Straight, Incorporated

Illustration: Steven VerriestIllustration: Steven VerriestIn 1982, Leigh Ann Bright was a rebellious teenager who used marijuana and alcohol. Her mom told her she had to talk to counselors at a St Petersburg, Florida drug rehab institution called Straight, Incorporated.
A week before her 15th birthday, Bright went to Straight’s building, a converted warehouse. She began chatting with two other teenaged girls, who suddenly announced that they were “peer counselors” who believed Bright had a “serious drug problem” requiring long-term treatment. They told Bright to sign a form agreeing to participate in Straight’s residential rehab program. She tried to get out of the room and asked to speak to her parents. She was prevented from exiting. Other Straights joined in, telling Bright she would be “court ordered into the program” unless she signed the consent form.

“They said I could leave after 14 days,” Bright recalled recently.

Now a 33-year-old accountant who worked full time while earning two bachelor’s degrees, Bright says she is “haunted” by what happened to her in Straight’s warehouse nearly 20 years ago.

For six months, not 14 days, Bright was sequestered in the Straight program against her will, without a shred of peace or privacy, without permission to communicate freely with the outside world.

“I was crying and desperate. I was a prisoner,” she says.

Going to the bathroom, showering, getting dressed, sleeping, eating – the youngster’s most intimate acts were monitored by Straight staffers, most of whom were troubled teens who had been in the program longer than her.

During the day, Bright and hundreds of other youngsters were forced to participate in bizarre rituals. They were required to write “moral inventories,” detailing how drugs and sex “ruined” their lives. They sat through hours of lurid encounter group sessions in hot, unventilated rooms, listening to emotional discussions and Straight’s Orwellian philosophy.

Bright felt she had been kidnapped by a cult-like organization.

“Straight had its own really weird lingo and some group customs,” Bright recalls, describing fellow inmates who jumped around, frothed at the mouth, and waved their arms in reckless abandon during surreal “motivational-confessional” sessions in which they were compelled to publicly disclose their deepest, darkest secrets.

Girls and boys were in separate areas of a large room during these sessions.

“You could hear the boys complaining about being sexually abused,” Bright said. “It was like any prison – if somebody wants you and can overpower you, you’re fair game. Their stories were horrible.”

Every evening, Bright was taken under watch to “foster homes” run by families that had daughters in Straight. Parents of “Straightlings,” as Bright now calls them, were required by Straight to be wardens of “newcomers” like Bright. Suburban homes were used as de facto prisons where Bright was watched closely by a veteran Straightling, called an “oldcomer,” and her parents, until the sun came up and she was transported back to the warehouse.

The young girl’s life became a blur of torment and depression. She begged her captors to allow her to leave. “You’re not going anywhere until you are cured,” they told her. “We can do whatever we want to.”

“They wanted us to do hours of military-style exercises,” Bright recalls. “I’d get exhausted. The oldcomers vilified me. They’d circle around and begin hitting me. They knocked me around like a beachball. They threw me on the ground. They sat on me. They bruised me. I have a permanent injury from what they did, but they did a lot worse to other kids. They broke kids’ bones and bloodied them up. They drove kids to attempt suicide. Brutality was part of their program. They called it ‘tough love.'”

Once, when Bright got angry and refused to cooperate with her torturers, she was made to stand in front of a group of snarling oldcomers hurling verbal abuse at her. She fought back, and was thrown to the ground by Dr Miller Newton, Straight’s director.

“Miller Newton terrified me,” Bright explained. “He was tall and had a lot of weight on him. When he got angry, his face would get red underneath his beard. He was physically abusive to a lot of kids, the most frightening man I’ve ever known. He grabbed me by the hair and threw me. Then he gave the order to ‘marathon’ me, which was what they did if they really wanted to mess you up. For three days and nights, they refused to give me food or let me sleep. When I went to the foster home, the girl told her mother, ‘She’s being marathoned, we have to keep her awake.’ I hoped her mother would have some compassion, but she just went along with it. They stayed up all night in shifts preventing me from sleeping.”

Bright constantly thought of escape. Other Straight victims won freedom by crashing through a window or leaping out of a moving car, but Bright didn’t want to injure herself, she just wanted to tell her parents how desperate she had become, and that Straight was not providing any of the professional counseling or medical services that her parents were paying for.

“Straight told parents that if your kids tell you they are being assaulted, it’s a lie, all druggies are liars,” Bright says. “I begged my mother to put me in juvenile detention or some hospital, anywhere but back in Straight. They required my parents to be involved in Straight parent sessions. They took a ton of money from my family. Straight was all about money. They kept you until the money ran out. Straight was a for-profit prison, but it was also a twisted, abusive family.”

