This story was first published on Oct. 19, 2008
MARIANNA, FLA. — The Florida State Reform School — more dungeon than deliverance for much of its 108-year history — has kept chilling secrets hidden behind red-brick walls and a razor wire fence amid the gently rolling hills of rural North Florida.
Established by state lawmakers in 1897 as a high-minded experiment where “young offenders, separated from the vicious, may receive careful, physical, intellectual and moral training,” the reformatory instead became a Dickensian nightmare.
Three years after the facility opened, kids were found chained in irons. A 1914 fire took six young lives while guards “were in town upon some pleasure bent,” records say. And in the 1980s, advocates sued to stop the state from shackling and hogtying children there.
On Tuesday, about a half-dozen alumni will return to what is now called the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys to confront the most painful chapter of their troubled lives.
The White House Boys, as a group of grown men now call themselves — kept one of the institution’s most shameful secrets for half a century: what was done to them inside a squat, dark, cinder-block building called The White House.
There, they say, guards beat them ferociously with a lash, some dozens of times. Some men say they also were sexually abused in a crawl space below the dining hall they call the “rape room.”
State juvenile justice administrators, who have not denied the allegations, will dedicate a memorial to the suffering of The White House Boys — who found one another through the Internet — at a formal ceremony at the Marianna campus Tuesday.
They number in the hundreds, perhaps even thousands.
In recent weeks, in a bid to improve transparency, administrators have lifted the veil of secrecy that surrounded Dozier and programs like it, allowing The Miami Herald to review century-old records and tour the remote campus.
Robert Straley, 64, a Clearwater man who sells novelties at city events and music festivals throughout the South, still recalls vividly what happened to him in the white stucco cracker house in March 1963.
The instrument of his torment was a long leather strap — like the kind used in old-fashioned barber shops, except that part of it was made of sheet metal.
“If I had them people in front of me, I’d have to ask them if they realize how many lives they destroyed,” Straley said. “They beat you. They put the rage in you.”
“When you inflict that much pain and brutality on a child, they’re traumatized for life,” he said. “Period.”
Troy Tidwell, 84, a retired supervisor still in Marianna, acknowledges that children were disciplined at The White House, though he denied any of the inmates were injured.
Originally, Tidwell said, guards “spanked” the boys with a three-inch-wide, 18-inch-long board but traded in the paddle for the strap because “we were afraid the board would injure them.”
“Kids that were chronic cases, getting in trouble all the time, running away and what have you, they used that as a last resort,” Tidwell said. “We would take them to a little building near the dining room and spank the boys there when we felt it was necessary.”
“Some of the boys didn’t need but the one spanking; they didn’t want to go back,” he added. “Some of the kids, sometimes they would try to be tough.”
A NEED TO HEAL
For the past several months, the Department of Juvenile Justice has been torn over what to do for the White House boys. Now in their 60s, they say the events of a half-century ago forever shaped their lives — and not for the better.
“Our hearts go out to these men,” DJJ Secretary Frank Peterman told The Miami Herald. “We certainly want them to understand that we want them to be healed.”
Peterman, also a St. Petersburg Baptist minister, also wants them to know the state’s juvenile lockups — and Dozier in particular — are far different places from what they once were. “We just don’t tolerate the maiming or abuse of kids,” he said.
“We just want to bring closure to a very tragic time in our state.”
The state banned corporal punishment — including the strap — at places like Dozier in 1967. But the department continued to be rocked by scandals after the deaths of children in the state’s care, including a Miami boy who died of appendicitis in 2003 after begging guards for medical help.
The Florida Times Union, in June 1899, called the reformatory “a new departure in the treatment of youthful criminals.”
It was tucked amid the forests of rural Jackson County amid 1,200 acres of pristine land. By the turn of the century, the state had built two brick dormitories a half-mile apart — one for the white children, the other for “coloreds.” There was corn and sugar cane and peas and velvet beans and cotton and hogs and mules, and a brick-making factory for the youths to learn a trade.
