There wasn’t much to like about Tyler when he was 14. A lean, white kid who looked several years older than his age, he was covered in tattoos, including the letters “T-H-U-G” written across the fingers of his right fist. Having fled the home of an uncle who’d been trying to straighten him out, he was living on his own in a rented apartment in downtown Milwaukee, subsisting on a predawn routine of burglarizing parked cars. He landed in jail after he yanked a purse from a 78-year-old woman, who fell to the sidewalk in the scuffle, breaking her arm and hip. She developed pneumonia in the hospital and died there within the month.

Tyler dodged a murder charge by confessing to strong-arm robbery. He spent a few weeks at the Lincoln Hills School, a fenced-in reformatory for 230 boys, in Irma, Wisconsin, but was transferred out after he fought with other inmates, made threats to kill his uncle, and was caught hiding a list of explosive materials in his cell.

Tyler’s chances that he’d have a normal, peaceful life, lived freely among others, declined further after the results came back from a clinical test meant to determine whether he might be a budding psychopath. Throughout the U.S. prison system, this fearsome label—the word psychopath literally means “diseased mind”—distinguishes the most hard-bitten predators, those least likely to benefit from therapy and most likely to commit new crimes. Canadian psychologist Robert Hare, a prominent authority in criminal psychology, says psychopaths make up barely one percent of the U.S. population, yet account for as much as 50 percent of violent crime.

The test given to Tyler was a juvenile version of the widely used Psychopathy Checklist, which Hare designed more than 30 years ago. It rated Tyler on a range of noxious traits common to adult psychopaths, including egocentricity, grandiosity, pathological lying, lack of remorse, lack of empathy, and “a parasitical lifestyle.” He scored high across the board.

In the past few decades, an increasing amount of research and popular books on psychopaths, including Hare’s bestselling trade books, have supported the notion that some people are simply hardwired to do evil. Brain-scan analyses have detected both anatomical and physiological differences believed to contribute to cruel behavior. Clinical trials have found evidence of “callous and unemotional” tendencies, considered potential precursors to psychopathy, in children as young as 5. Through it all, Hollywood has churned out new contributions to a mini-genre of films about “bad-seed,” havoc-wreaking children born to well-meaning parents.

Does such villainy really occur? The idea, at least, is that it does exist in a wide variety of cultures. In one oft-cited report, the Harvard researcher Jane Murphy noted that Inuits living near the Bering Strait have a special word (kunlangeta) for “a man who . . . repeatedly lies and cheats and steals things and . . . does not pay attention to reprimands.” When she asked what might become of such a person, she was told that “somebody would have pushed him off the ice when nobody else was looking.”

Tyler’s diagnosis might easily have led him to be pushed off the metaphorical ice—segregating him from other inmates, preventing his parole, and predicting an inevitable spiral of defiance and punishment—except he got lucky. His warden transferred him to the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in Madison, Wisconsin, a last resort for the state’s most violent and emotionally disturbed youth. The year was 1996, and the program was just a year old.

Sixteen years later, the 29-bed center remains rare, if not unique, among juvenile prisons in two outstanding ways. Located next to a state mental hospital, it’s run by shrinks, not wardens, and its continuing existence is assured by uncommon peer-reviewed research, including the striking finding that it’s reduced new violent offenses by 50 percent. “They’ve attracted a lot of interest and excitement after decades of people saying that nothing can be done for this population,” says University of Wisconsin–Madison psychologist Joseph Newman, a leading expert in the field.

To be sure, this isn’t a population that readily attracts sympathy, much less taxpayer dollars. Over the years, roughly half of the center’s inmates, all boys between the ages of 12 and 17, landed there after killing or seriously injuring people: stabbing, shooting, or breaking bones. Most began their criminal careers long before they’d reached their teens. All have scored high for psychopathic traits. Two raped their own grandmothers. Several set cats on fire. Asked to describe the most exciting thing he’d ever done, one boy could barely stop laughing long enough to tell his therapist how, at the age of 13, he’d poured lighter fluid on a stranger’s leg and then tossed a lit match, burning the man badly enough to require a month in a hospital.

On Tyler’s arrival at Mendota, he was assigned one of its standard, single-occupancy cells, with a steel door, a narrow window, and a mattress on the floor. Those quarters contrasted with a comparatively luxurious standard of daily care—costing roughly double the average rate among mainstream youth-detention centers—an expense owing mainly to the center’s high staff-to-inmate ratio. That unusual proportion allows for several exceptional benefits, including large doses of one-on-one and group therapy, and two hours of daily supervised recreation for every inmate on reasonably good behavior. Yet another rare advantage is a full-time, on-site psychiatrist, who meets individually with inmates and prescribes and monitors medications. Most of Mendota’s wards take one or more psychiatric drug, from mood stabilizers to stimulants for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD), to medications for anxiety and insomnia. Perhaps most important, though, Mendota’s high staff-to-inmate ratio means that its employees have the time, energy, and mandate to create personal bonds with the boys behind bars.

Through the years, the Mendota center has preserved its high standards, despite severe fiscal pressures on Wisconsin’s state budget. That commitment has made it one of America’s boldest investments in defiance of biological determinism.

About the Author

Katherine Ellison

Katherine Ellison is a Pulitzer Prize winning author.

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