Wes Fager: `I`ve spent the last six years of my life gathering data on Straight.`Wes Fager: `I`ve spent the last six years of my life gathering data on Straight.`Bent Straight

Even if Leigh Ann Bright’s story was an isolated anecdote, it would still be deeply troubling. But Bright’s nightmarish allegations are corroborated by lawsuits filed by dozens of Straight survivors, and by reports from hundreds of juveniles who claim they were abused in drug treatment programs across the US.

Other former Straight inmates have committed suicide, assisted government investigations, and gone public with allegations including sexual abuse of minor males, assault of a female client who says oldcomers raped her with a curling iron for not writing her moral inventory, the breaking of a girl’s finger because she refused to “confess” that she had a drug problem, and a practice in which kids were encouraged to spit on newcomers.

In 1983 a federal jury found Straight criminally guilty of holding a college student named Fred Collins against his will for five months, and awarded him $220,000. In 1990, a judgment of $721,000 was awarded to a woman who alleged that Miller Newton had thrown her against a wall. On another occasion, drug counselors working for Newton were found guilty of assaulting clients. Last year, Newton and co-defendants spent $4.5 million settling a suit brought by a young woman abused in a Newton-managed rehab program called “Kids of North Jersey.” Newton has since moved back to St. Petersburg and reconfigured himself as a Catholic priest named Father Cassian Newton.

Wes Fager, a Virginia computer scientist who placed his son Bill in a Springfield, Virginia Straight facility in 1989, is one of the leaders of an anti-Straight coalition whose website, Straight Inc Survivors, contains shocking documents, revelations, and questions about the program’s sponsors, their goals, and their influence on past and present drug war politics.

“My son had minor brushes with the law,” Fager said when asked why he became interested in Straight. “A school counselor and a county judge told me Straight was the best help he could get. I put him in there, and I regret it to this day. They had a wall of secrecy around what they were doing. They wouldn’t let me communicate with him. I finally found out enough to know he was being abused in there. I got him out after four months, but they had damaged him permanently. I’ve spent the last six years of my life gathering data on Straight and its connections to the US drug treatment industry.”

Fager’s data is backed up by other independent investigators, published reports, public records, and sworn testimony from former inmates of drug rehab centers.

He traces the origins of America’s current juvenile drug rehabilitation programs to a notorious organization, “Synanon,” founded in 1958 by a California alcoholic. Synanon was probably the first US “treatment” organization to define rehabilitation as incarceration, intimidation, and mind control. The organization has been described as a cult by many investigators, but its harsh tactics were mimicked by a government-funded Florida juvenile drug program known as The Seed, which was incorporated in 1972.

Congressional investigators soon determined that The Seed’s rehab practices included brainwashing techniques similar to those used by military psychological warfare specialists. When this finding was made, the program was still receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars per year from the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) and law enforcement agencies, so Congress ordered NIDA and White House drug czar Robert DuPont (who later became a paid consultant and defense witness for Straight) to clean up the program’s abuses.

Congress later cut off The Seed’s funding, but Florida Republican Congressman Bill Young, who represented the same St. Petersburg district where Leigh Ann Bright had been incarcerated, lobbied for continued funding. In 1976,Young helped St. Petersburg Republican activists Mel and Betty Sembler in their creation of a new rehab program modeled after The Seed. The Sembler’s program, called “Straight, Inc,” soon began receiving federal grants. Republican officials, politicians and lobbyists joined the Semblers as founding board members of Straight.

In the 1980’s, Republican operatives, government money, and official recommendations from judges and drug treatment “experts” helped Straight open centers similar to Bright’s warehouse prison, in 12 states. Nancy Reagan and White House drug czar Carlton Turner promoted Straight as a “model for successful drug rehabilitation,” even though Florida’s Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services censured Straight in 1983, after receiving dozens of complaints of abuse and false imprisonment. Investigations showed that kids were often tricked into entering the centers, having been told by their parents that they were going to doctors, dentists or business appointments, then left behind to face de facto imprisonment.

Ignoring press reports about Straight abuses that had been brought to her attention, Nancy Reagan brought England’s Princess Diana to the Straight-Springfield facility where Bill Fager had been held, telling the princess that Straight knew best how to turn dopers into productive citizens.

Reagan’s praise notwithstanding, the Straight program began to unravel.

