STARKEY — Jasmyne Arianna thought she put Freedom Village USA in her rear-view mirror when she left the campus in 2010.
Physically, she did. Mentally, she couldn’t.
Some time later, while back home in California, Jasmyne reached a tipping point after receiving an email from someone who attended Freedom Village about the same time she was there.
“I’ll never forget the day I awoke to a message in my inbox, citing that she had been raped by a prominent individual at Freedom Village,” Jasmyne wrote in an email to Times. “I was shook. All these years I had been trying to forget what I went through but couldn’t. It was continuously pulling at my heartstrings.”
“I began to tell my mother what was going on,” Jasmyne continued. “She looked at me and said ‘Why are you so concerned? You’re not there anymore.’ What she didn’t know is mentally I was still there.”
When she arrived at the gates of Freedom Village at the age of 14, Jasmyne considered it an oasis of sorts.
“Upstate New York was like nothing I’d ever seen. Despite the horrors that led me here, it was absolutely breathtaking. A shimmer of hope fluttered in my chest,” she said. “It was the dead of winter, but nothing was colder than the look in my mother’s eyes. Her husband was happier than I had seen him in a long time. Of course he’s thrilled. He doesn’t want me talking about the fact he had his hands around my neck. My mother turns and looks at me: ‘You need to go in there and tell these people you want to be here. Remember the deal, Jasmyne.’ I roll my eyes. How could I forget? One year at this place and I can finally live with my grandmother, which means I’ll have access to education ... and justice. All I have to do is keep my mouth shut about the abuse.”
“The rest of the day was a blur — snapshots of me reciting my mother’s words in order to be taken in, strip-searched, my stuff being taken away, a tour ending with my half of the room and a cot where I lay for hours,” she continued. “We later entered the chapel and sat down, boys on one side of the room, girls on the other. Fletcher Brothers walks in. The first thing I notice is how full of himself he was. He begins to talk about the end of times, that if suddenly the world was overtaken by chaos we would be ready and have enough ammo to protect ourselves.”
Jasmyne was assigned kitchen duty.
“Everything that came into the cafeteria was from stores getting rid of expired food: bologna, cream cheese and a variety of other items had birthdays, some 5 years or older,” she said. “Fruits and vegetables came nearly completely moldy, and we were forced to salvage whatever we could by cutting off the mold.”
Jasmyne said it was tradition for every new person to be asked about their origins, age and race.
“I replied nearly 100 times ‘California, 14, Mexican.’ There was this one time when my reply was met with ‘Mexicans are nothing but rapists and drug dealers,’” she recalled. “I had always gotten that vibe from my White counterparts, but was horrified when it came from another person of color.”
On occasion, students wrote letters home. Jasmyne said hers were read by a staff member who had gone through the Freedom Village program.
“I began detailing all the red flags I had seen so far. I hand it over to (the staff member), she reads it — then in one swift motion she rips it to shreds and says, ‘Write it over again and say that you are having an amazing time and you love it here,’” she said. “That’s just what I did. I wrote that this was the best place ever and everything was OK. I had no choice.”
Jasmyne said few staff members took an interest to her, although the aforementioned one was one of them.
“One night, in the midst of a night terror, I awoke to (the staff member) at my bedside. Apparently, she got the brunt of it (abuse) all the time,” Jasmyne said. “Years later I would realize this is why she terrorized me. She would write me up for the most frivolous things. When Fletcher Brothers would recite our write-ups at the pulpit and hand out punishment, she was never satisfied at how much I received and would ask him to up the ante on multiple occasions.”
“She just had it out for me,” Jasmyne added. “Nothing I did was ever going to be good enough. I wasn’t good enough.”
Jasmyne said when she saw the Freedom Village doctor to undergo a physical exam, she asked for a female staff member to be in the room with her.
“(The aforementioned staff member) looked at me coldly and said, ‘No.’ I pleaded with her. She was one of the only ones who knew just how triggered I was by touch,” Jasmyne said.
In the doctor’s office, Jasmyne said she was told to bend over so she could be checked for scoliosis (curvature of the spine). When she felt her skirt being lifted, she fled.
“I jolt out the door, expecting to see my overseer, but she is nowhere to be found. I keep running until I am at the girls’ dorm,” she said. “I run behind it, near the woods, and fall to the ground.”
Jasmyne said she expected staff members to find her and drag her back. It didn’t happen.
“No frenzy, no search party. When I finally had the courage to go back to the dorm, there were no questions,” she said. “No one had even noticed, or so I thought. Then I caught a glimpse of (the staff member’s) face. Her eyes were smiling. That’s when it hit me — they left me alone on purpose.”
Jasmyne said she began cutting herself. Eventually, she was allowed to make a five-minute phone call to her mother.
“I began to cry and plead to come home,” she said. “As I am begging, they end the phone call. I’m written up for it. As they read my name in the chapel and handed out punishment, I’m bawling my eyes out.”
At the 10-month mark, Jasmyne began to see the finish line.
“I’m reciting ‘I only got two months left’ like a prayer. Two months left, two months left, two months left,” she said. “I repeat it over and over as they continue to overwork me. As I am delirious from lack of sleep. As I perform every harrowing punishment. That morning, I had no idea I was going to snap.”
The “snap” came during a normal dress check.
Jasmyne only had three outfits: one for school, one for the horse barn, and one for church.
“In front of me was a girl who was nothing short of privileged,” she said. “She was wearing something noticeably tight with a flimsy cardigan over it, but was still approved as usual.”
Jasmyne said when it came her turn to be inspected, the staff member told her to change clothes.
“She knew I only had horse barn clothing that smelled of horsesh--. That was literally the only other thing I had to wear besides this outfit,” she said. “I became enraged by the blatant discrimination.”
