Juvenile justice

Report on Dozier School raises new questions about deaths

 

The release of a new report detailing the deaths of children at a scandal-plagued Panhandle boys’ prison raises new questions about the reformatory’s history.

cmarbin@MiamiHerald.com

About100 boys may have died between 1900 and the 1970s at a controversial youth prison in the Florida Panhandle, including seven boys who perished following escape attempts, according to a new report that raises troubling questions about the now-shuttered Dozier School for Boys.

As state juvenile justice administrators seek to sell the Arthur G. Dozier property in rural Marianna, archaeologists and anthropologists with the University of South Florida are conducting an exhaustive archeological and historical analysis of the site in an effort to locate the burial grounds of scores of children. In a 114-page report released Monday, researchers concluded that a minimum of 98 children died at Dozier between 1911 and 1973.

The largest gravesite is on the north side of the prison camp, next to a garbage dump on what for years was called Dozier’s “colored” section. Though the cemetery holds 31 graves marked with PVC pipe crosses, the report said the markers do not correspond to the actual interments, and it is likely that an additional 20 children are buried there.

Dozier, which opened as the Florida State Reform School on Jan. 1, 1900, remained in continuous operation until June 30, 2011, when the state Department of Juvenile Justice shut it down amid a years-long controversy over the physical and sexual abuse of children.

Operating with a permit issued by the state Division of Historical Resources, the USF team has only until the end of January to complete its project In early January, USF researchers will return to Dozier’s south parcel, which housed white children and contains the prison’s administrative buildings. Because Dozier remained segregated for much of its existence, researchers believe they will find additional grave sites once they look more closely.

DJJ secretary Wansley Walters said in a statement Monday her agency will continue to cooperate with the university research team.

“I am profoundly aware of the historical significance” of Dozier, Walters said. “One of the decisions I am most proud of is that this administration closed [it] in 2011.”

In the fall of 2008, a dozen middle-aged men from throughout the state came forward and said they were raped or mercilessly beaten — or both — at the Marianna campus. The “White House Boys,” as some of the men dubbed themselves after the squat white-washed cottage where they were whipped, have since spawned at least two books and a movement to extract some type of compensation from the Florida Legislature.

Men who were incarcerated there described being whipped with a metal-lined leather strap, sometimes leading to unconsciousness. Some said they were taken to the “rape room,” where they said officers sodomized boys of their choosing.

In October 2008, about a half-dozen of the men returned to Dozier. There, DJJ administrators and Dozier staff dedicated a plaque to them and planted a young crepe myrtle tree alongside the now decrepit White House building. Some of the men sobbed as they toured the inside of the cottage, where they described brutal beatings to a small gathering of reporters.

Dozier records reviewed by USF show that more than 50 children were buried on the school grounds, and 31 were shipped elsewhere for burial. School administrators did not record the burial location for 22 other children.

Even in death, the black children at Dozier received unequal treatment: African-American children were three times more likely to be buried in an unspecified location than were their white peers, the report said.

Prison records suggest administrators minimized the number of deaths that occurred there in reports to the state — especially when it came to white children.

Biennial reports to state lawmakers early in the 20th century “often listed fewer deaths than what is listed in the school ledgers,” the report said. In a July 1926 report, for example, the school superintendent told lawmakers that four children had died in 1925 and 1926 — all of them black. But school ledgers showed six children had died during that time, including two white boys.

One of the boys whose death was not listed in 1926 was a child named Thomas Curry, a white boy who died of blunt trauma to the head, according to a death certificate. Records said Curry died away from the prison campus after he escaped.

Records suggest those who escaped from the North Florida prison sometimes met a violent death: Two boys who escaped died of blunt trauma, and two died of gunshot wounds to the head or chest.

Erin H. Kimmerle, an associate professor and forensic anthropologist who led the project, said it did not surprise her that some escapees were treated harshly. Decades ago, she said, rural prisoners were largely treated as a captive labor pool for local agriculture and industry, and records suggest Dozier’s children may have served a similar purpose.

Changes in state law and policy that allowed “incorrigible” children and even orphans to be sent to the reform school, and required longer sentences for inmates, suggest “that financial incentives were underlying motivating factors” for the youth prison’s operation, the report said. In 1906, for example, a superintendent complained he lacked adequate prisoners to harvest the corn crop.

Children put out to work were overseen by local labor bosses, who were given broad authority to punish the children as they saw fit, said Kimmerle.

“I do think that, at the time, it was lawful for them to shoot those who ran away,” Kimmerle said.

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