For their own good: a St. Petersburg Times special report on child abuse at the Florida School for Boys

Ben Montgomery and Waveney Ann Moore, For their own good: a St. Petersburg Times special report on child abuse at the Florida School for Boys, Part 1. Tampa Bay Times, 17 April 2009. “The men remember the same things: blood on the walls, bits of lip or tongue on the pillow, the smell of urine and whiskey, the way the bed springs sang with each blow. The way they cried out for Jesus or mama. The grinding of the old fan that muffled their cries. The one-armed man who swung the strap. They remember walking into the dark little building on the campus of the Florida School for Boys, in bare feet and white pajamas, afraid they’d never walk out…. This story is based on more than 100 hours of interviews with 27 men who were sent to the Florida School for Boys in the 1950s and ’60s, and with current and former officials with the state, the school and the Department of Juvenile Justice. The interviews were supplemented with newspaper clippings, congressional and court testimony, archival photographs and other documents. Over five months, the reporters traveled to Marianna four times. Since launching its investigation, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has sealed access to the school, now called the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys.” Part 2: Ben Montgomery and Waveney Ann Moore, “For Their Own Good. Florida juvenile justice: 100 years of hell at the Dozier School for Boys.” Tampa Bay Times, 9 October 2009.

Excerpts from story:

For 109 years, this is where Florida has sent bad boys. Boys have been sent here for rape or assault, yes, but also for skipping school or smoking cigarettes or running hard from broken homes. Some were tough, some confused and afraid; all were treading through their formative years in the custody of the state. They were as young as 5, as old as 20, and they needed to be reformed.

It was for their own good.

Now come the men with nightmares and scars on their backsides, carrying 50 years of wreckage — ruined marriages and prison time and meanness and smoldering anger. Now comes a state investigation into unmarked graves, a lawsuit against a dying old man. Now come the questions: How could this happen? What should be done?

Those questions have been asked again and again about the reform school at Marianna, where, for more than a century, boys went in damaged and came out destroyed….

[Willy Haynes] could hear the strap coming. It started with the pivot, the shuffle of boots on concrete. The strap hit the wall, then the ceiling, then thighs and buttocks and back, and it felt like an explosion.

When he got back to the cottage, Willy stood in the shower and let the cold water wash bits of underwear from his lacerations, as his blood ran toward the drain….

The men gathered at the Florida School for Boys on Oct. 21, 2008.

The last time they had stepped on this sprawling campus, they were fresh-faced punks with the world before them. Now their hair was gray and their faces sagged. Their backs ached from a night in motel beds. They carried pictures of children and grandchildren in their wallets.

Dick Colón had flown in from Baltimore, where he owns an electrical contracting company. The 65-year-old was tormented by the memory of seeing a boy being stuffed into an industrial dryer. Next to him stood Michael O’McCarthy, a writer and political activist from Costa Rica, who was beaten so badly he was treated at the school infirmary. To his left was Roger Kiser, a Chicken Soup for the Soul contributor who had driven down from Brunswick, Ga., bent on retribution. On the end was a quiet man named Robert Straley, who sells glow lights and carnival novelties. He drove up from Clearwater. He had been having recurring nightmares of a man sitting on his bed.

Then there was Willy Haynes. He was 65 and went by Bill now. A tall, broad man, Haynes had worked for 30 years for the Alabama Department of Corrections. Haynes didn’t feel good. There were plenty of places he’d rather be. But he knew he had to do this.

The men now called themselves the White House Boys.

In the past year, they had each searched online for information about the Florida School for Boys, for something that suggested they weren’t the only ones burdened by their experience at the school. They had found Roger Kiser’s Web site. Kiser added their memories and photos to his blog.

They approached the state, seeking official acknowledgement that they had been abused and hoping to find some resolution along the way.

They found a friend in Gus Barreiro of the state Department of Juvenile Justice. He set up this ceremony to close and seal the White House. He even ordered a plaque to be mounted on the building:

In memory of the children who passed these doors, we acknowledge their tribulations and offer our hope that they have found some measure of peace.

May this building stand as a reminder of the need to remain vigilant in protecting our children as we help them seek a brighter future….

One man told of how he had holed up in the library, reading Tom Sawyer 11, 12, 13 times, to hide, to stay out of trouble. One remembered a kid who tried to run away and died from exposure while hiding under a cottage. Another had a story about a boy who was taken to the White House and never seen again.

Most of the men recalled being beaten by two staffers: R.W. Hatton and the one-armed man, Troy Tidwell. At least three men described being sexually abused by other guards in an underground room they called the rape room.

And there was something else. Newspapers had published a photograph of a small cemetery. Thirty-one white crosses. No names.

As stories of deaths and disappearances emerged from their collective memory, the White House Boys began to believe that they were the lucky ones.

When Troy Warren heard of the cemetery, his mind went back to his stay at the school. He says he and another boy were ordered to dig three holes behind the chow hall. They were to dig at night. Tidwell and another guard told them to make the holes 4 feet deep, and as long as a boy….

How could this happen? How was this allowed to continue? Why didn’t someone speak up sooner?

But people have been speaking out about the Florida School for Boys for more than 100 years.

The first scandal came in 1903, a mere three years after the school opened. Investigators found children “in irons, just as common criminals.” This was no reform school, their report said. This was a prison for children.

The investigation would launch a seemingly endless cycle of exposes and fleeting reform….

In March 1958, a Miami psychologist and former staff member at the school told a U.S. Senate committee about mass beatings with a heavy, 3 ½-inch-wide leather strap.

“The blows are very severe,” Dr. Eugene Byrd testified. “They are dealt with a great deal of force with a full arm swing over his head and down, with a strap, a leather strap approximately a half-inch thick and about 10 inches long with a wooden formed handle.”

“What is your opinion?” a senator asked.

“In my personal opinion it is brutality.”

In 1968, corporal punishment was outlawed in state-run institutions. By then, the school had been renamed the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, after a longtime superintendent. That year, Gov. Claude Kirk visited Marianna. He found holes in the leaking ceilings and broken walls, bucket toilets, bunk beds crammed together to accommodate overcrowding, no heat in the winter. Kirk declared it a training ground for a life of crime….

Juvenile justice rides the waves of public perception. Investigations bring outrage. Outrage brings promises of better funding and training, better monitoring, better checks and balances. Then the attention fades, and with it the reforms. In 1903, investigators found kids in shackles. Nearly 80 years later, investigators found kids hogtied.

Additional resources:

Nina Berman and Michael Mechanic, It Was Kind of Like Slavery. Mother Jones, January-February 2014.

Tim Wu, Fifty-five Bodies, and Zero Trials, at the Florida School for Boys. The New Yorker, 30 January 2014.