It was a horror story come to life for the kids involved in the shocking Pennsylvania ‘Kids For Cash’ scandal which swept headlines in 2009. They were ripped away from their families, being deprived the majority of their high school and adolescent experience due to a corrupt and money-seeking Judge who showed no remorse for his brutal and unnecessary sentences. Hillary Transue, 14, created a fake, humorous Myspace page about her school’s vice principal. Justin Bodnar, 12, cursed at another student’s mother. Ed Kenzakoski, 17, did nothing at all.
All three kids were shown no lenience for their actions, and instead were hauled into a courtroom along with their parents and were convinced to wave the right to legal counsel, according to one of the mothers in the much talked-about documentary ‘Kids For Cash,’ coming out this week. The ruthless judge, Mark A. Ciavarella, sentenced the children to a cockroach-infested jail without warning or chance of defense, a terrifying moment for the families involved. These kids became trapped in the juvenile justice system for years.
Judge Ciavarella, who sentenced around 3,000 children in a similar manner, was later sentenced himself to 28 years in prison for financial crimes related to his acceptance of $2.2 million as a ‘finder’s fee’ for the construction of a for-profit facility in which to house the so-called delinquents.
One of kids in the documentary, Ed Kenzakoski, was the victim of a horrible lesson gone wrong, after his father and his two police officer friends implanted a marijuana pipe in the boy’s truck, hoping he would be scared out of his smoking habit after a run-in with the police. Regrettably to the boy and his father, the plan went horrible awry as Judge Ciavarella locked him up.
Justin Bodnar recalls his unrelenting fate, after cussing at a fellow schoolmate’s mother found him approaching a 20-foot razor wire fence on a convict bus.
“I’m now one of those people you see in the movie,” thought the 12-year-old.
Hillary Transue’s entire high school experience was ruined when she returned after her sentence, being viewed as a misfit criminal by teachers and students.
Before the controversy arose, Ciavarella, who was elected a 10-year-term as Luzerne County judge in 1995, was looked at and admired for his tough-on-teen-crime stance. The community saw it as an example for the youth and a reason to stay away from troubling lifestyles.
Knowing he was sending children to a run-down detention facility, Ciavarella decided a new one was needed and approached power broker Judge Michael Conahan, who assembled an investor group to build a private, for-profit detention facility named PA Child Care. Ciavarella was paid a finder’s fee of 10 percent of construction costs, or $2.2 million, by its builder.
Undone by a tip from a reputed underworld friend of Conahan’s, among other information, Ciavarella had 2,480 of his convictions reversed and expunged. After his initial release, Bodnar, now 24, was shipped off to a military academy. He now works as a cook. Transue, 22, eventually graduated from college.
A fender-bender landed Kenzakoski back in court when he was 19. Ciavarella again sentenced him to a juvenile facility. When he got out, said his mother, his demeanor was all pent-up anger, and a fight landed him in state prison. He was released in January 2010. That Memorial Day, after a day of drinking and arguing with his father, Ed Kenzakoski placed a gun against his heart, and pulled the trigger. Had he lived, he would now be 27 years old.
Larry Getlen of the New York Post wrote in his review of the film, “The most harrowing moment in the film occurs during Ciavarella’s trial. As his lawyer holds a press conference outside the courthouse, Kenzakoski’s mother, Sandy Fonzo, who had been standing to the side, unleashed years of pain and anguish on the man she held responsible. ‘My kid’s not here anymore! He’s dead! Because of him!’ She screamed, pointing at Ciavarella as news cameras rolled. ‘He ruined my f—ing life!!! Go to hell, and rot there forever! You know what he told everybody in court — [the kids] need to be held accountable for their actions! You need to be!’”
Getlen ends his review discussing the alarming statistics revealed at the end of the film, “At the end of ‘Kids for Cash,’ directed by Robert May, information flashes across the screen saying: ‘Two million children are arrested every year in the US, 95% for non-violent crimes; ‘66% of children who have been incarcerated never return to school’; and that ‘the US incarcerates nearly 5 times more children than any other nation in the world.’”
I discussed the unjust prison system in my article The Disturbing & Inhumane Conditions In Prison: Why The System Isn’t Working, detailing the private corporate interests that rule the judicial system in the US. It is clear that the system is seeded by corruption, and effort needs to be put forward to protect the people from these kinds of terrors. We are isolating the wounded, uneducated, and mentally ill in aggressive and torturous environments and expecting change. The logic ceases to exist.