Reform school alumni recount severe
Half a century ago, victims say, vicious beatings and rapes ruled
the day at Florida State Reform School.
October 19, 2008
By Carol Marbin Miller
Note from CAICA's president: This article recounts abuse men now
in their 60's endured when they were young in a system that was
originally designed to help them. That same system, now known as the
Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) has been in the spotlight on
Indeed, this needs to stop. You can
read about the abuse here on CAICA and also at
www.justice4kids.org. None of us enjoys reading these
stories, but until we open our eyes, and our hearts, to these
children nothing will change. And change needs to occur so our most
precious, our children, are protected. Most kids are already in some
sort of trouble by the time they make it into a system such as this.
They do not need to be abused. They need to learn compassion and
caring from adults, otherwise how can we expect them to grow into
responsible, compassionate, and caring adults?
MARIANNA -- 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
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
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
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
''When you inflict that much pain
and brutality on a child, they're traumatized for life,'' he said.
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
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
''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
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
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
''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
''These were organized,
government-approved -- and certainly governmentignored -- 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
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
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,
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.''
MORE FLORIDA NEWS - Department of Juvenile
Abuse and deaths: Florida Department of Juvenile Justice
the Florida DJJ Report
Abuse and death
of Martin Lee Anderson
Florida State Reform School: A Timeline
Report documenting beatings with leather strap (1911)
jury report on abuses (1914)
creating the reformatory (1897)
Senate committee's hearing on troubles at