Acting Up

The most dangerous teenagers in Texas are sent to the Giddings State School, where, in a jailhouse version of group therapy, they reenact their brutal crimes in order to come to terms with their violent impulses. This is what we do with young murderers? Yes, and it works. For a while, at least.

One humid day last summer, when most teenagers were on vacation or at camp or slaving away at tedious jobs, a burly, flirtatious nineteen-year-old named Raymond was locked inside a small, frigid metal building with five other boys to whom he could relate. Two years earlier, Raymond had smashed a friend’s face in with a lead pipe, and now he was confined at the Giddings State School, a juvenile detention facility one hour east of Austin. Leaning back in his chair, Raymond told the group about his upbringing. He talked about competing with his cousins for his mother’s attention. His father, a sharp dresser known for violent outbursts, had never been around; Raymond saw his namesake for the first time in a grocery store when he was about five years old. No one flinched as Raymond told his unhappy story. They had already heard Chuong, a capital murderer, tell how his mother condemned his stealing only when a television he’d looted wasn’t big enough, and Kenneth, an expert carjacker, describe being made to fight as a child in backyard matches while relatives placed bets on the outcome.

As the other members of the group encouraged him, Raymond recalled a rare instance when his father had joined an elementary school field trip and helped him plant a mustard seed. It came as no surprise to him or his audience that even this cheerful story had a violent conclusion. As Raymond told it, when his mother heard from another school parent that his father had dropped in on the class trip, she became furious. “She grabbed my leg and started hitting it with a belt,” he said. “It was black, with beads on it.” Soon she was beating his chest as well. Shortly thereafter, Raymond’s father showed up at the house, only to be attacked on the front lawn by Raymond’s uncle. “His nose was bleeding, and I wanted to help but I was stuck,” Raymond told the group. “I stayed on the couch and I was scared. My grandma asked why I was holding my chest, and I showed her and told her why. She asked my mom, ‘What the f—’s wrong with you?’ and my mom said, ‘I’ll do whatever the f— I want with my kids,’ and then I heard a punch. I was scared. My mom had a little vase, and my grandma hit my mom over the head with it—boom!”

Raymond and the other boys were members of one of the most unusual rehabilitation programs on the juvenile detention landscape. They had all been arrested as minors and sent to Giddings, where their good behavior and a desire to reform had earned them admission to the Capital and Serious Violent Offenders Treatment Program. The CSVOTP is a form of group therapy that attempts to rehabilitate young offenders with a kind of improvisational theater. Twice a week for about six months, participants in the program attend hours-long sessions during which they examine and then dramatically reenact the defining moments of their lives—including the crimes that brought them to Giddings. These sessions are often unbearably intense, leaving the boys emotionally and physically drained, covered in sweat and tears. But a positive evaluation from program therapists Margie Soto and Thomas Talbott can mean the difference between early parole and hard time in adult prison. In the case of boys like Raymond, serving four years for assault with a deadly weapon, the program attempts to create healthy members of society by transforming violent, even homicidal tendencies into a capacity for empathy.

This preposterous-sounding ambition may not find taxpayers celebrating in concert. Why, you might ask, am I paying tax dollars to fund a drama camp for murderers? According to the Texas Youth Commission, you can’t afford not to. After all, depending on a court’s decision, these boys may soon be your neighbors. While the graduates’ long-term success is never guaranteed, the three-year marker used to evaluate a program’s strength shows a startling reduction in recidivism rates: Graduates are 49 percent less likely to be reincarcerated for a felony than peers who have not been through the treatment—a significant enough finding to prompt the Department of Justice to cite the CSVOTP as a model program.

For Soto and Talbott, however, success is measured on a smaller scale. Having found their way to a particularly difficult memory of Raymond’s, the therapists prepared for the second half of his session, in which Raymond would be made to reexperience the pain. Recalling the fight between his mother and grandmother had visibly upset him, and tears were now streaming down his face. Talbott, a forty-year-old with a goatee, dimmed the lights, the cue that it was time to begin a dramatic scene. Most of the boys filed out to assume their roles, leaving Raymond in the room with Chuong, who had shown himself to be one of the group’s most intelligent members (at the request of Giddings officials, the juveniles’ names and minor details of their crimes have been changed).

Chuong pushed his chair close to Raymond’s and wrapped an arm around his large, muscular shoulders. For about ten minutes, he whispered in Raymond’s ear, keeping him focused until the others returned. Out in the hall, Soto, a petite, no-nonsense 46-year-old, had cast Kenneth in the role of Raymond’s father.

I came to see you today,” Kenneth said, establishing the theatrical episode. “You have a field trip. I want to see you.” Raymond stared at the floor. “Let’s have fun,” Kenneth said, rubbing Raymond’s close-shaved head with an open palm. “Do family things like father and son.”

Suddenly, Raymond’s mother, played by a middle-class math whiz named Justin who was in for hog-tying and pistol-whipping a man while robbing his house, butted into the scene, demanding to know if Raymond had seen his father. Talbott took care of the sound effects, snapping his belt against a chair.

You ain’t got no daddy!” Justin yelled. “He nobody. I done everything for you!”

Playing the grandmother, Mauricio, a seemingly polite kid from the border who

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