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Florida’s Juvenile Death Camps: A Painful Past Revisited

by David M. Reutter

Recent coverage of long-past abuses at Florida juvenile facilities has put a spotlight on the treatment of juvenile offenders. Reports by the Miami Herald and CNN have revealed that Florida youth facilities have been cruel and problematic institutions for over a century, which provides historical context for more recent incidents.

At least five Florida juveniles have died in custody since 2001. In June 2003, teenager Omar Paisley died at a Miami facility due to a nurse’s neglect in treating his ruptured appendix. The nurse later pleaded guilty to a charge of culpable negligence and gave up her nursing license; Omar’s family received a $1.45 million settlement. [See: PLN, June 2005, p.8; Jan. 2009, p.31].

On January 6, 2006, Martin Lee Anderson, 14, died at a juvenile boot camp in a high profile incident that resulted in significant changes in the state’s juvenile justice system. [See: PLN, July 2006, p.9; Dec. 2006, p.26]. Eight guards and a nurse were indicted in connection with Martin’s brutal videotaped death, but all were acquitted at trial. [See: PLN, July 2007, pp. 9 and 11; June 2008, p.20].

A review of documents obtained by the Miami Herald has revealed that abusive conditions have long been endemic in Florida’s juvenile corrections system. In a bid to improve transparency, the Herald was allowed to review century-old records and tour the campus of a facility formerly known as the Florida State Reform School (FSRS).

Established in 1897 by Florida lawmakers and opened on Jan. 1, 1900, FSRS was located in the Panhandle region in Jackson County. It comprised 1,200 acres of pristine land. The school had two dormitories located one-half mile apart; one was for white children and the other for “coloreds.” There were peas, corn, sugar cane, velvet beans, cotton, hogs and mules at FSRS, which the boys cared for. A brick-making factory existed so the youths could learn a trade.

By 1903, the treatment of juveniles at FSRS had already gone astray. “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 FSRS “nothing more nor less than a prison.”

FSRS was renamed the Florida Industrial School for Boys and later the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys (“Dozier”), after one of its superintendents.

Tragedy struck in November 1914 when a fire erupted in a “broken and dilapidated” stove in the white boys’ dormitory. When the fire broke out, many of the guards had been visiting a house of ill repute, according to a grand jury report. Six youths and two employees died.

The Dozier school served as a symbol of force and intimidation for Florida children for decades. “When kids were growing up, their parents would say to them, ‘If you don’t behave, we’ll send you to Dozier,’” said the school’s current superintendent, Mary Zahasky.

Harsh beatings had become the norm at youth facilities throughout the United States, especially in the middle of the 20th century, but at Dozier they “were beyond the pale,” said Ronald Straley, who was held at Dozier in 1963. “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.’”

Shortly after his arrival, however, Straley learned about the “White House,” a small white building where guards paddled the boys with a three-inch-wide, 18-inch-long board. That was later traded for a leather and metal strap, like the kind used in barber shops, because “we were afraid the board would injure them,” stated former Dozier superintendent Troy Tidwell.

Tidwell, whom the boys referred to as “the one-armed man,” and deceased assistant superintendent Robert Hatton, used to “discipline” the boys at Dozier. Punishment would be meted out for minor offenses, and the beatings were especially savage.

“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.”

The boys were forced 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, and the pillow was flecked with tiny pieces of tongue and lip from when boys had bit themselves, according to Richard Colon, who told a Herald reporter about his stay at Dozier in 1957.

“Your hind end would be black as crow,” said Bill Haynes, who was at Dozier from April 1958 to November 1959. “It had a crust over it. Your shorts will be embedded into your skin and would have to be pulled out [with tweezers]. And when they pulled them out, it hurts even worse.”

A group of men who call themselves the “White House Boys” found each other on the Internet by posting accounts of their treatment at Dozier when they were juveniles. In addition to the beatings, they say they were sexually abused in a crawl space below the dining hall, which they called the “rape room.”

“They were monsters. Oh my God, the things they did,” said Straley, recalling the abuse. “When these men had me down, you weren’t going to turn into Bruce Lee, you only had one option and that was you could scream all you wanted.”

Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) officials have not disputed the allegations raised by the men who comprise the White House Boys. In fact, DJJ dedicated a memorial to their suffering on October 21, 2008. After the ceremony, the men visited a cemetery that reportedly holds the graves of 31 boys who died at the school. The graves are marked by unadorned white crosses that do not bear any names.

Governor Charlie Christ has ordered the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate allegations of past abuse at Dozier. The department was also asked to find out who is buried at the cemetery. “Whatever is below those crosses is crying out – and it’s screaming for us to bring justice,” said Don Stratton, who was physically and sexually abused at Dozier in the 1960s.

The Dozier school still operates as a juvenile facility, housing court-committed youths age 13 to 21, though the White House building has long since been closed.

On January 8, 2009, four men who served time at Dozier as juveniles filed a class action lawsuit against the State of Florida for the brutality they suffered at the hands of state employees at the school. The suit, filed in Pinellas County Circuit Court, has since been joined by almost 90 other plaintiffs, including some who claim they were beaten and sodomized at another state reform school in Okeechobee. See: Middleton v. Florida, Circuit Court of the Sixth Judicial Circuit for Pinellas County, FL, Case No. 08-19597CI-19.

Sadly, while overt abuse has decreased in recent years, the ill treatment of juvenile offenders in Florida continues to persist more than a century after FSRS opened, and the state’s juvenile facilities are still producing graves – with the last one being dug in 2006 for 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson.

Sources: Miami Herald, Associated Press, CNN,,

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Related legal case

Middleton v. Florida