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Hell's 1,400 acres: a story published March 31, 1968 in the St. Petersburg Times

A 1968 St. Petersburg Times photograph shows the overcrowding of beds in a cottage at the Florida School for Boys in Marianna, FL. Governor Claude Kirk toured the facility that year and found it in deplorable condition.

Times files, March 1968

A 1968 St. Petersburg Times photograph shows the overcrowding of beds in a cottage at the Florida School for Boys in Marianna, FL. Governor Claude Kirk toured the facility that year and found it in deplorable condition.

Editor's note: This story about the Florida School for Boys in Marianna, Fla., originally was published March 31, 1968 in the Floridian section of the St. Petersburg Times.

Related News/Archive


"If one of your kids were kept in such circumstances, you'd be up there with rifles," Gov. Claude Kirk said after his first visit to the Marianna School for Boys March 19. Kirk said the reform school is in "absolutely deplorable condition."

Most of the governor's criticism was directed at the physical layout of the facility, but he also said training programs could be improved and the medical facilities are terrible.

Kirk also toured the Okeechobee School for Boys, which he said was in model condition because it is much newer. But "somebody should have blown the whistle on Marianna a long time ago," Kirk added.

The Times began an investigation of conditions at Marianna more than a month ago, following a December news conference in Tallahassee, at which an official of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare labeled the institution as one of the worst examples in the nation of a boys' reform school.

Since his tour of the facilities, Kirk has requested full reports on the operation of the Marianna school from Youth Services Division Director O. J. Keller and the State Budget Commission, and has scheduled meetings with officials of both of these departments on the conditions at the school.

The story

Welcome, friends, to the Florida School for Boys at Marianna. A beautiful place, nestled in the rolling hills of Florida's Panhandle, 1,400 acres of well-tended land with lots of towering pines and oak trees.

Here, friends, are 605 of your delinquent children. If they weren't Really Bad when they got here, chances are they're learning. Learning to sniff glue, gasoline and shoe wax. Learning to steal cars and break into groceries in a more professional way. And sometimes learning about sodomy and other perversions.

They're thrown in with hard-core delinquents. With kids who are retarded, suffering brain damage, with severe emotional problems – kids desperately in need of psychiatric help, help they'll never get here.

Remember Leon Holston, the muscular 16-year-old Negro accused of sexually assaulting and stabbing to death three youngsters around Pompano Beach in 1966? He was a graduate of our school at Marianna.

Come on inside and find out why. And welcome, welcome friends, to the Florida School for Boys.

Bobby, a husky, good-looking 17-year-old with deep blue eyes, sits at the large conference table, nervously cracking his knuckles while he pleads with the social workers for help. Bobby is suicidal, violent – they usually keep him locked up in a little room with a peephole in the door and a plastic bucket for a toilet.

Bobby lived with the hippies in California and used to push drugs to support his own habit. This is his second trip to the state school, and he has a recurring dream.

"It's about a man turning over and splitting apart," Bobby says. "I feel if I could grasp something, I'd be two people.

Bobby attacked a boy who mentioned Bobby's mother. Asked about it, Bobby explains: "I blew up because I know anything they say about her is true. My mother was an alcoholic, a prostitute and she killed herself."

Bobby talks quietly, almost in a whisper, politely, with lots of "sirs." He traces a pattern with his finger on the tabletop. His fingernail is chewed down to the quick.

Bobby's father left when Bobby was 3. His mother died when he was 8. "I resented her dying and leaving me," Bobby admits. Bobby can't get along with his father, an alcoholic, or his stepmother. It's the third marriage for both. Bobby split – hitchhiking to California.

Bobby started with Bennies (Benzedrine) and Bella-Donna, moved on to LSD and then "speed" (Methedrine) which he took intravenously.

Bobby tried to kill himself with an overdose of Asthmador, a drug taken by asthmatics. He ended up in the hospital for five days. Bobby is strong, violent, he can't control his emotions and the other boys fear him.

"I've ruined my life," he says, lowering his head and slowly cracking his knuckles. "I can't think straight half the time. I'm afraid I'll wander off and do something. I'm very mixed up. I want to be helped."

At Marianna, there is no help.

Lenox E. "Link" Williams, bulky superintendent of the Florida School for Boys, is frankly worried. The 36-year-old, crew-cut psychologist leans back in his swivel chair and says:

"We've never had enough money to staff this facility. We're getting deeper and deeper in the red. As vacancies occur, we don't replace the people who left. We don't dare fill positions because we don't have the money to pay them."

