Four years ago the state placed a plaque in front of the Dozier School that acknowledged its dark history. During the 1950s and early 1960s, staff members would beat boys in a small building known as the White House. Offenses as minor as having a “bad attitude” or talking to black prisoners at the segregated facility would result in employees hitting youths up to dozens of times with a three-foot leather strap, often leaving them bloodied and bruised. Boys were forced to lie on a blood- and urine-stained cot while they were beaten, and an industrial fan was turned on to drown out their screams. There were also accusations of rape and sexual abuse by school officials.
Further, it was initially alleged that 31 graves on the school grounds contained bodies of young prisoners who had died as a result of abuse at the facility; however, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigated and found no evidence supporting that claim. [See: PLN, March 2009, p.22].
“There’s been 111 years of child abuse at this place,” said Bryant Middleton, 66, who was held at the school in the 1960s. Middleton and other men who served time at the facility filed an unsuccessful class-action lawsuit over abuses at the Dozier School, which was dismissed in 2010. See: Middleton v. Florida Dept. of Agriculture, Circuit Court for Leon County (FL), Case No. 37 2010 CA 000001.
State Senator Mike Fasano has since introduced several claims bills seeking compensation for victims abused at the school, but the bills failed to pass, most recently in March 2012 at the close of the legislative session.
In a deposition, former Dozier School administrator Troy Tidwell acknowledged that he disciplined boys with a leather strap in the White House, but argued they were “spankings” that did not constitute abuse. In defending his actions he said, “I just did what I was told to do.”
Supporters of the school claimed it later changed its direction and treatment of young prisoners. “The employees that were there now, the administration that was there now, were working hard to help those residents better themselves and return home,” said state Representative Marti Coley. “I visited and was pleased with what I saw.”
In recent years the population at Dozier, which was renamed the North Florida Youth Development Center, dwindled from several hundred to around 90. Less costly facilities that are better able to handle such small populations made the school’s closure inevitable. “It’s old,” said Coley. “They showed me the numbers after they made their announcement and it is costly to maintain.”
When the school shut its doors in June 2011 almost 200 employees were put out of work, which made a significant dent in the local economy. Several family generations had spent their working lives at the facility.
As a final nail in the Dozier School’s coffin, on December 2, 2011 the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released a report that criticized state officials for failing to protect residents at the school and at other state juvenile facilities.
The report found that staff members used excessive force and imposed excessive discipline for minor infractions; that staff lacked appropriate training; that juveniles did not receive appropriate rehabilitative services; and that youths were subject to unconstitutional frisk searches.
“Although Dozier and JJOC [the Jackson Juvenile Offender Center on Dozier’s campus] are now shuttered, these problems persist due to the weaknesses in the state’s oversight system and from a correspondent lack of training and supervision,” the report stated. “Our findings remain relevant to the conditions of confinement for the youth confined in Florida’s remaining juvenile justice facilities.”
The DOJ report found “reasonable cause to believe that the state of Florida was engaged in a pattern or practice of failing to have proper measures of accountability that led to serious deficiencies” in its juvenile justice system.
C.J. Drake, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, said the state had taken action to address the problems identified in the DOJ report. “The issues at Dozier occurred long before this administration took office and it was this administration that closed that facility,” he noted. “We ... do not tolerate misconduct or poor performance. If we identify it we seek to correct it, and if it’s not corrected it’s closed.”
In addition to the Dozier School, the Hillsborough Juvenile Detention Center East in Tampa, the Osceola Juvenile Detention Center in Kissimmee, the Desoto Juvenile Correctional Facility in Arcadia and the Seminole Juvenile Detention Center in Sanford were closed in 2011 due to budget cuts.
Sources: Associated Press, Orlando Sentinel, CNN, www.tampabay.com, http://thewhitehouseboys.com
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Related legal case
Middleton v. Florida Dept. of Agriculture
|Circuit Court for Leon County (FL), Case No. 37 2010 CA 000001
|State Trial Court