What a ghastly continuum we’ve countenanced in our state penal institutions.
Just this week came news of two more highly suspicious killings in Florida lock-ups – 89 years apart. Two more unsettling deaths to be added to a long and sadistic legacy: a 15-year-old inmate at the Dozier School for Boys whose skull was bashed back in 1925 and a 36-year-old mother, who died with signs of “blunt force trauma” in her cell Oct. 1 at Lowell Correctional Institution.
For more than a century, it has been as if beatings, torture, rape, terror, killings, cover-ups were official state policy, ignored by law enforcement and shrugged off by politicians. For the last few months, the Herald and the Tampa Bay Times have been writing about two disparate outrages along these lines.
But maybe not. Maybe these recurring injustices are all part of the same, long festering scandal.
My colleague Julie Brown has written about the brutal deaths of several prisoners in the state system over the last few years, including that of Darren Rainey, a 50-year-old mentally ill inmate who died after he was locked in a scalding shower at Dade Correctional Institution in 2012 and Randall Jordan-Aparo, 27, who died after he was doused in aerosol chemicals at Franklin Correctional Institution in 2010.
On Wednesday, Julie Brown and the Herald’s Mary Ellen Klas added another name to the role of suspicious inmate deaths. Latandra Ellington, serving a 22-month sentence at Lowell Correctional in Ocala scrawled a letter to her aunt on Sept. 21 describing abusive treatment and how a sergeant of the prison guards had told her that he intended to “beat me to death and mess me like a dog.”
Ten days later the mother of four was dead, another killing to be added to the nearly 200 prison deaths under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, now that the news coverage has shaken the agency out of its lethargic indifference to inmate killings.
Meanwhile, a team of forensic anthropologists from the University of South Florida was in Philadelphia on Tuesday to exhume the body of Thomas Curry, who was killed in 1925 after trying to flee the infamous juvenile lock-up (later named the Dozier School for Boys) near Marianna. The boy’s coffin had been shipped to his family in west Philadelphia and buried in the Old Cathedral Cemetery a few weeks after his death.
The USF researchers, using ground penetrating radar, had already located some 55 bodies in a makeshift cemetery where other ex-prisoners had long claimed guards had dumped the bodies of boys who had been taken away for punishment, who never returned to their dorms. The findings validated claims from a group of aging former inmates who called themselves the White House Boys, after the notorious whitewashed outbuilding on the Dozier grounds where the juveniles were brutally beaten.
The anthropologists were in Pennsylvania hoping to examine the remains of Thomas Curry and determine the cause of that boy's death.
The Tampa Bay Times’ Ben Montgomery reported that they found a coffin lid had been clamped shut with thumbscrews identical to those used in burials on the Florida reform school campus. Except when they opened the coffin, “There was no body, no human remains. Where the boy should’ve been, they found wood.”
Jerry Cooper, the 69-year-old president of the White House Boys, was astounded by the implications that the school administrators had shipped an empty coffin to Thomas Curry’s family. It was more proof, he said, of the nefarious, underhanded, cruel and murderous ways at the juvenile prison, which closed in 2011. Though Cooper, who spent 22 months at the lock-up in 1960 and 1961, has proof enough on his back – the scars from 138 lashes administered in the White House.
On Sept. 25, the USF team had announced that they had managed to identify the remains of two young boys among the bodies exhumed from the unmarked graves on the Dozier grounds. Suspicious circumstances had surrounded the deaths of Thomas Varnadoe, 13, who had died in 1934, and Earl Wilson, 12, who died 10 years later. Young Wilson was killed while he was confined to a punishment cell known as a “sweat box.”
These identifications came just four days after Latandra Ellington wrote her letter recounting her threats. Or, to put it another way, just six days before Ellington own suspicious death.
Unrelated events. Years apart. But maybe not so unrelated.
“This has been Florida’s protocol for 100 years,” Jerry Cooper said Wednesday. “This state has never cared about doing right.”