Today’s guest author is Jasmyne Arianna.
Jasmyne is a former at-risk youth and survivor who now advocates against institutional abuse, highlighting the systemic oppression of marginalized groups. Her son’s autism diagnosis led her to educate herself and advocate against seclusion and restraint. She also works with the National Youth Rights Association and is currently working toward a degree in child development. Jasmyne is also a volunteer with the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint.
Upstate New York was like nothing I’d ever seen. The single road rose, fell, and rounded every curve of nature’s course. As if to say that, at any moment, nature could swallow it whole if she really wanted to. Despite the horrors that led me here, it was absolutely breathtaking. A shimmer of hope fluttered in my chest. It was the dead of winter, but nothing was colder than the look in my mother’s eyes. Her husband was happier than I had seen him in a long time. Of course, he’s thrilled, and he doesn’t want me talking about the fact he had his hands around my neck.
I braced myself as we passed a sign that read Freedom Village USA: Premier Home for Troubled Teens.
We pulled into a long driveway to a massive property and parked near what I would come to realize was the admissions building. My mother turns and looks at me, “You need to go in there and tell these people you want to be here. Remember the deal, Jasmyne.” I roll my eyes. How could I forget? One year at this place and I can finally live with my grandmother. Which means I’ll have access to education and justice. All I have to do is keep my mouth shut about the abuse.
The rest of the day was a blur. Snapshots of me reciting my mother’s words to be taken in, strip searches, my stuff being taken away, a tour that ended with my half of the room, and a cot where I lay for hours, making myself as unnoticeable as possible. It all swirls in my head as everything fades to black.
Rinnnnnnnnnnnnnngggggggggg Rinnnnnnnnnnnnnnnggggggggggggg Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinggg, I’m jolted awake by what sounds like a fire alarm. “It’s just a wake-up call.” I turned around to see someone standing in my room. “It’s time to get dressed.” Momentary amnesia had me disoriented. Where the hell am I? Then it hits me. It wasn’t all a dream. I’m really here.
“You don’t have much time unless you want a 6-10.” Says my “big sister.” All new intakes had to be monitored at all times by a PC level or higher, which were dubbed your big sister.
We get to the cafeteria, and I realize how hungry I am. I asked for nearly one of everything they offered, so famished I don’t second guess the haughty looks in the server’s eyes. As I sat down to eat, I glanced up and noticed everyone at the table had fallen silent and were staring me down. At first, I thought it was because they thought I was gordita for getting so much food. It wasn’t until later, when I worked in the cafeteria did I realize that was the nonverbal warning not to eat the food.
We enter the chapel and sit down—boys on one side of the room, girls on the other. Fletcher Brothers walk in. The first thing I notice is how full of himself he was. I bet he cheats on his wife. This wasn’t my first rodeo. I’d seen corruption in the church before. After all, my mother was a pastor. All of them are the same shiny appearance in public, but the skeletons are vast behind closed doors. He begins to talk about the end of times that if suddenly the world was overtaken by the chaos, we would be ready and have enough ammo to protect ourselves. Later I would hear rumors that a bunker was located at a sister property. After his sermon, he reads write-ups and hands out punishment in front of everyone. As it comes to a close, we line up and head down to the schoolroom. I’m handed something called an ACE workbook. I began to flip through it and noticed it was Christian-based. I sigh. I hate religion. I cross my arms and lay my head down.
My mind hits play, and the reason I’ve been banished here comes to life, the memories replaying.
It’s Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday. Everyone at my mother’s church is having a block party for homeless and low-income families. Kids are running around, laughing, and playing with their new gifts. Parents are relieved to be having some food and games to bring home for tomorrow’s festivities. Me and my sister are standing there taking it all in. We were always helping set everything up and aiding whoever needed help, even at such young ages. Then HE arrives. As his wife is with his seven children having fun, he decides to come to sit next to us. I cross my arms as I notice him staring at our bodies, “How would you guys like to come stay the night with us today?” I reply no, and my sister says yes at the same time. I turn to her and say, “no, you don’t, sis.” She replies like any 11 year old would, “You’re not the boss of me.” I go to my mother and pull her to the side, “Listen, I know we aren’t on the best terms, but please listen to me and don’t let her go!” She scowled, “Stop letting the devil use you. Tomorrow morning you are to give him a hug and apologize.”
