Fourteen lepers have one of the best views of Cape Cod. Their cemetery on Penikese Island overlooks Buzzard’s Bay, twelve miles off the Cape’s southern tip. The headstones are etched with lichen and barren of details: no mention of wives or husbands, children or parents, they float in the social order.
The lepers were quarantined for life and quarantined in death, buried in quicklime to hasten the rotting and erase their existence. In the early 1900s, when Dr. Frank Parker and his wife arrived on this Elizabethan island, leprosy was considered a disease by smote: victims had fallen from grace and brought the lesions upon themselves. But the Parkers made the lepers feel human. They planted gardens and farmed the island, no longer confined to the western side. By 1921, leprosy had been brought under control, and the few remaining residents were transferred to a leprosarium. The buildings were dynamited in hopes of eradicating any germs. Only bones remain: the graveyard and mossy cement skeletons of cottage foundations and the leper laundry.
A century later, the island harbors a different breed of untouchables — delinquent teens. “How people treated the lepers parallels what we do here with kids,” says Toby Lineaweaver, director of the Penikese Island School. “People distance themselves from the pain and plight of others; they dehumanize them, create a policy and ship them off.”
Brian (not his real name) was shipped off eleven months ago. It was his choice, if you could call it that. After the seventeen-year-old was arrested for assaulting his mother’s boyfriend, it was either additional time in juvenile jail or Penikese. Brian had already spent a month and a half at a detention center and guessed the food would be better on Penikese. He was told to consider his choice for at least twenty-four hours and encouraged to visit before committing. Summer is the poster child for Penikese: the lure of fishing and swimming every afternoon, the perfect probation for Huck Finn. Winter visitors are a harder sell.
Brian fit the program’s criteria. Penikese works best for fifteen- to eighteen-year-old boys with a conscience; there should be a hint of responsibility for their behavior and a desire to change. Students, usually from Massachusetts, average nine months on the island instead of thirty to ninety days in lockup, which is one reason most boys choose jail. Others are dissuaded because Penikese asks for internal change; in prison you can walk out the same person who walked in. On the island, boys molt their machismo armor. They learn to speak without the sign language of fists.
The school averages seven boys at a time. Of those, approximately 60 percent stay and 40 percent are either expelled (for repeated drug offenses, for example) or decide to leave. Administrators try to rule out students with certain behaviors that are acute rather than situational. Students can’t be too impulsive because they’re within a moment’s reach of saws and knives. No psychotics, chronic arsonists (brush fires are quick to start and slow to extinguish on an island) or sexual perpetrators. Before the last decade, the island housed (at least) two murderers, described as basically gentle kids who were driven to violence by terror. Now a teen who commits such a violent crime automatically goes to the Department of Youth Services (DYS), Massachusetts’ juvenile justice agency.
“In the end, what’s the difference between a DYS and a DSS* kid?” Lineaweaver asks. “The genesis is the same. They all come from abuse, poverty, broken homes. Where they end up is a pinball game.”
An average nine-month stay is $70,000, compared to $75,000 for a year in the state’s juvenile jail. Penikese remains a privately owned nonprofit organization to maintain its integrity and philosophy. Tuition is paid by the agency or organization making the referral, usually the DSS or DYS, or, in the case of special needs students, public school systems lacking the means to provide local day or residential treatment. The costs of most referrals are shared by DSS or DYS and public schools. The school raises the remainder (between $500,000 and $750,000) of its $1.5 million annual operating budget from donations and foundations.
“When people hear our tuition is $70,000 they say, ‘I sent three kids to Andover on that!’ ” says Lineaweaver, a Phillips Academy Andover graduate. “And I wanna say, ‘Yeah, and your point is…
your kids are rich and privileged?’ Comments like that betray a misunderstanding of just how underprivileged and broken these kids are.” He prefers a medical analogy because Penikese provides the same individualized around-the-clock care with one staff per two students. Like medical care, the costs are high and the outcome is uncertain, but no one would ever say I can’t believe you spent that much on cancer!
Brian had only seen photos of the island. He wasn’t ready for its stark isolation. As the Harold M. Hill — the school’s “ferry” is an old lobster boat — neared Penikese’s rugged face, he thought, “This is my mini-Alcatraz. I’m in the middle of nowhere: I can’t go to the store and get candy or play computer games. This place sucks!”