But by 1903, the lofty experiment already had gone horribly wrong. “We found them in irons, just like common criminals, which in the judgment of your committee is not the meaning of a state reform school,” a Senate inspection committee wrote, calling the school “nothing more nor less than a prison.”
Seven years later, a special legislative committee reported that “the inmates were at times unnecessarily and brutally punished, the instrument of punishment being a leather strap fastened to a wooden handle.” The lawmakers were assured that the beatings ended with the firing of a superintendent.
In November 1914, a fire erupted in a “broken and dilapidated” stove in the white boys’ dormitory while many of the guards had been visiting a house of ill repute in town, a grand jury reported. Six boys died.
By law, the white and black children were housed in camps a half-mile apart, and were forbidden to come in contact at any point. The camps were separate, but decidedly not equal.
Reports by lawmakers in 1911 and 1913 described the white inmates’ quarters as “neatly kept,” housing “comfortably clad” and “happy” children.
The “Negro School,” however, was “more in the nature of a convict camp.”
As a rule, the report said, the black children were “kept at work the entire day,” only to return at night to a dormitory where they slept two to a bed in cots without mattresses. “The sleeping quarters are very poorly ventilated, and, crowded as they are, must necessarily be injurious to the health of the inmates.”
For decades, the Marianna reform school was a powerful symbol of the force Florida would bring to bear against youngsters who broke the law — or simply refused to conform. Records show that runaways, truants and “incorrigibles” often found themselves locked within the same walls as car thieves and assailants.
“When kids were growing up, their parents would say to them, ‘If you don’t behave, we’ll send you to Dozier,” said the current superintendent, Mary Zahasky. “This happened all over the state.”
Harsh treatment and outright beatings were not uncommon in lockups and youth camps throughout the United States, especially in the middle of the 20th century, but at Dozier, they “were beyond the pale,” said Ronald Davidson, director of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Mental Health Policy Program.
“These were organized, government-approved — and certainly government-ignored — systems of gratuitous cruelty,” said Davidson, who has overseen troubled juvenile justice and child welfare programs for 25 years for both the Illinois state and federal governments.
North of U.S. 90 in the county seat, the reform school is set amid a landscape of red clay, green grass, and thick stands of oak and pine. In the 1950s and 1960s, it held dormitories of red and whitewashed brick next to ramshackle cracker houses of concrete and stucco.
“When I arrived there, I was quite impressed,” said Straley. “It was a beautiful place. The cottages were all brick and the bushes were trimmed, there were big oak trees and it was beautifully landscaped and I thought, ‘Wow, this is really something. I might make some friends here and have a good time.’ “
But there was something awful beyond the first impression.
“You just knew this is not a college campus, and these kids are not having a good time,” said Michael O’McCarthy, who went by his stepfather’s surname of Babarsky during his childhood. “You just got the sense there is something wrong. Call it foreboding.”
“You just knew then you had found a new kind of hell.”
A yellowing official binder filled with old-fashioned cursive notes Michael Babarsky’s correctional journey in dispassionate details: His inmate number is 27719. He is the son of A.J. and Edna Babarsky of Islamorada. He was sentenced to the reform school by Judge Eva Gibson for stealing and running away “until legally discharged.”
O’McCarthy entered the camp on May 14, 1958, escaped July 7, 1958, and was recaptured the next day.
O’McCarthy said he was warned that running from the camp would fetch dire consequences. And some of the tougher boys wore the consequences like a badge of honor. “How many did you get?” they’d be asked as they hobbled back to their cottages from The White House, their bottoms bruised and bloodied under their cotton trousers.
The first thing most of the White House boys remember is the fan. It hung from the ceiling in a corridor, an industrial-sized contraption that sounded like a roaring engine. The guards apparently were trying to prevent the boys waiting in line for beatings from panicking, hoping the noise would drown out the thwack-thwack-thwack of the strap and the anguished screams. It didn’t.
“I was so scared, I begged Jesus to take me out of this world,” said Bill Haynes, who was at the reform school from April 11, 1958, to Nov. 29, 1959. “I think everybody finds Jesus in that place.” Haynes is now communications director for the Alabama prison system, and a former prison guard.