That night, I couldn’t sleep. Counting down the hours till I could make sure my sister was safe. I was beating myself for not going with her. I knew there was no way my mother would listen to me, but I had to try. She was angry with me for not wanting to be a Christian anymore. I cursed, listened to “worldly” music, wanted a boyfriend, and dressed in such a way that they convinced themselves I was in a gang without any actual evidence to back it up. But that was just the explanation she told everyone about why she was having problems with me. The real reason was that I would not let go of the abuse my sister and I had endured as young children. I begged her for years to go to the police, especially after I found out I had not protected my sister like I thought I had all those years ago – my abuser had gotten to her. That broke me more than anything. I could feel the knowledge of it all-destroying every ounce of sanity I had left. All this time, I rationalized my existence with the fact they had never touched her. Found solace in it during the darkest days of my life.
Yet, here I was again, hanging in the balance. “Please, god, if you’re really out there, please protect my sister.” A small part of me hoped I was delusional. Because if I wasn’t, that meant I really did leave her with a monster.
The next morning, I rushed to get ready to get to church. We get there, and I anxiously wait for him to arrive. He comes in, and I run to give him a hug and apologize. “Where’s my sister??” He puts his head down and walks away. At that moment, I knew in my heart that my intuition – my gut was right. I frantically search for her and catch a glimpse of her, my mother, him, and his wife sitting in the pastor’s office crying together. I try to enter, but the deacons force the door shut. I began to pace. I’m supposed to be watching the children in the nursery, but all I can do is pace. My sister finally emerged from my mother’s office crying – she never cries. “Tell me what happened!”
“They told me not to tell you. They told me not to tell you.” I grabbed her and took her to one of the empty youth rooms. “Tell me now! Please, I need to Know!”
“He touc-…….” She’s telling me what I knew this whole time. I see her lips moving, but I can’t hear her anymore. Suddenly, I’m opening the door and running out, trying to get Sunday service shut down, but I run into him in the hallway. I began to scream at him, and everyone near me was looking at me as if I had completely lost it. The truth was that I had completely lost it. He was well over six feet tall, and here I am in his face screaming bloody murder. I run into the chapel. The music is too loud. I’m trying to shut service down, screaming for the deacons to stop the music. They laugh at me. I’m screaming, but no one can hear me. This can’t be happening; this can’t be real life. Suddenly I am dragged away to my mother’s office. She looks me dead in the eyes and says, “Why are you trying to ruin my church?” I’m sobbing uncontrollably. I don’t want to live anymore; hell can’t be worse than this.
“Jasmyne…….Jasmyne!” I jolted up. “You can’t sleep during school time.” I stare at her blankly. I wish I could sleep permanently.
After school, I was assigned kitchen duty. I found out exactly why those stares were warranted. Everything that came into the cafeteria was from stores getting rid of expired food. Bologna, cream cheese, and other items had birthdays, some five years or older. Fruits and vegetables came nearly completely moldy, and we were forced to salvage whatever we could by cutting off the mold. Anytime we got anything remotely good, Mama Nue would bring it back to her place. This woman reminded me of an evil version of the old woman from Courage the Cowardly Dog. She was one of the ‘regardless of how perfectly we did x, y, or z, and it was never good enough because we weren’t white’ types. Our crew could leave it sparkling, pass the white glove inspection, and yet every single time, and we received write-ups. Regardless, I learned the ropes very quickly. One day a new girl came in and was doing everything wrong. I began to try to teach her, and she went straight to mama Nue, saying I was being rude to her. I try to comprehend what Nue is yelling at me, but all I can do is stare at her hand, gripping my arm as she drags me outside the cafeteria. & just like that, “YOU CAN’T TOUCH ME!” I scream and push her off of me. Suddenly another staff member asks what’s going on, and Mama Nue begins to cry.
“What did you do, Jasmyne?!”
“She put her hands on me, and I took her hands off of me. I know that none of you are allowed to touch me, NONE of you.” I could feel that familiar, ferocious feeling taking over me. No one touches me unless I consent – that much I knew. That much keeps me safe.
