Chris Hoangvan started getting into trouble when he was just 14-years-old.
“I’m not innocent, you know. I’ve broken the law plenty of times.”
He eventually wound up at the Eldora State Training School For Boys. Kids here have committed multiple crimes, some as serious as murder, have failed at least one out-of-home placement and are between the ages of 12 and 18.
Hoangvan did time here twice.
“I had actually stolen a truck and eluded police on a chase.”
During his last stay, he was assigned to Corbett Miller Hall, also known as the Specialized Treatment Unit, or the STU. It’s made up of a common area and 24 rooms, or as Hoangvan calls them, isolation pods.
“You get like a stainless steel toilet, a mirror that looks like the inside of a pop can and you get pretty much a cement slab that you lay on all day.”
Hoangvan says he was confined to the pod for weeks on end.
“I stayed in isolation for like three weeks. I came out one hour, rec time, read the newspaper. Um that was pretty much it.”
Mark Day the Superintendent at Eldora is suspect.
“Highly, highly unlikely that those circumstances are accurate,” says Day.
Day is also the Interim Superintendent at the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo. It’s come under scrutiny recently for similar isolation practices, or as Day prefers to call it, seclusion.
“That is an extremely rare circumstance that they’re in there that long,” says Day. “Unless they’re acting out, they go out for meals, they socialize there’s a TV, books.”
The majority of Eldora’s population, which on the day we visited was 129, attends daily classes or vocational programs, like woodworking and welding.
Day says students are secluded only if they’re an escape risk or exhibit self-harming, destructive behaviors. What longterm good does it do?
“Very little,” according to Carl Kruger, a Youth Counselor Supervisor.
Kruger has worked at Eldora for decades. He’s seen a change in the boys entering Eldora. He says the number of students suffering from psychiatric disorders is growing.
“And this is the biggest change that I’ve seen in my 30-years, are our special needs kids… mental health, history of abuse, low functioning, multiple diagnoses, including now, disorders on the autism spectrum.”
At Eldora, isolation may be the only way to keep those students safe. But it’s effectiveness otherwise, is debatable.
Kimberley Negrete, Hoangvan’s mother, believes it stunted her son’s development.
“It’s not an easy answer and I realize it’s a problem. I realize that there needs to be a place, like I said, for them to be accountable. However, they’ve got to take into consideration they still are kids.”
Kids, who according to Hoangvan, have no voice.
“No kid should have to experience that.”