From Prison With Love, Why I Became An Activist Hacker

10/16/2016 10:41 am ET Updated Mar 08, 2017

Martin Gottesfeld wrote this article during his prison hunger strike. It is published here on his behalf by his wife, Dana Gottesfeld.

Marty Gottesfeld at his wedding in February 2015, one year before his arrest
Marty Gottesfeld at his wedding in February 2015, one year before his arrest

To start, let me apologize, first person short form really isn’t my thing. I’m an engineer, and I usually prefer the cold, impersonal, objective third-person factual statement. However, others have suggested a piece like this to follow up on my previous writing. This really shouldn’t be about me, but telling this story may be a good way to spread some obscure but vital facts.

In late 2013, at the behest of my girlfriend, who is now my darling wife, I investigated a therapeutic boarding school that her brother had been attending. She had visited him there that summer and was, to put it mildly, concerned about some of the things he told her. According to him, the staff were violent, and had hurt many kids. He also said the showers were always cold and the food was terrible.

Then there was “devo,” a very strict form of detention where kids were forced to sit with their backs straight, their feet within the boundaries of the desk, and either look straight ahead, or read mind-numbing propaganda. She was told that any deviation from these rules, even talking or laughing, led to hours and hours of additional “devo” time being metted out. The school, she was told, assigned large quantities of “devo” for nearly any and all reasons. Her brother reported that one of his friends was assigned 1,000 hours for a single offense.

Being a therapeutic boarding school, all of the students were there for treatment. Some had ADD or ADHD, others depression, and they had kids on the autism spectrum as well. I found the use of “devo” on these kids repugnant and contrary to every scientific, evidence-based treatment standard I had ever known.

She tried repeatedly to talk to her brother on the phone, but the school wouldn’t allow it. I found that particularly concerning.

Shortly into my investigation, things went from bad to worse. I found stories posted by alumni who referred to themselves as “survivors.” They spoke of cruel beatings and prolonged solitary confinement. The school wasn’t the only one if its kind either, it was just a small part of a “troubled teen industry.”

According to the American Bar Association in 2007:

Despite egregious abuses, these facilities continue to grow in number and size. The industry is booming and reportedly worth over a billion dollars. A parent may pay between $3,000-$5,000 per month to send their child or youth into a private unregulated residential treatment facility and not be able to monitor his or her progress because of rules limiting family contact. The industry prospers on promises to modify troublesome behavior and to make “bad” kids good. Its financial sustainability is ensured by frequent deceptive advertising on the internet that market facilities as offering an array of mental health and of educational services that are often not available or provided by unqualified staff.

In 2013, his public school district paid $7,500/month to have my girlfriend’s little brother subjected to this “treatment.” Kids on the autism spectrum (and I have dear friends on the spectrum) were bringing in $8,900/month to the “school.” It seemed to me that real treatment was expensive, whereas “devo” and solitary confinement were cheap. I was disgusted and felt an immediate need to act.

“I was beaten here. I have never feared anything more in my life.”– A public comment on a petition to shut the school down

My girlfriend and I campaigned tirelessly for three months to get her brother home. We spread a petition, launched a website, and with the help of Anonymous, trended the cause to shut that abhorrent place down on Twitter.

We filed complaints with every local, state, and federal authority we could. We dressed up and went to the FBI in person. No one would help. The educational accreditor simply didn’t care. Her parents felt we were disrespecting their authority and exaggerating the risks. They stopped taking her calls. In the end, we had to have an attorney draft a custody suit and disown them to get him home ASAP.

During that fight, we met many survivors. Their personal stories shocked our sensibility and touched our hearts. Their bravery, sharing their trauma, which was very difficult for them, in order to help a kid they did not know, but who was exactly where they had been, was inspiring. We heard of one youth who had been held in solitary confinement at the school for so long, he chewed the skin off of his big toe in order to force them to bring him off campus, to the hospital.

“LRA is an awful place... I’ll do whatever I can to save [him] from the bs and mental and physical torment that he’s in for.” ― A public comment on a petition to shut the school down

Once her brother was free, I couldn’t just turn my back and return to life as normal. This industry has operated nearly unchecked for decades. There are over 1,000 allegations of abuse/neglect every year, and no agency knows nor attempts to track the number of deaths. Despite numerous exposés and repeated attempts to pass legislation to enhance oversight, the kids continue to suffer and die. The FBI does not apply existing federal law to protect these children. In early 2014, an organization my wife and I co-founded was part of a semi-official effort to pass the “Keeping Students Safe Act.” It failed.

“This program and place is a horrible excuse to destroy any chance of working on whatever you need to. I saw kids getting abused, injected, and neglected at this horrible place. [W]orst year of my life.” ― A public comment on a petition to shut the school down

Then came the case of Justina Pelletier. Once again, a child was being denied the actual treatment they desperately needed. Once again, her contact with her family was being limited, monitored, and censored. Once again, a youth was being secluded, and once again, her life was in danger. However, this time a major hospital in my state was responsible.

Like us, her parents had called all the local/state authorities and gone to the FBI, and like us, none of those organizations would protect their family member. Time was running out.

After all the stories I had heard, and consulting for organizations of all sizes for over a decade, I knew the power of a punch to the pocketbook, and could not simply look away. So, I acted, in the way I was best qualified. I hope that you would have to.

There are hundreds of thousands of kids, like Justina, who need our help, and many if not most have no other advocates.

Martin Gottesfeld wrote this article during his prison hunger strike. He is demanding that the presidential candidates pledge to both work with legislators and direct law enforcement action to protect institutionalized youth. The last time he ate was on October 3rd. He is down 15.5 lbs. This article was posted by his wife on his behalf. A petition has been set up. Supporters have also launched www.FreeMartyG.com as well as a Facebook page, and Twitter account by the name FreeMartyG.

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