The next morning I am getting ready. It’s tradition for every new person to be asked by everyone where they are from, how old they are and what race. I replied nearly 100 times, “California, 14, Mexican.” This one time when my reply was met with, “Mexicans are nothing but rapists and drug dealers.” I had always gotten that vibe from my white counterparts but was horrified when it came from another person of color. I stood there stunned.
I wanted to defend myself, I was strong, but the fear of saying anything that could potentially make my stay here worse was stronger.
Later that day, it was time to write letters home. “Here’s a pen and paper; get it done.” I began detailing all the red flags I had seen so far. I hand it over to the staff member (name redacted), she reads it – then in one swift motion, she rips it to shreds. “Write it over again and say that you are having an amazing time and love it here.” & that’s just what I did. I wrote that this was the best place ever and everything was ok. I had no choice.
New intakes happened every so often. This one particular day, there was a girl from Canada who had come. Rumor was she was furious she could not find anything to cut herself with. I walked upstairs, and the smell of burning flesh stopped me right in my tracks. My room happened to be right across from the bathroom. As I approach, I peer into the bathroom and see the girl lying on the ground sobbing, staff members tending to her arm. A flat iron strewn across the room. I realized she had taken a hot iron to her arm. I run out of the door gasping for fresh air, not being able to get the smell of burnt flesh out of my nose. While everyone else is unphased, I am reeling in horror. Little did I know that I would never be able to get the smell of burnt flesh out of my memory.
Since I was a child, I have become a pro at making myself small and unnoticeable. Few staff members ever took any interest in me. But one had a significant impact on my entire experience. One night, in the midst of a night terror, I awoke to a staff member (name redacted) at my bedside. For once, someone really seemed to care… or so I thought. The staff member (name redacted) was a white woman who had gone through the program and then became a staff member. Apparently, she got the brunt of it all the time. Years later, I would realize this is why she terrorized me. She would write me up for the most frivolous things. When Fletcher Brothers would recite our write-ups at the pulpit and hand out punishment, she was never satisfied at how much I received and would ask him to up the ante on multiple occasions. One time, in particular, she asked him to give me more, and he said no. I’ll never forget the rage on her face. She just ended up writing me up again. It was a never-ending cycle.
Eventually, I heard there was a $100 grant for necessities that could be requested. Other girls told me the process, so I decided to ask. The staff member (name redacted) looked at me head to toe and replied, “No.” I chuckled, thinking she was joking. “I’m very serious.” She said with hollow eyes. “I meet the requirements – I literally don’t have enough warm clothing, winter gear, blankets, tampons, or soap.” She can’t be for real. “I said no, Jasmyne, leave my office.” My mother left me with only $20 and had never put more money into my account. I later found out someone else was approved right after my inquiry. You guessed it, a white girl. It wasn’t until I was featured on their radio program, aka adopt-a-teen, that I received anything – and it wasn’t enough to sustain.
On another occasion, there was a group of us girls who had a bond like no other. We had all been through sexual assault and leaned on each other for support until the staff member (name redacted) brought us into a room and interrogated us about being lesbians. We all were adamant that we weren’t but were still put on sepo – meaning we could not look, speak or be near each other. My only means of support was stripped away. I was alone again. The staff member (name redacted) just had it out for me.
Nothing I did was ever going to be good enough – I wasn’t good enough.
I joined the soccer team in hopes of being allowed more privileges, catching onto the fact that they favored anyone who proved useful. I was pretty good. Then one day, I stepped on the ball, feet flying in the air, and landed on my head. I couldn’t get up. The next thing I know, I’m being airlifted to the nearest hospital. The doctors are saying I have a severe concussion and prescribed medicine. I got back to the campus, and for the next couple of weeks, everything was a blur. Until I am floating outside of my body, I can see myself in the corner, rocking back and forth, laughing like a lunatic. I see the looks on everyone’s faces. They are concerned – I wasn’t the laughing type. The next thing I know, I’m back in the hospital & the doctors are aggravated about the medication, citing that serious damage will occur if the staff continue to prevent me from taking it. They didn’t believe in medicine – only Jesus heals.
