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Thursday, July 8, 1999 Published at 05:18 GMT 06:18 UK

World: Americas

Texas confronts youth violence

A mix discipline and psychology is used to reform violent youth

By BBC Washington Correspondent Stephen Sackur

America is currently obsessed with teen violence.

Since the high school massacre in Colorado last April, the American public has been looking for explanations.

The public and politicians have called for changes in the gun laws, an end to TV violence and for parents to become more involved in their children's lives.

But what of the kids themselves?

We travelled to Giddings State School in Texas to hear from them about their own terrible crimes.

Military discipline

[ image: Offenders write letters to their victims]
Offenders write letters to their victims
As dawn broke over Giddings, 10 teenage boys marched out of their dormitory with sleep still in their eyes.

In their regulation white T-shirts, with close cropped hair, they looked like a scout troop out on manoeuvres, but these boys came to Giddings reviled as some of the most evil children in America.

Every morning they raise the Stars and Stripes and make the pledge of allegiance.

Here in the heart of conservative Texas, young criminals, murderers and thugs are forced to confront military style discipline and a traditional view of right and wrong.

Glimpse of redemption

But Giddings is more than a rigid boot camp devoted to breaking down angry adolescents.

This place also offers inmates a glimpse of redemption, but only if like 18-year-old Leanne, they are prepared to face their violent crimes and the consequences.

"I was standing behind my mother. I pulled out a 25-calibre pistol, and I shot her in the back of the head and killed her," she said.

Part of their therapy is to write letters to their victims. They do not send the letters, but instead their peers read them in group sessions.

Their peers then provide criticism. As Leanne listened to her peers pick apart her writings, she held her head in her hands.

Liberal discipline

[ image: An offender bows to criticism from her peers]
An offender bows to criticism from her peers
Every day at Giddings, 400 or so inmates are marched into the gym for a dose of PT.

It is this mix of military style discipline with an un-Texas-like commitment to more liberal notions of rehabilitation through therapy that makes Giddings unique.

And it seems to work. Inmates released from Giddings are far less likely to become involved in violent crime than those juveniles who go through adult prison.

The proof lies not just in the statistics, but also in the thoughts of boys like William who until recently were lost in a world of gangs drugs and violence.

"You gotta change from this person who says: 'I can think for myself. I do what I want to do. _ The world revolves around me,' to someone who says: 'man, I need some help," William says.

Robert's release

As 18-year-old Robert was about to be released from Giddings, he received hugs and backslaps from fellow inmates.

Three years ago he bludgeoned two people with a baseball bat.

To the young offenders, his early release is an inspiration, to the staff it is another vindication of their methods.

Robert arrived as a potential killer, emotionally frozen, and that is not the way he is leaving. On his way out he passes a group of marching inmates with a wry smile.

Now he will return to the world to raise his three-year-old son.

"I'm scared to make wrong decisions in his life," he says.

Robert wants to give his son something he did not have. "Love and attention. Things I wish I had more of," he says.

Not every story ends happily inside Giddings. Many inmates are ultimately shipped off to adult prison.

Robert's case suggests that kids gone bad can be turned around, but it takes more than marching drills and shaved heads alone.

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