Scared Sober: Using Death as a Deterrent
The most unfair thing about life is the way it ends. I mean, life is tough. It takes up a lot of your time.
- George Carlin
Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It's the transition that's troublesome.
- Isaac Asimov
Please see important note in red below!
by Erika Hayasaki
Alternative sentence allows drunk driving offenders to get a life lesson at the county coroner's office
Two erect arms poked out of the bloodstained sheet. Craig Harvey, chief of operations for the Los Angeles County coroner's office, pushed one of them gently down. It bounced back. "Jesus," said Vanessa Rice, 20, who watched the scene last week as part the Youthful Drunk Driving Visitation Program. "This makes you want to drink."
The body had been discovered in a parking lot just hours earlier. Its arms were in rigour mortis, the natural stiffening of the muscles after death. No autopsy had been done, but a possible cause of death was heroin overdose.
Linking Behaviour to Consequences
Established in Los Angeles County in 1989, the Youthful Drunk Driving Visitation Program was created as an alternative sentencing method for defendants ages 16 to 24 caught driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. It is designed to make its participants think about the consequences of their actions by letting them see death up close at the largest coroner's office under one roof in the country. The program has since expanded to include defendants who have committed other minor offenses such as speeding, drug or weapons possession or truancy. And judges also now use it as a sentence for anyone older than 16.
The three-hour classes are held three times a week, with about 20 offenders per session. The program begins with a series of graphic photos depicting gruesome deaths that occurred as a result of drunk driving accidents. There is a tour through the autopsy rooms and "the crypt," a 42-degree cooling room that can store nearly 300 bodies. Class ends with a speech by a surviving victim, such as Michele Sapper, who was disabled by a drunk driver in 1984. "Sometimes you're forced to live with what you're left with," Sapper said. "The dead people are gory and gross, but I am reality."
During a recent session, Harvey reached under the sheet that was loosely wrapped around the man who probably died of a drug overdose. The coroner's official pulled out a baseball cap that was found with the body. The embroidered words on it read: "2000 Party Crew." "He ain't partying no more," said a young man who had been sentenced to the program for drunk driving.
Marlene Kristovich, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, rallied support for the program in its early stages. Since then, she has frequently taken advantage of the alternative sentencing method because, she said, it can be a wake-up call. Several thousand defendants have completed the program over the years. "You have to evaluate the offender in front of you, and if you think it might benefit them, then use it," she said. "It makes you stop and think ... about who you might hurt, what destruction might happen and who, other than yourself, is affected by what you're doing."
Ivia Cotto, 20, who was sentenced to the program for driving faster than 100 mph, said seeing dead bodies was heartbreaking. Cotto's baby was in the car when she was caught speeding. After watching a slide show that included a photo of a baby whose neck was broken in a car accident, Cotto gasped. "I needed something like this for me to realise how important it is for me to drive safely," she said. "It was an awful lesson. It's never going to happen again in my life."
When the fact that someone's life can end so easily does not jolt participants, the gruesome realities inside the exam and storage rooms can. The scent is stifling: a combination of odours from bodies that have not been washed, from human decomposition and from disinfectant that is used to clean the building. "This isn't working!" said one participant, referring to the surgical mask he was wearing to block germs, as he caught a whiff of the smell.
Critics Question Program's Usefulness
A bug zapper, which catches flies, buzzed periodically. Participants looked into the first autopsy room. A nearly naked male body rested on a metal gurney. The face and genitals were covered with sheets. A giant belly was exposed, baring a rainbow swirl of colour. The pink and red came from livor mortis, post-death skin discolouration. The blue, green and purple indicated that decomposition had begun. Next, the participants peered through a window into the forensic autopsy room. A medical examiner wearing a protective blue suit and a respiratory mask sewed up a woman's body. Her chest had been carved open in the shape of the letter Y, from shoulder to shoulder, and then down the rib cage. The body looked plastic, mannequin-like. The only sign that this skin-covered shell had once been alive was the vivid red blood inside the open chest.
"Ew, ew! Oh, my God!" said a female participant, as she jumped up and down while watching the end of the autopsy. The group continued down the hall, passing a corpse covered except for its feet - each one displaying five perfectly painted red toenails. Then, the participants looked into the chilly storage room. Inside, unclaimed bodies were lined up on what resembled four-level bunks. Each body was wrapped in sheets of plastic, looking, Harvey said, "like burritos." Although officials hope the program shocks defendants into corrective behaviour, critics call it heavy-handed and ineffective.
