Reform school alumni recount severe beatings, rapes
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
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 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
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
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
''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
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
''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
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
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
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
''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 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
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
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
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
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
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.''
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