It’s my four-month mark. For some reason, I am sitting in the front pew with the staff member (name redacted), which is not usual. Why did my birthday have to land on a Sunday? “Today, we have a birthday.” Fletcher Brothers booms as he gestures to me. I sit there mortified, hating that everyone in the congregation is now looking at me. Brothers paused momentarily to stare at me with a sly smile, “I bet you’d have all the boys in Watkins Glen lined up out the door.” I hear chuckles all across the congregation as anxiety grips me. That was the only thing Fletcher Brothers ever said to me my entire stay.
It’s been six months now. The punishments weren’t shit to me at first. I was so eager to prove they couldn’t break me I laughed each time they sentenced me in front of everyone at the pulpit.
Each time I stepped out into extreme weather to haul wood in a circle at 5 am, 6 pm-10 pm, unloaded trucks or scrubbed black mold off the tiles in the bathroom, cleaned staffs houses or other unsanitary tasks, I felt nothing but the satisfaction that they would never subdue me. But that was then. It’s different now. Although I have honored my mother’s wishes and kept the abuse a secret, people are starting to notice something is wrong with me. Night terrors keep me up. I’ll never forget the first time the girls tried to play a prank on me and got spooked when they learned I fought in my sleep. Good ole trauma responses, I guess. The flashbacks are becoming more frequent. I can’t seem to drown out the pain like I used to. It’s getting harder to remember exactly what I’m fighting for. When I look back at it, I see the tactics they used to get into my head. Nothing short of an abusive spouse who shows you a glimpse of love then, in that same swift motion, knocks you back into that pit of nothingness.
Deep down inside, I know that no matter how hard I work to achieve their model of success, they will always view me as less than – not equal. Rumors have started about me. No one believes I’m a virgin, have never drank, smoked, or had sex – & I don’t try to convince them otherwise. It makes lying about an abusive childhood so much easier when they create your narrative for you. It was the PTSD symptoms making it hard to conceal the real reason I was banished to Lakemont, NY.
Then one day, it slipped while talking to a staff member who could not understand what I was carrying that was so heavy. “I was abused!” I yelled. She sat back horrified, “I’m so sorry, I had no idea!”. I ran out of the room. Knowing her “horror” of my childhood would not be enough for her to do something to actually help me. Like everyone else, the horrors I endured were not worthy of being documented by a mandated reporter or filed in a report by the police station to go before a judge in court. Even as a young child, that spoke volumes to me. I wasn’t worthy of justice. Instead, complacency was being demanded of me. “It could be worse,” hurled at me. “Pray, forgive, and forget” being offered as the only solace to my lifetime of trauma.
Part of me hoped that now that two staff members had a small but significant detail about my past would make them go easier on me, but of course, it only gave them the ammo for the final act of breaking me down to my core.
“It’s time to see the doctor for a physical: Jasmyne, ——, ——-, ——, ——, follow me.” A handful of us are picked to go. Me right alongside the girl watching me for the day. I always had to have someone with me, no exceptions. It doesn’t matter if I was following the program or not. They didn’t trust me so much that I wasn’t allowed to ride the horses like the other girls in the horse barn. We head up to the office & sit down. Before girls begin to be called in, I turn and ask, “Can I please have a female staff member present with me during the exam?” The staff member (name redacted) looked at me coldly, “No.” I pleaded with her. She was one of the only ones who knew just how triggered I was by touch. Tears began to fill my eyes for the first time in a long time. He opens the door, calling my name. The girl watching me stays outside the door as I plead with my eyes for her to come with me. He shuts the door and instructs me to sit down. The strict no talking or looking at the opposite sex rule paired with my traumas paralyzes me. I can hardly speak and don’t dare to look him in the eye. “Now, I’m going to need you to bend over so I can check for scoliosis.” I began to panic, inching toward the door. “You can get in serious trouble if you don’t complete this.” I stopped. I couldn’t bear another 6-10 at that point. I bend over, and he positions himself behind me. I notice I’m clenching, squeezing my eyes shut as tears pour out. Nothing is happening; then, suddenly, I feel the hem of my skirt lifting, my body reacts. I jolt out the door, expecting to see my overseer, but she is nowhere to be found. I keep running until I am at the girls’ dorm. I run behind it, near the woods, and fall to the ground. As I enter full-blown panic, manic, PTSD mode, my mind is racing. Why did they leave me by myself? I bet he’s already called it in that I wasn’t compliant. Why me?! I try to brace myself for the horde of staff and jr. staff heading my way. Twenty minutes pass. Thirty minutes pass. An hour passes. Nothing. No frenzy, no search party, and when I finally had the courage to go back to the dorm – there were no questions, no write-ups regarding the situation. No one had even noticed. Or so I thought. Then I caught a glimpse of the staff member’s (name redacted) face, and her eyes were smiling. That’s when it hit me – they left me alone on purpose. I cannot conjure any other logical explanation to them, leaving me to escort myself back when I was never allowed to do anything alone.