Dr Marc Kern, a counselor for Addiction Alternatives in Los Angeles, said people are more likely to change if they receive help boosting their self-esteem and gaining access to job and educational opportunities. "There's no understanding of where they are psychologically," he said. "It's like going to a scary movie. It may numb them to further realities. It's not hitting them where they need to be reached." Lloyd Amborn, operations administrator for the San Diego County coroner, said his office decided not to create such a program, even though the state had suggested it. "Our medical examiner just feels it is an inappropriate thing to do," Amborn said. "If they see an autopsy, for youngsters, that can be very traumatizing. It's a very invasive procedure."
Lucious Champagne, 42, who went through the program last week as punishment for drunk driving, called it fascinating. He wished his 18-year-old daughter could have gone through it too. For Rice, the experience of receiving a drunk driving ticket has changed her perspective. Spending the night in jail, having her license suspended, getting fined, and ultimately, seeing dead bodies for the first time, was harshly enlightening, she said. "I will never drink and drive again," she said. Coroner's officials hope that is true. Harvey told participants to ask themselves what they can do to avoid their next - and final - visit to the coroner's office for as long as possible. "We don't want your business," he said. "I really mean it when I say, I hope I never have to see any of you again."
Source: Los Angeles Times Friday 30 November 2001
NOTE: I am NOT a professional! I do NOT run this programme. Furthermore, I don't agree with it. I happen to agree with the sentiments expressed here:
If anyone knows where I can redirect these people, please let me know. And PLEASE DO NOT CALL ME ABOUT THIS PROGRAM. I have received DOZENS of calls from people wanting contact information. I don't have it and wouldn't give it to you if I did!
Original Message --------
I have 2 nieces that have really gotten out of control. They recently ran away for 2 weeks, without even a phone call. One has a child, which in the 2 weeks she didn't call to see if the child was sick or anything else. The other one is still missing, but her "so called" friends know where she is, but won't tell. We have the police involved and have put out fliers. We are now at our wits end with this situation. This is the last straw.
Their grandmother has struggled to support them, plus their other 2 siblings. She saved them from the state and this is the thanks that she received. The grandmother is their legal guardian. She agrees that we need to seek help from another source. I suggested your program.
We all have talked to them about their behaviour, but to no avail. If you could help us, it would be greatly appreciated.
I was surprised to receive the above email. It took some thought to realise what the writer must have meant when she referred to "your program".
I did not reply to this writer for two reasons:
Though I did not personally reply to the writer of this email, I would like to express my thoughts here for any further browsers with these sorts of problems. I feel there are two separate issues here; one is the nieces, the other the baby. I will deal with these separately.
First, the nieces. The subject of the email, "Unappreciative children", tells me a lot. The emailer is outraged and aggressive. I can find no empathy or concern for the nieces - indeed, perhaps positive feelings have all been eroded away. That may be understandable at this point, but it is unhelpful and exacerbates the situation. No mention is made of the girls' ages. They could be 14 or they could be 17. This matters.
The nieces appear to be quite unhappy at home. And the situation does not sound like a joyful one. Are either of their parents alive? Is money a problem? (How could it not be?) Have they been left to more-or-less raise themselves while the grandmother works to make money to support them? If lessons on responsibility were taught, those lessons don't seem to have been well-received.
Perhaps professionals could help both sides to make changes. Role playing? Talk therapy? I assume there are stock tools which could be used. Are the girls using illegal drugs? Do they exhibit risky behaviour? Is the grandmother in good health? Are the two other siblings older or younger? Are they coping with life? Is any one sibling favoured in a noticeable way?
Maybe one or both girls could live with someone else for a while, with the understanding that either could return home at any time as long as she was willing to sign an agreement to follow specifically detailed house rules. (A "break" from a dysfunctional situation sometimes helps and may be one of the things the nieces sought by leaving home.) Are the girls still in school and doing well there? Is some method of birth control readily available and its use encouraged?
Now for the baby. (I have a worrying feeling that the scene with the nieces may be repeated in 12 - 15 years.) How old is the child? Where is the baby's father? Does he still have a relationship with the child's mother? Is he employed and contributing to the child's upkeep? Or is he, too, a child himself? A baby needs parents. Men in this family seem in short supply. Is the grandmother also the baby's legal guardian? Is the baby wanted/loved by either of its parents? Is there someone in the world who loves this baby better than anything? Is adoption an option?
Perhaps the involved parties should contact social services. (I assume this action would be helpful, but I could be wrong.) In any case, I wish them all well. If nothing else, time will change the face of their problems. As long as everyone stays alive, there is hope.
LOTS More Emails Keep Arriving - Here Are Only a Few Samples...
-------- Original Message --------
This message was posted via the Feedback form.
-------- Original Message --------
Hello My name is Mrs. ¢¢¢¢,
I have a 15 yr. old kid that I wish to get into a scared straight program. I live in the state of Virginia. I really want to catch him before he is unreachable this is his 2nd time suspended from school this year and it is never his fault. Can you help me?
