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County teen program a model for the nation

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RICHLAND COUNTY, SC (WIS) -

It's not where they want to be. Handcuffed and uncooperative, six teenage boys are put in the back of a van.

"We get a lot of kids here for disrespect issues," said Investigator Gerard Walls with the Richland County Sheriff's Department's Gang Unit. "Don't want to listen at home. Some parents bring their children here because they need to be shocked. They need a reality check."

Walls has been putting kids in check for the last 3 years.

Teens in trouble for smoking marijuana, fighting, talking back to their parents, for a variety of reasons are put in the custody of Richland County's Educating And Deterring Youth, or READY program.

"A lot of these kids say and do whatever they want to in school and many times at home," said Walls. "So, to have somebody tell them they're not going to be able to act in that manner is kind of shocking to them because they really believe they can do and say whatever comes to mind."

Treated as inmates, they're searched, put into jumpsuits and prepped for the long night ahead in jail.

"It's not a nice place to be when that jail cell closes and your freedom is taken away from you," said Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott. "It's not like being at home."

 "Think this is a game if you want to," the teens are told. "This ain't no game. This is your last straw."

"What we try to do is get kids before they go out here and break the law," said Lott. "Our goal is not to lock them up. Our goal is to turn their life around."

For one night, deputies give them a new reality and force the teens to obey strict rules. It is the only program in the nation that keeps the kids all night.

They are forced to exercise.

"Exercise is designed to break them down physically and mentally," said Walls. "And then over the course of the evening we build them back up by talking to them about positive things they can do to put their life back on track."

"You have to break them down," said Lott. "You have to get that meanness, that resistance from them. Once you get that gone, then you can start building them back up."

Deputies talk to the kids about why they're there and why they shouldn't go back.

"We go from being that tormentor, I guess you can say, to being just a mentor to try to help the kids to see the error of their ways," said Walls.

Deputies even check up on the kids after the program to make sure they're not falling off track.

"Just because they come here with us for one night doesn't necessarily mean they're going to change their life." said Walls. "Parents also have to change some things they may be doing to make sure that child is a success."

Parents spend two hours in class while their children are in jail. They learn how to deal with and help curb bad behavior.

In the three years the READY program has been operating,  close to 900 kids have come through the program and more than 86 percent of them have changed their behavior.

The cable channel A&E has profiled the program several times before.  Its latest episode featuring the Richland County Sheriff's Department airs Thursday night at 10 p.m.

"When a parent or grandparent calls me up, sends me an e-mail, writes me an e-mail and says thank you for giving me my child back, I know it's working," said Lott.

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