Judge Mark A. Ciavarella, a real-life adjudicator who made over $2 million sending kids to prison, is the villain of a new documentary. In “Kids for Cash,” three teenagers from Luzerne County, Pa., are subjected to months of inhumane treatment at a for-profit detention center for tiny crimes, or no crimes at all.
Hillary Transue, 14, was brought before the judge for making a fake MySpace page making fun of her vice principal. Justin Bodnar, 12, cursed at a friend’s mother. Ed Kenzakoski, 17, didn’t do anything. Those are the three main subjects of the film — but Ciavarella sent 3,000 youngsters to juvenile prison.
“I felt like I had been thrown into some surreal sort of nightmare,” said Transue, a model student sent to prison for making a joke. “All I wanted to know was how this could be fair and why the judge would do such a thing.”
Ciavarella had been a popular judge in Luzerne County since 1995, known for being tough on teen crime. Seeing the need for a new juvenile detention facility to replace the county's run-down one, Ciavarella perhaps started out with good intentions — until another judge, Michael Conahan, arranged to pay him 10 percent of construction costs, or $2.2 million, for a for-profit detention center.
Innocuously named PA Child Care, the filthy, cockroach-invested jail was stuffed full of young people who had committed to most minor infractions — or none at all. In Kenzakoski’s case, the boy’s father, along with two police officer cronies, planted a marijuana pipe in his car, hoping to scare his son into shaping up. Kenzakoski struggled with attention deficit disorder and started drinking at 14.
But to his father’s shock, Ciavarells sentenced Kenzakoski to time at PA Child Care. That began the teenager on a spiral of depression, anger, and more convictions — ending with his suicide in 2010.
Found guilty of financial crimes for accepting $2.2 million in finder’s fees to feed the squalid for-profit juvenile detention center, 2,480 of Ciavarella’s convictions have sinced been reversed.
Sentenced in 2009, Ciavarella is now spending 28 years in jail for his own crimes.