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.