“The American Civil Liberties Union filed successful lawsuits showing that Straight subjected kids to ‘inhumane treatment that creates an immediate danger to physical and mental health.’ Officials closed Straight’s Washington, DC facility in 1991,” Fager reports. “Straight-Sarasota closed in 1983 in the middle of criminal investigations. Straight-Cincinnati closed in 1987 on the opening day of court proceedings against it. Straight centers in Southern California, Virginia Beach, DC, Boston, Dallas, Orlando, Detroit, and Maryland were closed due to investigations in 1990, ’91, and ’92.

“The last treatment facility using the name Straight was Straight-Atlanta,” continued Fager. “Just days before it closed in 1993, a woman named Kathleen M Cone incorporated a Straight-like program called Phoenix Institute for Adolescents, in Marietta, Georgia just 4 1/2 miles from Straight’s facility. Cone had been the registered agent for Straight-Atlanta. In 1993, a Straight-like program named Pathway Family Center was incorporated only 15 miles from the closed Detroit Straight facility. Helen Gowanny, a Pathway founder, had been the registered agent for Straight-Detroit.

“When Straight-Orlando’s director Michael Scaletta closed down his Straight in 1992,” concluded Fager, “he immediately opened a Straight-like program, called SAFE, in the same warehouse where Straight had operated. When Miller Newton’s KIDS franchise in California closed under state pressure, Straight took over operations there. In 1990, Kids Helping Kids of Hebron, Kentucky, a Straight-like program co-founded by former Straight officer George Ross, changed its name and moved into the old Straight facility in Milford, Ohio.”

According to Fager, Straight also made inroads into Canada. Between June 1988 and February 1989 Straight operated a “Family Service Center” in Edmonton, Alberta. Miller Newton assisted Dr Dean Vause, who had trained at Newton’s disgraced New Jersey facility, in setting up a Straight-like program called the Alberta Adolescent Recovery Center in Calgary in 1990.

Fager is worried that many currently-operating treatment programs are run by people who have been affiliated with Straight, and that these programs are continuing Straight’s practice of abusing youngsters.

In December 2000, the Orlando, Florida TV station WAMI aired a pair of reports about abuses at an Orlando Straight clone program known as SAFE. The televised reports were called Force of habit and Safe Haven? They described strip searches, food deprivation, and teenagers being watched by other teenagers while showering or going to the toilet.

Lucy Moore, a young girl who had been enrolled in SAFE, told the interviewer about her horrific experiences. “I was forced to hold an enema in my hand,” said Lucy, “and stand for about an hour and a half, the attention being focussed on me, and about every ten minutes I was told how I was full of crap, how I needed to be flushed out.”

According to the televised reports, Governor Jeb Bush visited the SAFE facility and praised it, calling it “a very successful substance abuse program.”

Fager and reform allies staged a protest at the SAFE facility last November, after he was contacted by parents of children imprisoned in the facility.

He says his questions about the legality of SAFE’s operations, and about its connections to the Semblers and Straight, were stonewalled by representatives of Governor Bush and Florida drug czar Jim McDonough.

“The way Straight programs operated is a huge scam,” Fager concludes. “There were proven charges of ongoing criminal activity; the programs should have been closed down and everyone who worked for them held accountable for the harm they did. Instead, Straight officers started new programs, using different names, carrying on the same cycles of abuse, receiving government funding. Nobody from Straight’s leadership ever apologized for the harm they have done- they defiantly defended their tactics and smeared those who tried to uncover their abuses. Only a few low-level members of the organization have been punished for their vicious treatment of kids. Programs similar to Straight are now aligning themselves with churches so they can take advantage of Bush’s faith-based funding program, and the fear-based, boot camp model of ‘rehabilitation’ is still the norm rather than the exception in America.”

Betty Sembler: President and founder of Drug Free America Foundation, Inc.Betty Sembler: President and founder of Drug Free America Foundation, Inc.Dissembler

While regional Straight offices were being investigated, closing, and re-opening under different names, the St Petersburg-based national office, formerly called Straight Incorporated, was renamed “Straight Foundation Incorporated” in 1985. Ten years later, when Straight’s reputation was beyond repair, its name was changed to the “Drug Free America Foundation, Incorporated. (DFAF)”

Betty and Mel Sembler, Straight’s founders, also founded DFAF, which began receiving government money and assistance soon after it opened.

The Semblers are Republican power brokers who profit from their long-time relationship with the Bush family and other influential Republicans. Mel Sembler is a millionaire developer who made his fortune building environmentally destructive projects that are partially responsible for the severe water shortages and drought plaguing Florida. He gives lots of money to the Republican Party. His generosity was rewarded when the first Bush presidency brought him the job of US ambassador to Australia in 1989.

Another wealthy Republican and Straight co-founder, Joseph Zappala, was given the ambassadorship to Spain in 1989. George Bush Senior even made a TV commercial for Straight. Last year, Sembler headed the Republican national finance committee, helping raise millions of dollars for George W Bush.

