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Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Reform School And Life In The Corona Gulag - Lockdowns, Shakedowns, And Intimidation, No Problem

Herb Halloran was a bad kid, the worst kind of disruptive, mean, antisocial boy; so it was no surprise that he got sent away to reform school, an institution that was designed to discipline boys into right behavior.  Reform schools were essentially holding places for juvenile offenders, and particularly focused on holding boys. In the US, the reform movement was started in the 19th century as an alternative to jailing younger children with adult offenders, but most were discontinued early in the new century. 

The idea of such schools never lost its appeal, particularly as traditional families and marriages radically changed; and as the disciplinary forces of religion, patriarchal fatherhood, and conservative social norms loosened their grip.  More and more parents looked back to the reform school era as a kind of idyll – a place where they could send their insulting, rude, unambitious, and hopelessly indifferent boys and live peacefully until they came back socialized, disciplined, and accommodating.

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Of course by the time that Herb had come of age, the old style, physically punitive reform school was a thing of the past.  The days of solitary confinement in dark, wet, basement cells, psychological abuse, and uncompromising discipline were sadly over, and the new disciplinary institutions were but shadows of the severe, chastising places of the past.  Yet, many, such as the The New Brighton School for Boys (Brighty)  where Herb was sent, carried on in the same tradition, albeit within the letter of the progressive laws which limited what one could and couldn’t do to shape hostile, deviant boys into good citizens.   New Brighton had no cellar confinement, no beatings, and no outright mental abuse; but in a complicit compact with parents, just about anything short of physical abuse was allowed if not encouraged. 

Most parents like Herb’s had tried the usual, more common, and less harsh route.  The Chichester Academy, for example, was a modern reform school in the guise of a New England preparatory school like Choate, Loomis, or Andover.  In fact, thanks to harping by influential board members, it had been for a time in the same athletic conference as these schools.  However after two seasons Chichester was summarily dismissed from the league because of the brutal, illegal, and punishing way its athletes played.  Playing dirty was the best thing that could be said for the criminal assault that passed for athletics at Chichester. 

While Chichester was by no means a prep school, it was many leagues more advanced and progressive than Brighty.  Herb lasted only one semester at Chichester and was deemed ‘irremediable’.  His savagery on the football field, his crude, obscene behavior with students and teachers alike put him on a fast conveyor belt out.

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No one liked to talk about Brighty.  What went on inside was a well-kept secret, although the imposing building, set atop the highest hill in the town overlooking Billings Pond, Harvest Park and the Meriden and Southington Mountains to the south, was a feature of the city of New Brighton – a stark, 19th century brick building first built as an armory for Civil War weaponry produced by New Brighton’s arms industry, refashioned as reform school in the late 1800s, and finally re-positioned as a ‘corrective’ institution for boys in the 1930s.

As per contractual agreement (although only the sparest details were actually written down), the administrators of Brighty were at liberty to develop the ‘curriculum’ they felt most appropriate for those interned.  Occasionally a boy, despite the strict and binding non-disclosure confidentiality orders more punitive than mafioso omertà, talked when released.  It was not a pretty picture, although parents were apprised regularly of the school’s methods and approved wholeheartedly. 

To put the best face on the institution and to scotch the rumors that were always circulating abroad, Brighty held Parents Day – a festive occasion in late May, held outside under brightly colored tents, catered by a New Haven chef, attended by the Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut, and covered by the press.  The boys, of course, were, under pain of the most severe punishment, obliged to smile, laugh, and give hugs and kisses to their parents.

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From the scant information that did leak out, there was no doubt that Brighty deserved its reputation.  It had all the trappings of Chichester Academy – hall monitors, dormitory regents, house prefects, a large refectory, and playing fields – but all pretenses to learning were abandoned.  The job of Brighty was not to teach, but to reform – to turn the twisted, deformed personalities of those who entered into some semblance of normalcy by the time they left.   It was, part old-fashioned reform school, part Irish laundry, part prison, and part gulag. 

