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Seeding Torture

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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.

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