Jasmyne said she stormed up to her room, the staff member trailing, leading to a yelling match that nearly came to blows. She was later confined to her room and heard her mother had been called and told she was being kicked out of the program.
“Apparently, she begged and pleaded with them to keep me,” Jasmyne said, “but they were done with me and I was done with them.”
On the day Jasmyne left, her belongings on the day she arrived were given to her.
“I put on my clothes, makeup and hoop earrings for the first time in 10 months,” she said. “I walked out the front door and heard cries from the girls sad to see me leave, believing I was going to end up dead. I pay them no mind as I step into the sunshine, pausing to take in the property view for the last time. I am loaded into a van and taken to the airport, where I am given the ticket and told I will have to transfer planes multiple times to get home.”
She landed in Fresno, Calif., hoping her mother would believe she was abused emotionally, discriminated against, put in vulnerable situations, and forced into child labor.
“The first thing I asked was when I would be able to go to my grandmother’s house,” she said. “My mother scowled and said, ‘You didn’t finish the program. That was the deal.’”
“I tried to explain to her what I went through, but she didn’t want to hear it. In her eyes, I was still an untrustworthy, devil-filled heathen. I eventually realize that no one expected me to ever return. Instead, it was hoped that I would be paired and married off like so many FVers before me.”
Awareness campaignSome years after getting that ill-fated email, Jasmyne joined a Facebook group called Freedom Village Truth.
“As I began to connect with people again through the group, I began commenting on some of the red flags, incidents and forms of punishment that negatively impacted youth who went there,” she said. “I was met with a variety of negative feedback, most commonly gaslighting, discriminatory comments and people using scripture to justify. Every time I mentioned anything that didn’t speak in a positive light toward Freedom Village, it was deleted. There was a culture of silence, mostly because people were afraid of lawsuits or had been brainwashed that if they spoke ill of FV then God would strike them down.
“I’ll never forget the first time I was threatened by one of Fletcher’s alumni. At that point in my life I was not fearful of anything, especially death. For a decade, anyone trying to talk about what really happened at Freedom Village was censored.”
So Jasmyne created another Facebook group, originally called Freedom Village Uncensored; it’s now known as Freedom Village Experience. It was a different vibe from the start.
“Not many joined out of the 500 or so people in FV Truth, but it was a safe space for survivors from day one,” Jasmyne said. “Then, one day I noticed one of the staff’s sons was no longer active on the FV Truth page and I started ruffling feathers because my comments were no longer being deleted. Soon after, a survivor who created the group reached out to me and asked me to be administrator.
“It took a long time to weed out the gaslighters and racists in order to make that group a safe space. Although we were now uncensored, we still didn’t know that we could actually do something to get FV shut down.”
Her opportunity came in 2019, when word surfaced that Freedom Village — during its heyday, it had about 200 students at any given time, a number that had dropped to about 40 — could be moving from Yates County to Pickens County, South Carolina. That prompted Jasmyne and two other former Freedom Village youth, Liz Runge and a woman named Jennie, to get involved. They were joined by Gabriel Joseph González, who was at Freedom Village for about three years in the mid-1990s and was back home in New York City. Also involved in the effort was Josh Cook, an Alabama-based survivor advocate who is involved in prisoner rights.
“My activism started when Freedom Village tried to move to South Carolina,” said González, now in his 40s. “Brothers claimed he had helped tens of thousands of kids and was still asking people to send him money, even though they had been through bankruptcy several times. It was the typical televangelist sales pitch, and there were sketchy loans and going after old people’s money. Basically, it was a Ponzi scheme.”
González, whose twin brother was at Freedom Village with him in the 1990s, said FV officials dodged regulations and background checks for employees by using religious freedoms. He said that led to abuse and cult-like practices that left many people broken.
“They flew under the state radar for a long time,” said González, who claimed racial discrimination was rampant at Freedom Village and staff used “conversion therapy” on people who identified with the LGBTQ community.
Jasmyne said Runge, who lived in South Carolina, began knocking on doors and talking with the community about the abuse, neglect and exploitation at Freedom Village. That led to a town hall-style meeting in Sunset, S.C., where Runge urged residents to oppose the facility.
“She mustered all the strength she had as she placed her phone so hundreds of us watching live could see everything in real time,” Jasmyne said. “She had set up a table with all of our statements and real quotes from the opposition who was there. As she did the presentation we created, you could see the community of South Carolina become enraged.”
Jasmyne said when Jonathan Bailie, Brothers’ partner at the time, spoke after Runge was done, the crowd forced him off the stage.
“Not only did the South Carolina community defend us that day, they helped us by talking with ... elected officials making the impossible possible — Freedom Village USA and their partners retracted and fled to Florida.”
Jasmyne said the victory was short-lived, as she and others learned of the “troubled teen industry” across the nation.
“Gabriel, Josh and I couldn’t stop fighting to protect youth from what we ourselves endured even after FV was buried and gone,” Jasmyne said, “so we began to contact our elected officials to talk about state and federal legislation, encouraging everyone we knew to do the same.”
We warned them
Last September, the Freedom Village Experience team founded the “We Warned Them” campaign. The campaign supports legislation to prevent future generations from experiencing the neglect, abuse and exploitation that organizers claim has taken the lives of countless youth.
According to the campaign founders, more than 350 youth have died in under-regulated facilities throughout the United States.
Now 27, Jasmyne lives in northern California with her significant other and son. She is a volunteer with the National Youth Rights Association and the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint.
“Never in a million years did I think I would survive to not only tell the tale, but help shut down Freedom Village and continue to use my voice to advocate for the rights of youth everywhere,” she said.