Betty Sembler is a zealous prohibitionist, attending White House drug policy meetings, serving on state and federal drug advisory committees, and serving as board member for DARE Florida and DARE International.

Sembler is a co-chairperson of Jeb Bush’s campaign committee, and a frequent, clandestine financial donor to Republican causes and candidates. Sembler’s efforts to defeat medical marijuana initiatives are assisted by the Bush family, especially Barbara Bush, who makes promotional films for DFAF. The organization claims that George W Bush will base his drug policies on DFAF input.

In 1998, Sembler and Florida’s Department of Law Enforcement sponsored an anti-medicalization of marijuana conference. The keynote speaker was former drug czar Bill Bennett. In 1999, the Semblers helped Florida drug czar Jim McDonough popularize his ecologically-disastrous anti-marijuana Fusarium fungus idea. McDonough and Betty Sembler are advisors to a powerful Defense Department drug task force funded through the Florida National Guard.

DFAF teamed with Arizona’s Maricopa County Prosecutor, Rick Romley, to produce and market a film that opposes medical marijuana. In February 2001, Bush’s White House advisors interviewed Rick Romley for the position of drug czar at the same time Bush was nominating Mel Sembler as president of the prestigious Export-Import Bank.

In Florida, Sembler was honored with “Betty Sembler Day,” August, 8, 2000. The honor was pushed through by Jeb Bush, who feted Sembler for founding DFAF and another organization, Save Our Society from Drugs (SOS). Both organizations are devoted to defeating medical marijuana initiatives and drug policy reform. DFAF received at least $400,000 in government subsidies last year.

During recent Congressional testimony, Sembler delineated her absolutist views.

“I am the president and founder of Drug Free America Foundation, Inc an organization whose mission is to expose the hidden agenda of those who wish to legalize all Schedule I drugs in our country,” Sembler said. “Their agenda includes subverting Federal supremacy, manipulating public opinion, and perpetrating a fraudulent marketing campaign touted as compassion for the sick. We’ve all witnessed this campaign, some of us agape at the blatant untruths used to convince voters in eight states and the District of Columbia that smoked crude marijuana is really ‘medicine’ dressed up to look like a weed. These drug pushers in coat and tie are intent on using any means possible to market addictive, unsafe, life-threatening substances to our children.

“In a clear violation of Federal drug laws and the Constitution’s supremacy clause,” claimed Sembler, “these businessmen disguised as medical experts, using tactics worthy of the Goebbels award, distort truth, eschew legitimate research, manufacture ‘facts’ and bombard the public with disinformation. We already know what their motivation is. It is documented by their own words, and certainly by their own actions. The only thing standing in their way is the Constitution of the United States of America. To sweep away the protection offered by that august document, the money bags have employed wordsmiths so they can hide behind the First Amendment, and therefore cleverly use the word “recommend” as a euphemism for prescribe.

“If you read the fine print on any of the initiatives,” continued Sembler, “or examine the tactics that are being used in states that have no initiative process, it becomes very clear that this is not about compassion, and it is not about medicine. It is about softening public opinion to promote the acceptance that to chemically alter one’s mind is an inherent right. The premise is that old excuse about a victimless crime. There is no such thing as a victimless crime. The parents of this nation are helpless without you as our elected representatives stepping up to the plate and telling the American people the truth: ‘you have been misled.'”

At the 2001 Florida drug summit, I asked Sembler about critics of Straight and her other anti-drug activities.

“They should get a life,” Sembler said impatiently. “I am proud of everything we have done. There’s nothing to apologize for. The legalizers are the ones who should be apologizing.”

Arnold Trebach: `Many premier medical people? have been involved in organizations that harm youth.`Arnold Trebach: `Many premier medical people? have been involved in organizations that harm youth.`Straight Away

Alarmed by the ascendance of the Bush family and its drug war allies to the top ranks of American politics, Straight survivors and policy reformers are working hard to expose abuses in America’s drug treatment industry.

In July, former Straight inmates got together with journalists, cult experts, parents, lawyers, and activists at a Washington, DC conference sponsored by The Survivors of Harmful Treatment Programs and the Trebach Institute.

Dr Arnold Trebach, a political science professor, public interest attorney, and author, founded the institute in 1999 after retiring from the Drug Policy Foundation, which he founded in 1986.

During his 50 year career as a civil rights official, professor, and reform advocate, the 73-year-old Trebach has increasingly focused on the drug war as a symbol of what’s wrong with America.

