No Comment — February 10, 2010, 1:44 pm

Seeding Torture

At Salon, Joe Conason highlights some important details from the background of Mel Sembler, the Florida strip-mall mogul who is financing “Keeping America Safe.” That foundation, managed by Bill Kristol and Liz Cheney, is now running ads designed to convince Americans that they face imminent threat of death at the hands of terrorists because Barack Obama has banned the use of torture. It seems that personal fealty to the Cheneys, father and daughter, is not the only thing that brings Sembler to torture advocacy. In fact, he has a long, weird history linking him to techniques every bit as gruesome and kinky as those applied in Abu Ghraib, Camp Nama, and Gitmo. In a masterful article in the January 2007 issue of Reason, Maia Szalavitz digs deep into the details of Sembler’s role in two Florida operations called The Seed and Straight Incorporated:

employees had begun to quit Straight and contact regulators, reporting beatings and other maltreatment. “The program was getting… so bad that I felt it was hurting more kids than it was helping,” one anonymous former staffer told the St. Petersburg Times that year. Miller Newton, Straight’s national clinical director, admitted to authorities in 1982 that he had kept teenagers awake for 72-hour periods, put them on peanut butter–only diets, and forced them to crawl through each other’s legs to be hit in a “spanking machine.”

At Straight, The Seed’s hand-waving procedure to get staff attention during group sessions mutated into “motivating,” in which kids flapped their arms so vigorously it looked like they were trying to fly away. The movements were so violent that more than once teenagers hit those sitting next to them, resulting in broken bones…

Straight ultimately paid out millions of dollars in dozens of lawsuits related to abuse and even kidnapping and false imprisonment of adults. But the Straight network remained in operation until 1993. Even today, at least nine programs in the U.S. and Canada still use tactics, such as host homes and “motivating,” that come directly from Straight. Some are run by former Straight employees, sometimes in former Straight buildings. Among them: SAFE in Orlando; Growing Together in Lake Worth, Florida; Kids Helping Kids in Cincinnati; the Phoenix Institute for Adolescents in Marietta, Georgia; Turnabout/Stillwater Academy in Salt Lake City; Pathway Family Center in Detroit; the Alberta Adolescent Recovery Center in Calgary, Alberta; and Love in Action, a program aimed at “curing” homosexual teenagers, located near Memphis. The Straight Foundation itself, which coordinated the organization and doled out the money, never died; it simply renamed itself the Drug Free America Foundation, which to this day works to promote student drug testing and to oppose efforts to end the drug war. Its website lists Mel Sembler and his wife Betty as “founding members.”

Sembler’s attitude towards the physical mistreatment of youngsters evidently differs from that of most Americans. But while another prominent Florida Republican, Jeb Bush, once touted the Sembler-funded effort, he quickly changed his mind as exposés appeared about the mistreatment of youngsters within the framework of the program. He signed legislation that shut down the Florida boot camp program that Sembler had funded.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2015

Black Hat, White Hat

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Beyond the Broken Window

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In Search of a Stolen Fiddle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Displaced in the D.R.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Quietest Place in the Universe

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
“Don sucked the last of his drink through his straw and licked his lips. 'The coast, to me, is more interesting than the valley.'”
Photograph by the author
Article
Fred Morton, who died this week in Vienna, at the age of 90, was a longtime contributor to Harper's Magazine and a good friend. "Othello's Son," which was listed as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2013, appeared in our September 2013 issue.
Photograph © Alex Gotfryd/CORBIS
Article
Beyond the Broken Window·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“By the time Bratton left the department, in 2009, Los Angeles had quietly become the most spied-on city in America.”
Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Displaced in the D.R.·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“How is it possible that my birth certificate is invalid if I was born here?”
Photograph by Pierre Michel Jean
Article
The Quietest Place in the Universe·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Gaitskell and his colleagues are approaching the revelation of a new order, a new universe, in which even light will be known differently, and darkness as well.”
Painting by Sebastiaan Bremer

Number of African countries with vaccination rates higher than that of the United States:

16

Iowa urologists reported that only a minor portion of locker-room teasing arises from “the presence of excess foreskin”; most teasing targets small penises.

A farmer in Surrey, England, was ordered by the Reigate and Banstead Borough Council to tear down his cannon-equipped castle, which he had built secretly and then concealed behind hay bales.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today