That did it. The hard armor that was keeping them subduing me had fallen off. I was vulnerable for the first time in a long time. I began to cut myself again, using whatever I could get my hands on. The next 5-minute phone call I was allowed with my mother, I began to cry and plead to come home. As I am begging, they end the phone call. I’m written up for it. As they read my name in the chapel and handed out my punishment, I bawled my eyes out.
I’m at the 10-month mark. I’m reciting that I only have two months left like a prayer. Two months left, two months left, two months left, two months left. I repeat it to myself. Over and over, I repeat it as they continue to overwork me.
As I am delirious from lack of sleep. I perform every harsh punishment. That morning, I had no idea I was going to snap. You see, racism and discrimination of the marginalized were the norms. And for a while, I had gotten used to it. Heavier workloads, unreachable perfectionistic expectations, and harsh punishments kept me busy.
That morning, I had gotten in line for the routine dress check. I only had three outside outfits: one for school, one for the horse barn, and one for church given to me and approved by a staff member. In front of me was a girl who was nothing short of privileged. She was wearing something noticeably tight with a flimsy cardigan over it but was still approved as usual. As I step up, put my hands over my head, spin, and bend over, I begin to walk away. After all, this outfit was already pre-approved by staff. “Wait.” I turn and look at the staff member (name redacted), “Go change; this outfit is not approved today.” I stand there stunned until it begins to make the most sense. She knew I only had horse barn clothing that smelled of horse shit. That was the only other thing I had to wear besides this outfit. She’s smiling like she’s enjoying this, really believing I would allow her to degrade me. I became enraged by the blatant discrimination. “FUCK THIS!” I stormed to my room, the staff member (name redacted) trailing after me. I took the clothes off and crawled back into bed. “GET UP!” she yelled. “Make me! Oh, that’s right, you’re not allowed to put your hands on me, so someone’s shit out of luck.” For the first time in a long time, I got some much-needed rest. They never let us take a break. It was non-stop, designed that way to keep us halfway delirious and docile. When I awoke, everyone was still gone. When they returned, I was put on iso, confined to my room. I heard through the grapevine that my mother had been called and told I was being kicked out of the program. She begged and pleaded with them to keep me. But they were as done with me as I was with them.
It’s the day. I’m finally leaving this hellhole for good. I smile as my belongings that were taken away on my day of arrival are returned to me. I put on my clothes, makeup, and hoop earrings for the first time in 10 months. I walked out the front door and heard cries from the girls, sad to see me leave, believing I would end up dead. I pay them no mind as I step out into the sunshine, pausing to take in the property’s view for the last time. I am loaded into a van and taken to the airport, where I am given the ticket and told I would have to transfer planes multiple times to get home. Well aware of how at-risk I am for human trafficking, I stay in book and trinket shops between flights, scared even to use the bathroom least someone catch on I am a minor flying alone. As the last plane touched down in Fresno, California. I smile. I made it. I believed that my mother would take account of the fact that I was emotionally abused, discriminated against, put in vulnerable situations, and forced into child labor.
The first thing I asked was when I would be able to go to my grandmother’s house? My mother scowled, “You didn’t finish the program. That was the deal.”
“Only by two months, and it was a horrible experience!” I began to try to explain to her what I had gone through, but she didn’t want to hear it. In her eyes, I was still untrustworthy, a devil-filled heathen. I eventually realized that no one expected me ever to return. Instead, it was hoped that I would be paired and married off like so many FVA’ers before me. Side note: the brown paper bag test was used for dating at freedom village. Yet I was, making them all uncomfortable because I still wouldn’t let it go. I’ll never forget the day I awoke to a message in my inbox, citing that she had been raped by a prominent individual at Freedom Village. I was shaken. All these years, I had been trying to forget what I went through but couldn’t. It was continuously pulling at my heartstrings. I began to tell my mother what was going on, and she looked at me and said, “Why are you so concerned? You’re not there anymore.” What she didn’t know was that mentally I was still there. Since I arrived there, I knew things were worse than they seemed, but as I began to learn that it was worse than I had ever imagined.