Trebach’s 1987 book, The Great Drug War, is perhaps the best single volume about the subject. Its unparalleled credibility and comprehensiveness are grounded in Trebach’s abundant skills as a policy analyst, legal scholar, and investigative journalist.

The book contains a chapter describing in chilling detail the incarceration of Fred Collins, now a doctorate-holding professor of mathematics, in the St Petersburg Straight facility in 1982. Collins did not have a drug abuse problem, but his brother George was already in the program, and Straight often demanded that siblings of inmates also be enrolled in residential treatment. Fred Collins’ parents tricked him into entering the Straight building. He was held there in abysmal conditions against his will until he escaped four months later.

During Mel Sembler’s tenure as ambassador to Australia, Trebach attended an international drug conference in the “land down under.”

“A pediatrician from St Petersburg, Donald Ian Macdonald, Straight’s medical director, was on a panel with me,” Trebach recalls. “He gave a speech saying that I represent the worst of America, that it was despicable that he had to share the stage with a drug pusher. In my response, I said, ‘Dr Macdonald, thank you for revealing to this international audience, and our American ambassador and his wife, the viciousness and cowardice of drug warriors. You’ve worked at the right hand of the president of the United States, and I want everybody here to know that adopting American drug policy means adopting these vicious and cowardly sentiments.’

“During the evening session,” continued Trebach, “my wife and I were sitting near Holland’s head of drug policy when Mel Sembler got up and said, ‘I’m glad that everyone is here, including Dr Trebach and Dr Macdonald. I have some experience in this field – I formed a drug treatment program called Straight Incorporated, to help children.’ The Dutch official said to me, ‘Oh, I have heard about that program. It’s the Hitler Youth.'”

During Mel Sembler’s ambassadorship, Betty Sembler was creating DARE Australia and designing pro-drug war ads for the Advertising Federation of South Australia.

Trebach later went on nationwide Australia television, expressing dismay that the American ambassador was Straight’s founder. “I told the country that Straight destroys children and it should never be adopted in Australia,” Trebach said. “Straight is a window on the rotten core of the drug war: its hate, hysteria, and cruelty. It’s the same stupidity we saw in Vietnam and in Waco – the government claims to want to save people from some alleged evil, so it kills them.”

Donald Macdonald used his position as Reagan’s White House Director of Drug Abuse Policy to implement policies that created profits for Straight and other drug war industries. Today, Macdonald runs a company called Employee Health Programs that helps employers institute draconian, privacy-busting “drug-free workplace” regulations required by federal laws that Macdonald himself helped shape.

Trebach says he’s troubled by the “revolving door” aspect of the drug war industry, typified by the Semblers and Macdonald who network with politicians and other profiteers, using taxpayer dollars to promote policies that grant them more tax dollars and more power.

“We have to be very concerned, at a time when some people are pushing ‘treatment’ as an alternative to jail, that many of the nation’s premier medical people, politicians, and policy makers are those who have been involved in, or supported, organizations that harm young people,” Trebach warns. “It may be that some forms of treatment are no better than jail. They may even be worse than jail.”

Fager, Trebach, Bright and Straight Inc Survivors have decided to fight back. They intend to provide irrefutable documentation about drug treatment abuses to Congress, law enforcement officials, and the media, expose connections between Straight and top government officials, and seek criminal indictments of treatment industry operatives who’ve committed crimes like kidnapping, assault, sexual abuse, perjury, and false imprisonment.

They’re demanding that the US Department of Health and Human Services guarantee that federal funds will not be used for drug treatment programs unless protections are in place to keep treatment from harming children. They’ll have lawyers who successfully sued Straight teach other treatment survivors how to make perpetrators pay for the wrong they did.

“It’s a frightening thing to come forward and fight Straight and its supporters, because they are the most powerful people in this country,” Bright acknowledged. “I’m afraid I will be attacked by these people. There are a lot of us working on this, but in the end, I am alone. This has been a hard path. It’s not easy to talk about what happened to me. Maybe fighting this injustice will ruin my life, but it will all come out, everything evil they did to me and others, everything they are still doing. It’s what I have to do.”Arnold Trebach: `Many premier medical people? have been involved in organizations that harm youth.`

? Straight Survivors: www.straightinc.homestead.com
? Clockwork Straight, an online book about Straight Inc: www.thestraights.com
? Arnold Trebach: The Trebach Institute, 5505 Connecticut Ave, NW, Suite 185, Washington, DC 20015-2601; fax 301-986-7815; email [email protected]; website www.trebach.org
? Betty Sembler: Drug Free America Foundation, PO Box 11298, St Petersburg, FL 33733; tel 727-893-2616; email [email protected]; website www.dfaf.org

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