There is no electricity on Penikese, no television or computers; iPods and other electronic devices are banned. When the sky inks cobalt, kerosene lamps glow. Firewood is shipped to the island, and the boys chop thirty-five cords a year to feed the wood and cook stoves. Indoor plumbing is a sink. There are two wooden outhouses: the Clivis composting toilet or the chapel, so-called because it’s where some of the most reflective moments happen. It may be several rolls of toilet paper before a boy has an existential epiphany, however. An inscription on a nearby root cellar reads the place to be is where you are. “That’s crap,” one student once snorted. “What if you’re in jail?”
Students attend Penikese of their own volition, yet some view that choice as analogous to ‘Do I take sure death by firing squad? Or walk the plank for a chance to escape?’ If they want to run, there’s the door, one staff member gestures. They respect that boys need alone time in such an intense community. If hell is others, as philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said, imagine the inferno of being shipwrecked with those others. When someone who has walked out is deemed a danger to himself or the community, an informal search-and-rescue party assembles.
One of Brian’s classmates hid a dory in the leper laundry weeds. His plotting was measured, his execution weak. In a sulky moment, the boy seized an oar and a can of ravioli. He paddled half a mile handicapped by one oar, until tugboats and barges bore down on his sardine can of a vessel. “I started bawling and crapping bricks,” the teen confides. “I tried to go back, but the current was too strong.” A fisherman rescued him, and he returned to Penikese. For graduation, the staff gave him a lifejacket.
Penikese is a savage beauty: blood-red sunsets and wrinkled roses blooming from cracked dunes. A silver sea separates boys from their records on the mainland. The seventy-five acre state-owned wildlife sanctuary is managed by the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife; the school provides stewardship in exchange for occupancy. Each May, the bird ladies pitch a tent and spend the summer studying and preserving the nesting grounds for fragile migratory birds such as terns and petrols. The bird ladies are college students whom the boys like to impress with lasagna dinners and Moosewood Cookbook peach cobbler. “When the bird ladies come over,” shift leader Abigail Chapman smiles, “the boys are perfect gentlemen.”
Visitors are often surprised these criminals have manners — they aren’t the unclean to be kept at bay. The boys have known Texas-wide distances of affection; some have done time in foster homes and suffer from Reactive Attachment Disorder because the maternal bond was never established. They flinch when a staff person taps them on the shoulder and feel compelled to hurt the ones who love them. It’s their shield for when a mother is drunk with Mercury, raining fists. Or a father leaves for a pack of Camels and never comes back.
“A lot of people I trusted have disappeared or screwed me over in some way,” Brian says. “When I was eleven, my father disappeared off the radar for two years.
He didn’t call or anything.” He considers Matt Burke, Penikese’s history and English teacher, a father figure. When he invited his father to Penikese’s graduation, Brian’s dad declined, saying, “You’re not graduating from high school or college, so it’s not that important.”
Brian shrugs — he expected as much.
“A lot of people in jail never felt they mattered,” Lineaweaver says. “They never felt powerful until they held a gun in someone’s face: Now I have your undivided attention…don’t fuck with me.” Staff learns it’s just business when a student betrays their trust. As the school’s founder, George Cadwalader, a retired Marine major and Vietnam vet, writes in Castaways: The Penikese Island Experiment: “Anyone dumb enough to trust them was fair game to be ripped off. It’s all about beating the system.”
Cadwalader hatched the school in 1973, during that era’s swing toward deinstitutionalization. The current students are far more emotionally damaged, according to Linaeweaver. Increasingly, teenagers were institutionalized after Reaganomics emphasized correctional rather than treatment options and more juveniles were tried as adults. As youth violence escalated in the 1980s due to crack cocaine and slashes in public programming, Penikese caught the fallout.
Some boys are womb junkies. In utero exposure to stimulant drugs cooks kids’ brains, Linaeweaver says. “People want to believe messed up kids are the result of bad parenting,” he explains. “But we’ve come to accept that brain biology is very real.” He says the exposure impairs the front part of the brain, which regulates working memory and impulse control. Which means a boy is doomed to repeat the same mistakes.