The staff of Brighty was chosen for their record as disciplinarians not as educators.  By and large they were former prison guards, military drill instructors, chain gang overseers, and mental hospital ‘nurses’.  It was a tribute to the administrators of Brighty that they were able to control both the ‘students’ and their barely socialized staff; but control they did and operated the institution within the spirit if not letter of the law, according to the contract concluded with parents, and as far as the limits of decency permitted.

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It was always supposed that the parents of boys sent to Brighty felt guilty about doing so, abandoning their children to such a place; but the opposite was true.  These boys were bad seeds – nasty and uncontrollably mean from infancy.  They were born that way and only got worse as time went on.  Although any modern parent would like to believe that such hopeless children do not and cannot exist; and that love, compassion, and caring can reform the most difficult child, the opposite was true.  Herb Halloran was a perfect example and his parents never shied away from the truth.

For all the criticisms about Brighty’s methods, Herb came out tamed if not completely reformed.  Given Brighty’s focus on discipline and personality order, he needed remedial education to catch up with his mates who by then were completing their studies at New Brighton High School, a dismal, desultory place if there ever was one, let alone those more fortunate who went to Exeter, St Paul’s and St. Albans.  Given his reformed nature – more patient, far less hostile, much more accommodating and willing – finding him a place to learn was not all that difficult.  Despite his profoundly anti-social, misanthropic nature, Herb was not dumb, and quickly made up time lost. 

Perhaps thanks to his native intelligence, or more likely due to the fact that the psychological shit had been beaten out of him at Brighty, he could pass for normal.  As an adult he actually held a lower-level government job, got married, and had children.  His home in Gaithersburg was nothing to speak of – one of a thousand small suburban ramblers with aluminum siding, bad drainage, and an iffy neighborhood – but for someone of his own iffy background, it was a sign of success.

Then Corona hit the Washington area.  Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia locked everything down tight – total quarantine.  Police were deployed to keep the sequester in place, helicopters circled above, monitoring streets, parks and commercial areas all closed to traffic, pedestrians, and all movement. Violators were identified by high-resolution face recognition software-enabled cameras and arrested by surface agents within hours.  Exercise hours outside the house were limited and closely monitored, social distancing enforced, and failure to wear masks and gloves subject to fine and arrest.

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While most people freaked out at what amounted to a police occupation – a veritable gulag of watchtowers, thugs, and jackbooted goons – Herb took it all in stride.  “I’m a graduate of Brighty”, he told his friends and neighbors, “and this is a piece of cake”.

Most of them had no idea what he was talking about but they admired his equanimity.  He was calm, collected, never frustrated or anxious.  In fact, because he worked for the government, his job was protected; and salary checks, although discounted, kept on coming. Life was good, beer was plentiful, and the television was working.

As governments imposed more and more draconian measures, Herb’s neighbors became panicked.  He could hear fights go on next door, bottles thrown into the broken rock pile of sidewalk pieces in the street, children screaming at their parents, and wild, fanatic antics in back yards up and down his street; but the more SWAT-trained police stormed the houses of now uncontrollable families, the more content and at ease he was.  This still was nothing compared to the lock-downs, solitary confinement, shakedowns, 3am body searches, and bread and water rations of Brighty.

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In fact Herb experienced a peace that he had never enjoyed, a graceful epiphany.  Brighty wasn’t an anomaly in an ordinarily tame, orderly, and routine world, it was the real world in miniature Chinese repeating, dissolving perspective.  What incredible good fortune to have been sent there! He could take any Corona lock-down, brutal arrogation of power, overreaching by police hooligans and autocratic bureaucrats. 

Most people were appalled by the government reaction to Corona – such abuse of government authority! Such trampling of civil rights! Such abrogation of communal charters! Such barbarity! – but Herb was as cool as a cucumber. Brighty had not only prepared him for the worst, but the best of what was to come; for after all, as people remarked, “Is this the best that they can do?”.   Yes, indeed.

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