Paradise lost: Pupils complain of life in Jamaican boot camp

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The Independent Online

Its website shows palm-lined tennis courts, a swimming pool and rooftop views of the ocean, and promises parents of problem teenagers the solution to their problems: sending their children to a camp in Jamaica to learn to behave.

Its website shows palm-lined tennis courts, a swimming pool and rooftop views of the ocean, and promises parents of problem teenagers the solution to their problems: sending their children to a camp in Jamaica to learn to behave.

But the American-run Tranquility Bay camp on a remote corner of the Caribbean island faces growing allegations of mistreatment from former pupils and their families. In the latest case, a London boy, 12, was withdrawn by his parents after just five weeks when he complained about staff violence. His mother accuses the camp of "abusing children".

Tranquility Bay is said to have the harshest regime of seven similar camps linked to an organisation called the World Wide Association of Speciality Programs, based in St George, in Utah. It sells itself to American, and some British, parents as a last resort for their troubled offspring, sent there for anything from sexual assault, gun crime and drug abuse to having a bad attitude.

For £19,000 a year, it claims to provide a progressive, tailored education that will transform troubled teenagers into social and academic successes.

In the past few years, WWASP-linked camps in Costa Rica, Mexico and the Czech Republic have closed or been shut down by local authorities after investigations into claims of physical and emotional mistreatment. In the US, there have been calls from politicians for tighter federal controls.

According to reports of the Jamaica camp regime, up to 250 adolescents are forced to conform to a rigid system of mental and physical discipline in a harsh regime of punishment and reward. New arrivals cannot speak without permission and are stripped of personal possessions. Some say they were unable to talk to their family for months, even a year; parents are not allowed to visit and have little or no idea of camp life. Children self-taught from text books, with little direct tuition.

Children are sometimes forced, occasionally through adults kneeling on top of them, to lay on the floor for days. This is "observational placement", where children are forbidden to move by guards except for 10 minutes every hour, has been condemned by the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef).

The British boy's parents became desperate for help with their son's behaviour, which included drug abuse, carrying a knife, theft, muggings and violent threats to his family. The boy also suffers from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, but his medication was not working, said his mother. They saw a television programme about American camps for troubled teenagers and found WWASP on the internet. "They seemed to be credible, meticulous and understand the problems," she said. Three weeks later the couple enrolled their son while on a "holiday" to Jamaica in August, but, on return to Britain, became concerned.

After four weeks her son sent a letter. "It said: 'I hate you. I've been in OP for 3 days, someone has been sitting on my back. You said adults weren't supposed to abuse children but they are ... Kids scream all night. I've been told if I don't listen I'll be kicked in the head.'

"The way they had sold OP to us was a room for kids to chill out and reflect. They didn't explain it was laying on the floor for days." The parents withdrew their son two days later.

The claims are supported by accounts given in a BBC2 documentary, Locked in Paradise, which is being screened tonight.

Ken Kay, the president of WWASP, told the Independent that the camps were all independently run but used its systems and practices. He said: "Our regimes are not harsh, they are structured and designed to cope with teenagers who are threatening their own lives ... If there was any abuse, people would know about it."

Tranquility Bay is run by his son, Jay Kay. He was not available for comment yesterday.