“When we began, I assumed delinquents were responding logically to the world they lived in,” Cadwalader writes. “I thought we could turn them around by rewarding good behavior and punishing bad. But they’ve grown up in chaos: whether they were praised, punished or ignored depended more on unstable adults than anything they did. They live in the moment and become fatalists because everything they do leads to unforeseeable consequences.”
To exhume the ghosts of anarchy, the staff acts as a surrogate family where consistency is paramount and natural consequences are their own punitive stick. Refuse to chop wood? It’s going to be a chilly night. A charted system metes out points, which translate into dollars earned and the privilege of home visits. Points are subtracted for infractions like property damage, but they are added when a boy stomps to the dock and skips angry stones instead of using a window — or another boy — as his whipping post.
Brian struggled to lid his temper at first. He has a wrestler’s build and the preemptive stance of a boy who stands 5 feet 4 inches. A veil of lashes frames toffee eyes so liquid you can see his past. When he mumbles something personal, he dips his neck and blinks up as if to say, this trust thing is killing me, please don’t make me regret it. A National Geographic Society documentary on Penikese shows one student with a bowl of bangs getting a haircut. “Isn’t it hard to see?” The teacher asks as she snips away. “I have no problem seeing out,” he replies. “Other people have a problem seeing in.”
Brian was a stoner who made a cameo in class on test days. By the end of freshman year, he smoked pot and a pack of Camels every day, had a nose for cocaine and sold his Adderall (“the poor man’s coke”) to friends. Withdrawing from drugs on an island in the middle of nowhere made him cranky. Students are searched and drug tested after each home visit, but the searches are PG; the program is not allowed to strip search. Boys have been known to electrical tape contraband to their testicles — which makes for a painful groin wax when staff grows suspicious of their bowlegged walk.
After six weeks in the middle of nowhere, Brian went on his first home visit. He knew the parameters: no friends, internet, drugs or alcohol. Drunk with youth, Brian didn’t think he’d get caught. He brought pot back to the island and lied when staff confronted him. He lost one home pass for drinking at home and another pass for the weed. “The staff didn’t really get mad or emotional,” he reflects. “They just said, ‘We told you you’d lose your home pass if you did this so you get the consequences.’ It’s hard to argue with that.
“If the staff had been cold, I probably would have disconnected,” he adds. “It takes me a while to develop a relationship, but they hung on so I was able to trust. In juvenile jail, I didn’t want to develop relationships with staff because those people were assholes. At Penikese, the staff doesn’t hide their personalities, and when they fuck up, they admit it. I really respect Kerri (director of treatment programs), and she’s very big on honesty. I finally confessed so she wouldn’t lose respect for me. The staff saw the positive, that I eventually admitted everything.”
Progress feels like a country-western dance of two steps forward and one step back. In a misunderstanding about when he would be allowed on a home visit, Brian threw a rock through a window. The window cost him another home pass, $250 for repair and court charges for property destruction (like his other charges, they were eventually dropped). Windows are shattered so often that Massachusetts Juvenile Justice Judge Louis Coffin once remarked, “I am under the impression that repairing windows is part of the regular Penikese curriculum.”
The curriculum encompasses much more than velocity tests. As Lineaweaver says, on any given day, the best-laid plans are thwarted by kids’ issues, but Penikese strives for a consistent schedule. A rooster’s proud wakeup call is the bugle to ignore until staff crows Five more minutes, girls! They exercise before breakfast: a basketball game, yoga or a walk to the leper laundry, ducking the terns that dive-bomb from behind.
School is six days a week in a one-room schoolhouse. Some boys arrive never having finished a book and leave having read at least fifty. When a winter sky is stained dark at five o’clock, shelves of The Road Less Traveled to Joy of Cooking beckon.
There’s a small saltwater farm to weed and eggs to gather, though some boys refuse to eat lettuce or eggs that didn’t come from the supermarket. The island swine — Brown Sugar, Ecstacy, Oreo and Cinderella — inhale the kitchen slop that would otherwise need to be shipped off. The only boar, Big Balls, was exiled from Penikese after doing more than his part to repopulate the island. “The piglets were cute for about twenty minutes,” says Lineaweaver, “until they got into everything.”
Animal husbandry teaches empathy, though the creatures can also be an outlet for pain. One morning the students stirred to find the chickens hopping about on broken legs. According to Cadwalader, the other boys were sickened, but their revulsion at the deed did not match their fear of the perpetrator, so they kept mum about the culprit.
