Americas ‘Secret Prisons’

Corrupt ‘Kids for Cash’ judge ruined more than 2,000 lives.

The “kids for cash” scandal unfolded in 2008 over judicial kickbacks at the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Two judges, President Judge Mark Ciavarella and Senior Judge Michael Conahan, were accused of accepting money from Robert Mericle, builder of two private, for-profit youth centers for the detention of juveniles, in return for contracting with the facilities and imposing harsh adjudications on juveniles brought before their courts to increase the number of residents in the centers.


Former Luzerne county President Judge Mark Ciavarella

Ciavarella, 58, along with Conahan, 56, corruptly and fraudulently “created the potential for an increased number of juvenile offenders to be sent to juvenile detention facilities,” federal court documents alleged. Children would be placed in private detention centers, under contract with the court, to increase the prison count. In exchange, the two judges would receive kickbacks.

  • Ciavarvella sent 15-year-old Hillary Transue to a wilderness camp for mocking an assistant principal on a MySpace page.
  • He whisked 13-year-old Shane Bly, who was accused of trespassing in a vacant building, from his parents and confined him in a boot camp for two weekends.
  • He sentenced Kurt Kruger, 17, to detention and five months of boot camp for helping a friend steal DVDs from Wal-Mart.
  • FILE - In this Feb. 6, 2009 file photo, Hillary Transue, who was sentenced to a wilderness camp for building a spoof MySpace page that lampooned her assistant principal, poses for a photograph in White Haven, Pa. Transue says she did not have an attorney, nor was she informed of her right to one, when she was sentenced by Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella. The film "Kids for Cash" set to open explores the scandal that entangled thousands of children in Pennsylvania's juvenile court system and sent two former judges to prison. Ciavarella is serving a 28-year sentence and fellow ex-judge Michael Conahan 17 years for taking $2.6 million from companies looking to build and fill a youth detention center for Luzerne County. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
  • 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.

Sandy Fonzo of Wilkes-Barre screams at former Judge Mark Ciavarella saying that he was responsible for her son's suicide on the steps of the federal courthouse in Scranton Friday afternoon. BILL TARUTIS/FOR THE TIMES LEADER Art from new documentary "Cash for Kids" for Sunday PostScript.


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 these so-called delinquents.