The Penikese Island Experiment

By George Cadwalader

Chelsea Green. 193 pp. $17.95

Modern society breeds violence and crime at an alarming rate and counts delinquency as the product of poverty, family disintegration and the availability of drugs. The staggering cost of the many government and private programs designed to cope with delinquency could conceivably be estimated. The cost in frustration and bitterness cannot. "Castaways" is a graphic, brutally honest and engrossing account of that human cost and of the struggle to establish a school "that would make hurting children whole again."

Author George Cadwalader ended his career as a Marine officer after being wounded in Vietnam and, while serving on the administrative staff of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, became interested in Massachusetts youth programs. He persuaded two other restless "products of John Kennedy's Camelot" to join him in founding a school that would combine the best of his Marine Corps experience with what he believed about the Hahn-Outward Bound methods of teaching youngsters self-respect and self-reliance.

Cadwalader, David Masch and Herman Bosch were hardened idealists who had lived at life's rough edges enough to mistrust much of the reform movement headed by Jerome Miller at the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services: The elimination of harsh punishment and the belief that criminal behavior is the inevitable result of social injustice did not square with the view from Parris Island and Camp Lejeune, where Cadwalader had seen young men with criminal pasts become dependable comrades willing to risk their lives for others.

The Penikese Island School opened in the summer of 1973, on the most remote of the Elizabeth Islands in Massachusetts' Buzzards Bay, 12 miles from the mainland. The island was chosen, as Cadwalader puts it, to provide "an environment so different than the one {a youth} is accustomed to that the responses he had developed from earlier experience will no longer produce the results he expects."

Among the first class of 10 boys supplied by the Department of Youth Services were runaways, an arsonist, a street fighter and petty thief and a sadistic alcoholic. Those who followed were no different. A six-week regimen of carpentry and construction, boat-building and seamanship, household chores, regular meals and regular hours proved after two years to have had little effect that supervisors could detect. A four-month program that would also combat the shocking ignorance of most of the boys in diet, hygiene and manners was introduced with renewed hope.

Taking stock at the end of five years, however, the Penikese staffers were forced to conclude that few of their students showed any sign of fundamental change. Graduates were as vulnerable and unprepared for life in "straight" society as when they had entered the program. There were exceptions who had enough self-confidence to seek out and hold jobs, but the same realization that had guided the founders of many of the Great Society programs was brought home to the Penikese supervisors: Boys returned to crime after failing briefly in employment because they were largely unemployable.

Cadwalader is honest in his assessments, frank in admitting that a program that has required as many supervisors as students has failed, in his own eyes, more than it has succeeded, and doubtful that agreement about the criteria for measuring success in such an enterprise can be reached.

A study of the 106 boys who had completed the program after five years appears conclusive. Only 16 proved able to support themselves and avoid arrest. "The other ninety had gone on to lives destructive in varying degrees to themselves and others." Or is the author right in his hope that many seeming failures may have turned from more violent crimes to lesser ones? "At one time or another all of them had shown us glimpses of the kids they might have been had they been born into different worlds," he writes.

If Penikese has failed, who and what have succeeded? What penal system or educational program has transformed boys so hurt and brutalized as these? Environment, nutrition and genetic inheritance, Cadwalader concludes, figure largely in the creation of a delinquent. The first two we may manipulate, though we scarcely know how, but the third tempts us at great peril to examine our most basic values.

This humane, intelligent and sometimes terrifying report presents us with stark choices about freedom and about pregnancy, abortion and illegitimacy. That it has also been told with humor and affection for these 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds reveals much about the inner strength required to retain sanity and maintain resilience in the effort to live with them.

The reviewer, an educator and historian, was principal of Phillips Exeter Academy from 1974 to 1987.