Brian spends his idle time at the wood shop and dreams of woodworking school. While other bunks are wallpapered with Maxim pinups, his shelves are cluttered with the T’ao te Ching, The Lord of the Rings and plaques he made with shop tools powered by a generator. One etched with the Zen symbol for moderation hangs by his bed. Brian was introduced to Buddhism by a Penikese staff member, and the symbol has become a mantra: moderation, moderation, moderation.
Since most of the boys experienced nothing but failure in school, Penikese didn’t want that repeated in its natural living classroom. Besides traditional schooling, students do carpentry to learn math or absorb economics via their earned points. “It’s not necessary to teach them a trade,” Cadwalader writes. “It’s about the ability to take orders and keep working when they’re tired. When they leave they can think, ‘I’ve mastered something at Penikese, I can master something at home.’ But home is where they failed, so there is the risk they go back and fail again.”
An aftercare net is stretched to minimize those odds. Penikese offers counseling for graduates and their families, as well as assistance finding work and schools. Staff is compensated for days off spent with graduates, who can even visit the island for a tune-up. Lineaweaver says that support may be what prevents a life from going adrift; some graduates have only Penikese staff hovering over their shoulder.
The friendships between staff and students distinguish Penikese. “Most policies are about external control: you’re fucked up, I’m gonna fix you,” says Pam Brighton, the school’s clinical coordinator. “Little is based on the inner world of the kid. Boot camps make parents feel they can do something, but the boys are very sensitive to power dynamics. It becomes us versus them.” Brighton facilitates twelve weekly sessions of Communication Without Violence. Unlike therapy groups where participants are pried like oysters and traumas are mined against their will, the boys are allowed to say they don’t feel like talking. “As much as you want to put in is as much as you’ll get out of Penikese — that’s what I tell the new kids,” Brian says. “I’ve tried to help some kids here. When they actually listen, you realize your words can make a difference…it’s like no other feeling.”
I’m winning a losing battle. One of Brian’s wry comments flutters on the den wall. “Now I think before I act,” he says. “This place taught me to look at the consequences of my actions and how there’s a positive and a negative to every choice. The biggest thing on the road to happiness is being content with yourself and having healthy relationships. Since Penikese, I’ve gained a relationship with my mother that I didn’t have…Before I used drugs to escape family issues.” He glances at a boy whose mother contacts her dealer more often than her son. “I say I have family issues, but at least I have a family.”
Two months after leaving Penikese, Brian is arrested for shop-lifting. The staff is disappointed by the news, but quick to highlight his strides. He’s kept a construction job, is a senior at an alternative school and his mother “loves having him around.”
Is success defined as the lesser of two evils? It’s a question echoed among the staff. Dave Masch, a founding staff member, used to quip that Penikese turned a lot of would-be murderers into car thieves. The program’s recidivism rate is approximately 40 percent; meaning 40 percent of graduates are arrested within a year to two years of leaving Penikese. According to the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services, 33 percent of juveniles are caught reoffending during the first year of discharge from their facilities.
Comparing recidivism rates that track kids from one year versus two is inequitable, and Linaeweaver is skittish about the statistical traps. “We measure one kid at time, where they started and how they changed,” he says. “At least 90 percent of our graduates never commit a new and more serious crime, meaning it may be a crime against property and not a person. We’re looking at changing quality of life. Because our kids are pretty broken, some are never going to have trouble-free lives. But are they spending more time sober, out of jail, supporting their kids and not abandoning them? Are they spending more time working and not on unemployment? Every movement in that direction makes them more productive and less of a burden on society.”
When Brian arrived, the island was his Alcatraz. A year later, he’s chewed up several drafts of a graduation speech that calls Penikese his second home. “Penikese succeeds because it’s real life on an island,” he says. “The rules are what’s expected in life: honesty, respecting yourself and others.”
A week before his graduation, the Harold M. Hill putters back to Woods Hole with its cargo of students on home visits and bird ladies on break. One woman cradles a carton of pebbled brown eggs abandoned by mother terns. It’s too late for them to hatch. The bird ladies will study the shells to unearth the past, testing for mercury and other contaminants. If they understand why the eggs were cast away, they might prevent history from repeating itself.