Said Straley: “You were terrified. It’s the most scared I’ve ever been.”
The boys were told to lie on their bellies and grip the metal railing at the head of a bunk bed. The mattress was covered with blood and body fluids. The pillow smelled like body odor, and was flecked with tiny pieces of human tongues and lips from when boys bit themselves, said Richard Colon, 65, a Hialeah boy who was sent to the school on May 17, 1957, for stealing cars. He now lives in Baltimore.
The strap was kept under the pillow. “It was attached to a wooden handle,” said Straley, 64. “These guys really knew how to use it, and they prided themselves on that fact. They could bring blood with one blow.”
The boys would be told, they now say, that the whipping would stop if they squirmed or screamed or tried to jump off the cot, and when it resumed, it would start all over from the beginning. The boys never knew how many licks they were getting until it was over.
“I think the reason they didn’t want you to scream was because it got to them,” said O’McCarthy.
‘THE ONE-ARMED MAN’
Five men interviewed by The Miami Herald recall being whipped by two men: Robert Hatton, an assistant superintendent who is deceased, and Tidwell, who accidentally severed his left arm with a shotgun when he was 6. The men still refer to him as “the one-armed man.”
Hatton, who did most of the beatings, would jerk and pivot on the concrete floor like a pitcher every time he raised and lowered the belt, Haynes said.
When the leather hit its mark, they say, the little army cot would heave and converge, sometimes a foot at a time. The first two or three cracks were easy. But then the reality sank in.
“I couldn’t believe I was being hit with that much force,” said Straley. “When they were hitting you in the same spot and they had already broken the skin or bruised you, you were in some serious pain. I went out of there in shock.”
Colon, who said he was only 14 and weighed less than 100 pounds, still can feel the fury. “I can tell you that at that moment, there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind, I could have stuck my hand through his heart and his chest cavity and ripped his heart out with my hand and bit it in his face,” he said.
Some of the boys had to be taken to an infirmary to have small pieces of cotton underwear extracted from their buttocks with tweezers and surgical tools, they said.
“Your hind end would be black as a crow,” said Haynes. “It had a crust over it. Your shorts will be embedded into your skin and would have to be pulled out. And when they pulled them out, it hurts even worse.”
Though such beatings and abuse often were justified under a “patina of social beliefs” that physical discipline could rehabilitate troubled children, Davidson said, decades of academic research has made clear that such punishment serves no real purpose.
“Everything we know about psychological trauma in abused and neglected children tells us that this will create a lifelong emotional scar which will color every aspect of childhood and adult development,” Davidson said.
In recent months, some of the White House alumni discovered one another through the gripping narratives they had posted on Internet blogs. A handful will deliver brief statements in front of The White House on Tuesday, before DJJ administrators dedicate a commemorative plaque and plant a symbolic tree.
After the ceremony, the men plan to visit a small clearing apart from the new Dozier, in a remote corner of what used to be the black children’s campus, where a cemetery with the graves of 32 who died there sits — including the victims of the 1914 fire. The graves are marked by unadorned metal pipe crosses — but bear no names.
The men say they pushed memories of the White House as far back as their minds would let them. Some of the men say they fought episodes of anger and rage, but mostly went about living their lives. Some of the men have sought counseling, they say.
Roger Kiser, a Georgia man who was taken to the reformatory on June 3, 1959, has been married six times, divorced five times. He said he had trouble expressing love, though he finally got the hang of it when he became a grandfather.
Straley, the Clearwater man, said he has rationed the time he spends out of his house since he began trembling one day at a Wal-Mart, prompting another shopper to ask him what was wrong.
It took the videotaped death of a 14-year-old Panama City boy, Martin Anderson, at a state juvenile boot camp in 2006 to bring the memories flooding back. Though the two would have had nothing in common, Straley said he felt a sudden surge of anger, clenched his fists and cussed — much as Martin might have done.
“The thing is in your head fresh as a daisy,” Straley said. “That feeling is there forever.”
Said Colon, the Hialeah boy who returns to Dozier yearly to hand out scholarships to current detainees: “You don’t get over it. You learn how to bear pain.”