I joined a group called Freedom Village Truth. As I began to connect with people again through the group, I started commenting on some of the red flags, incidents, and forms of punishment that negatively impacted the youth who went there. I was met with various negative feedback, most commonly gaslighting, discriminatory comments, and people using scripture to justify. Every time I mentioned anything that didn’t speak in a positive light toward Freedom Village USA, it was deleted. There was a culture of silence, mostly because people were fearful of lawsuits or had been brainwashed that if they spoke ill of FV, then God would strike them down. I’ll never forget the first time I was threatened by Fletcher’s Alumni. At that point in my life, I was not fearful of anything, especially death. For a decade, anyone trying to talk about what happened at Freedom Village USA was censored.
That’s when I created a group initially called Freedom Village Uncensored. Not many joined out of the 500 in FV Truth, but it was a safe space for survivors from day one. Then one day, I noticed one of the staff’s sons was no longer active on the FV Truth page & I started ruffling feathers because my comments were no longer being deleted. Soon after, a survivor who created the group reached out to me and asked me to become an admin. I was shocked but said yes. It took a long time to weed out the gaslighters and racists in order to make that group a safe space. Although we were now uncensored, we still didn’t know that we could actually do something to get FV shut down.
In 2019, Freedom Village USA announced that they were moving from upstate NY to South Carolina. Jennie, Liz Runge, and I sprung into action and were later joined by Gabriel Gonzalez and Josh Cook. Because Liz lived in South Carolina, she immediately hit the ground running. Knocking on doors and talking with the community about the abuse, neglect, and exploitation we endured. Since Liz was an EMT, she was able to secure a town hall meeting in Sunset, South Carolina. Last-minute no one but her from our group could make it. “Jaz, I don’t think I can do this…” “I’m so sorry, sis. I wish we could be there. Remember what we are fighting for.” She mustered all the strength she had as she placed her phone so the hundreds of us watching live could see everything in real-time. She had set up a table with all of our statements & actual quotes from the opposition who was there, making it all even more nerve-wracking. On behalf of us all, she began to speak even though her voice shook. As she presented the presentation we created, you could see the community of South Carolina becoming enraged. Many of us cried as we watched the community of Sunset, South Carolina, stand up for us so much so that at one point when Jonathan Bailie, FV’s partner at the time, rose to speak after Liz was done, the crowd erupted, forcing him off the stage. “Aren’t you partnering with these horrible people?” While the opposition may have come confidently, they left feeling foolish. Not only did the SC community defend us that day, but they helped us by talking with DSS and elected officials, making the impossible possible: Freedom Village USA and their partners retreated and fled to Florida.
The victory we felt was short-lived. We found out that we were not an isolated case like we had initially thought. We learned of the “Troubled Teen” Industry. Gabriel, Josh, and I couldn’t stop fighting to protect youth from what we had endured even after FV was buried and gone. So we began to contact our elected officials to talk about state and federal legislation, encouraging everyone we knew to do the same.
In 2020, during COVID-19, the Freedom Village Experience team wrote a letter detailing the abuse, neglect, and exploitation youth were currently facing, highlighting the medical negligence in these facilities that caused many youths to test positive for COVID-19.
In September of 2021, the Freedom Village Experience Team founded the We Warned Them Campaign. We Warned Them is a campaign calling on the end of institutional abuse. We advocate for legislation to prevent future generations from experiencing the neglect, abuse, and exploitation that have taken the lives of countless youth – Paige Elizabeth Lungsford, David Hess, Shaquan Allen, Kirsta TJ Simons, Naomi Wood, and Cornelius Fredericks, to name a few of the 350+ who’ve died in underregulated facilities.
While we focus on youth rights, we fight for human rights in general as it intersects within the framework of our advocacy.
Never in a million years did I think I would survive not only to tell the tale but help shut down Freedom Village and continue to use my voice to advocate for the rights of youth everywhere.