This message was posted via the Feedback form.
PLEASE HELP ME.MOM
This message was posted via the Feedback form.
I worked in the prison system for 10 yrs watching many people fall through the cracks and I don't know how to reach my son. He is a good kid and he just doesn't know how to focus his energy in a positive way. He has never been in trouble with the law and I plan on keeping it that way. Would this program be for him and do you think it would help?
I repeat, I am NOT a professional. If anyone knows where I can redirect these people, please let me know. My personal advice is get to know your kids - put your attention on them. Don't judge. Be sympathetic. Find out who they are - their heroes, fears, aspirations - how do they view their own lives? What do they want for the future? What kind of help do they think they need? What are their friends like? How are their friends' parents coping?
-------- Original Message --------
Hello, first and foremost I would like to thank you for posting such informative material online, because I have to attend this program in a couple of weeks now, because last year I was arrested for a DUI in the county of Los Angeles.
I admit that I am terrified just by the thought of being forced to walk through a rotting morgue. I believe that it is too much, there are plenty of alternatives to enrich "positively" a young persons mind, and help them make the right decisions without having to traumatize them.
This shock treatment could only be done in the United States of America, as part of the H.A.M. (Hospital And Morgue) program, I have already been to the hospital where they sit you through 4 hours of lectures and gruesome videos. I was already shocked and disgusted by that, to the point that 4 months have passed and I still get flashbacks, and I always think about the worst in any driving circumstance, all my friends and girlfriend can't take my whining anymore.I was shocked, and scarred, but I learned a LOT. But then again I was there with other kids my age (21) that weren't harmed by the videos, and furthermore they were telling me how excited they were to see the dead bodies at the morgue. Kids younger than me, within the ages of 17 to 20 were thrilled, wearing death metal and punk rock shirts, they thought that seeing a bunch of slaughtered corpses was "cool".
We live in one of the most diverse societies of the world (Los Angeles), we're not all the same, the same methods won't work on all of us, and I believe that they can have terrible effects on others.
What ever happened to positive and constructive thinking? Only in the U.S.A can a problem be brutally fixed, after it has already happened, and be justified. Why can't we try fixing the problem before it erupts, how about classes, seminars, groups that promote self-esteem, self-fulfillment, how to reach success, using our brains in the right direction.
My mom told me that in her high-school the teachers would sit the kids through the same videos I saw at the hospital, how come they don't do that anymore? A video like that (Red Asphalt) would inform many ingenuous kids to watch out.
I read all these e-mails about parents complaining about their childrens' mood disorders, lying, running away from home... What the heck is wrong with these people, hasn't anyone ever heard of problems beginning at a root source? Do all these people believe that problems in children just pop up out of nowhere, or as a result of their negligence?
People... the problem starts at the PARENTING, if you're not there for half of your son/daughter's childhood, because you're too busy working or too busy partying, or just too damn lazy, it's not right to take extreme actions like these to fix problems that you helped create. If the children represent the FUTURE, and the parents raise the children, and the parents make probably 60 - 70% of the society that the children grow up in, then it's not hard to tell, that "Bad parenting is the source of a BAD SOCIETY."
I was a troubled kid myself, drugs, alcohol, sex, the whole ordeal. I blame 3/4 of it on myself, and 1/4 of it on my parents. My dad wasn't there for most of my childhood, and now, we have all sorts of comprehension problems, gee, I wonder why. "Maybe cuz you weren't there when I was growing up (the most important years of my life)!"
Did people forget that from age 0 to 18 kids form a personality that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives? And did people forget that the average person makes 80% of their choices as a result of their "personality"? So a better childhood would be the source of a better adulthood, which would be the source of a better SOCIETY.
Somebody isn't doing their jobs right, and I'm tired of people blaming everything on mood-swinging teenagers. Because WE CREATE those mood-swinging teenagers, we form them ever since they're toddlers, so if there's someone to blame, take a look in the mirror.
So to all those e-mails from parents complaining about their pesky brats I say "take a look at yourself, read some parenting books, take some courses, find out what the problem is yourself, you can do it, instead of complaining online and trying to send your kids to see decomposing bodies."
You people make me sick.
This morgue thing is absurd.
Thanks for your time.
Thank you for writing. Your children should benefit from your experience. Approximately 20% of the population falls into the category of "sensitives" - they would clearly have a very different experience when viewing the dead than the 20% falling at the opposite end of the spectrum. To lump everyone together goes beyond silly - but it happens all the time.
For articles on education covering subjects taught, tests, costs, boredom, honour, rites of passage, rigid rules, cliques, thinking, learning, homeschooling, creating,
brilliance, ongoing education and more, click the "Up" button below to take you to the Table of Contents for this section.