute, Inc.

May 28, 2003
Orotina, Costa Rica - Shortly after stealing her father's credit card for a $2,500 shopping spree, high-school dropout Alexandra Slavis woke up before dawn in February to find strangers, a man and a woman, looming over her bed in Midwood, Brooklyn.  "They said ... 'You can go to jail or you can go to Costa Rica for a week's vacation,' " recalled Slavis, 17.  Slavis eagerly opted for the latter - but her escorts dropped her at Dundee Ranch Academy, a behavioral modification program for troubled U.S. teens whose regime was tougher than that of many New York jails.  Costa Rican authorities raided the school Thursday and announced they were investigating its owner, Narvin Lichfield, for alleged physical and psychological mistreatment of students. Yesterday, Lichfield announced he was closing the academy.  The implosion of Dundee Ranch opens a window on the flourishing tough-love industry, which increasingly is creating programs for troubled U.S. teens in foreign countries where the dollar goes further and oversight often is far weaker. Dundee Ranch was part of a Utah-based network - the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools, or WWASP. Two other foreign WWASP schools shut down and a third dropped out of the association in recent years. WWASP still operates 10 schools in Mexico, Jamaica and the United States, including Ivy Ridge Academy, near Ogdensburg in upstate New York.  As Dundee students were flown home or to other WWASP schools, Lichfield yesterday denied wrongdoing. "I'm a sinner or a saint, depending on which side of the story you're on," he said.  WWASP president Ken Kay defended his programs as "character-building in a structured environment."  Thomas Burton, the California attorney who filed lawsuits against WWASP affiliates, called the programs "private prisons" that are "neither educational nor therapeutic," even though they typically cost $30,000 a year. Dundee's purpose "is not to help teens in crisis or their families. It is to make millions of dollars for the owner," wrote Amberly Knight, the academy's director for six months until August, in a January letter to Costa Rican authorities.  Knight wrote that the school for a time gave students unfiltered drinking water that she suspected was the cause of widespread intestinal problems. She said it lacked staff trained to deal with at-risk youths and improperly restrained students - in one case dislocating a teen's shoulder. It kept them far longer than necessary to rake in extra tuition payments, Knight wrote, and hushed up the rape of a female staff member by a colleague.  (Newsday)

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