John Dixon's new YA novel Phoenix Island draws inspiration from the "Kids for Cash" scandal

Pennsylvania’s notorious juvenile-detention scandal has spawned two new works of storytelling: a hard-hitting documentary that’s out this week, and a local author’s hot new young-adult adventure.

By Bill Chenevert
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Feb. 4, 2014

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Justin Bodnar, at the age of 12, was incarcerated for mouthing off to a fellow student’s mom on the way to the bus stop. He spent nearly seven years in detention. Hillary Transue and two girlfriends started a MySpace page that playfully mocked their vice principal. Her mother will never forget the moment she was shackled and taken into state custody on charges of harassment. Amanda Lorah threw a punch at an ex-girlfriend in a fit of rage one day. She lost her teenage years wondering how that warranted confinement to an isolation cell.

Justin, Hillary and Amanda are just a few of the subjects of producer and director Robert May’s new documentary, Kids for Cash, which chronicles the story of two judges in Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County who accepted kickbacks to keep the for-profit juvenile detention system flush with occupants. It’s one of the biggest courtroom scandals in state history, and landed the two judges in prison several years ago—detention centers that may actually be kinder than the ones where they sent thousands of kids. (See sidebar, next page.)

The racketeering case against the judges was the fodder of headlines throughout 2008 and 2009. But—what about the kids?

Imagining their lives, irrevocably fucked by a corrupt system, fueled the creative impulses of John Dixon, a Philadelphia-area teacher, tutor and boxer. The novel he proceeded to write from that inspiration, Phoenix Island, hit bookstores last month courtesy of Simon & Schuster. It’s a young-adult novel shelved in the “survival fiction” genre that’s become all the rage since The Hunger Games hit it big—not an account of the Luzerne kids-for-cash scandal, but a speculative adventure that imagines an even more extreme version of it.

Carl Freeman, the novel’s protagonist, is an orphan from Philadelphia whose proclivity to standing up against injustice (read: bullying) mixes dangerously with his championship boxing prowess in unfortunate ways. His fists get him into trouble—in school, in foster homes, and finally with the law. Eventually Carl finds himself face-to-face with a judge not wholly unlike the real-life ones, who’s got a secret and unsavory agenda in sentencing Carl to a military-style boot camp where he finds himself pitted for his life against cruel wardens and other desperate teenagers.

There are also similarities, of course, to both The Hunger Games and an earlier predecessor, the 2001 Japanese sci-fi thriller Battle Royale, about a class of high-school students battling one another for survival in a well-monitored island hunting ground. This isn’t a new concept—indeed, Hollywood returns to it again this year with the upcoming movie Divergent—but with Phoenix Island, Dixon has struck that magic mix of luck, timing and talent. Not only has the book gotten a big push from the publisher, it was optioned even before publication by CBS, who used it as the inspiration for this year’s new spy drama Intelligence (which, it must be said, bears very little resemblance to its source material).

In Phoenix Island, Dixon makes the smart storytelling choice to make all his fictional detainees orphans. It allows for a little more mystery and lawlessness than was at play in the real kids-for-cash case, because the question then becomes: Even if these brutal injustices are exposed, will anyone care enough to do something about it?

“It’s super-terrifying when you take the law, the thing that protects us, and it becomes an agent for the worst type of exploitation,” Dixon says. “It’s using all these engines that are in place to protect us to exploit those who have no advocates.

“The judge is the person you put all your faith and hope in. To have learned that people were taking kids, shipping them to privately owned institutions for minor crimes, and getting millions of dollars in kickbacks—it's disgusting, it's scary.”

Dixon saw a huge creative stomping ground in the scary realm of juvenile detention centers. “I started looking into these teen bootcamps,” he says, “and found out there are ones opened outside of the U.S. and kids can be sent there—the idea being that those bootcamps are not under U.S. law. Meanwhile, I had this 18-page character sketch of Carl… I just didn’t have a story for him. But when I found out about these bootcamps—if these judges could do this in real life, what could they do in fiction? Kids-for-cash enraged me, lead me to further research, and made me ask questions about, What’s the worst that could happen?”

Well, he decided, a lot.

Dixon’s debut novel is nicely poised to spawn a continuing series of YA books. In fact, Intelligence picks up one of the small details that becomes more important toward the end of Phoenix Island as a setup for future stories: brain-implanted computer chips.

One twisted aspect of Dixon’s island bootcamp is that not only do kids disappear while warring factions materialize a la Lord of the Flies, but slowly and surely it becomes clear that the adults on Phoenix Island may not be offering tough love—but rather are outright malevolent. They’re conducting military experiments, using Carl and his peers as lab rats. And the man in charge is the leader of a special team of anti-terrorist mercenaries. When Carl’s introduced to this zealous group, they indoctrinate him in the military concept of the “OODA loop”: observe, orient, decide and act.

“Special Forces guys obsess over something called the OODA loop, and I wanted Carl to become the ultimate OODA loop,” Dixon explains. That idea is only one of many elements in the novel—but it’s the one that rang most powerfully to the folks working on adapting it for television. “The guys for the show kicked around all types of stuff—characters other than Carl being ‘chipped.’ I already knew that I wanted Carl to become [a covert agent] in book 2 and book 3—so [Intelligence star] Josh Holloway’s character is not just based on Carl, but also Carl’s predicted future.”

Watching Intelligence, it’s pretty often hard to find much of Phoenix Island’s inspiration—though Dixon promises there are aspects of the show that will surprise fans with their subtle connections. But reading the book is just the opposite: Its original inspiration rings loud and clear, and it’s a testament to Dixon’s ability to weave together his own unique perspectives as an educator, prison tutor and boxing enthusiast that he was able to spin a real-life travesty of justice into a thrilling adventure story about an orphan from Philly. 


KIDS FOR CASH: What it's all about

The documentary Kids for Cash opens Friday, February 7 at the Ritz Bourse and AMC Cherry Hill.

Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan have been described as two of the shittiest invidivuals ever to don the black robe of justice—trusted and respected public officials who held troubled kids’ futures in their hands. See, in 1999, when Eric Harris and Dylan Kiebold killed 15 people (including themselves) and injured another 21 at a high school in Columbine, Colorado, the climate of teen violence prevention kind of got turned on its head nationwide. That’s when Ciavarella decided he would personally take a stand—and put into a place a “zero tolerance policy.” In the wake of Columbine, Ciavarella put over 3,000 kids behind bars—in a private, for-profit juvenile detention facility that he suggested be built. Conahan, a slimy but savvy businessman who had lots of pots on the stove—a strip club, a beer distributor—worked out the deets on the construction side, and the guy who got the job, Robert Mericle, kicked more than $2 million to Ciavarella and Conahan as a finder’s fee. (Note: judges in Pennsylvania are salaried, typically, at around $175,000.) They tried to hide these millions, not declaring the money for taxes while funneling it through other business accounts—and got caught. Folks were understandably pissed off, and so was a jury. Ciavarella and Conahan were sentenced to 28 and 17 years of incarceration, respectively.

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