Lacing his hands behind his head, Williams continues: "We're charged with changing delinquent children, yet we're not given the resources to effect these changes. Time and time again, we've asked for additional professional-level staff to work with the kids. We don't get them. We asked for 14 more social workers. We got none.

"We're having to mix hard-core delinquents with the essentially 'non-delinquent' kids. Some of these kids are deeply emotionally disturbed. They shouldn't be here. We don't have facilities to take care of them. We're overcrowded, and disturbed kids are being released on the streets simply because there's such a tremendous waiting list."

The school, Williams admits, has no real rehabilitation program. It doesn't even have a screening center to separate the hard-core delinquent from the "normal" delinquent, many of whom are at Marianna because they were truant from school.

Asked if boys are learning wrong things, such as crime techniques and sex perversions, Williams blurts: "Hell, yes!"

He adds: "I know some children are harmed by their experience here but what can we do ? Curing delinquent behavior is a long and difficult task. Experts in the field of juvenile corrections say the maximum number of children who can be served at this type of facility is 150. Our census today is 605. We used to have as many as 800 here."

A federal official called the Marianna School a "monstrosity." Studies show that in facilities with less than 150 children (such as the forestry camps in some states), only 6.1 percent get into trouble and are sent back. With 160 to 299 children, the returnee rate jumps to 24.2 percent, and those with 380 or more, 25.2 percent.

Williams said a study showed Marianna has a returnee rate of nearly 30 percent, while the rate of recidivism (going on to a life of crime) is even higher.

"Even though we're an open institution (no fences), the emphasis here has been on custody of children. We're not reaching the children we should," Williams continues. "'We're stretched so thin we must devote most of our time to the serious behavior cases. A youngster can go through here without getting any attention at all. We are more or less warehousing kids."

Williams said when the sensational Holston sex crime case broke, he and other staffers hoped the notoriety would focus attention on the school and its problems. How could the school release such an obviously disturbed youngster? If Floridians were concerned, it wasn't for long.

"We live from crisis to crisis," says Williams. "How many stories like the Holston case does it take to wake people up and get action?"

• • •

A youngster's introduction to the school at Marianna can be a frightening thing. He is stripped of his clothes, thrust into a shower and then has his hair cut off.

The boys call it a "fuzzo" – zip across the head with clippers in a style most veterans will recall from their basic training days.

The newcomer is issued two pairs of heavy brown work shoes, cotton shirts, five pairs of dungarees, five sets of underwear and socks, two pairs of pajamas, two sweat-shirts, a web belt and a wind-breaker-type jacket.

A number is printed in the clothes with invisible marking ink so that if something is stolen it can be identified with an infrared light. And the boys do steal. Sometimes the bigger ones force the little ones to, and they call this "putting the brakes" on someone.

The new student is assigned to one of 18 cottages, white three-story buildings dating back to 1946 and with holes in the ceilings and needing repairs. There are 35 to 45 students in each cottage, so jammed together their Army-style cots are nearly touching.

Students are supposed to be between 11 and 17 years old, but the law can be waived, so occasionally an 8-year-old is sent to Marianna. The average stay is seven months, although one boy managed to remain for five years.

The school is divided into junior (grades 1-6) and senior (7-12) campuses. They used to be white and Negro campuses, and are a quarter-mile apart as required by a segregation-minded Florida Legislature. The school has been fully integrated since Sept. 14, 1967. This was accomplished with relatively little difficulty, although some staff members quit as a result.

It is the first truly integrated living experience for most of the children. Marianna, a town of 7,000 people 70 miles northwest of Tallahassee and just south of the Alabama state line, has its schools integrated – and little else.

The boys school classrooms are disaccredited, mainly because the youngsters attend only half the time. The rest of the time, they must work. There are 42 job classifications at the facility, ranging from messenger and clerk to barber and farm worker.

The school has its own farm with cows, pigs, chickens and crops such as peas, beans, peanuts and corn. The theory was that the farm production would help reduce the cost of running the school, and the variety of jobs would offer the boys the chance for vocational training. However, in practice, the farm doesn't help reduce the school's operating costs, and the training is considered to be of little value.

Much of the school is self-sustaining. The boys run a laundry and dry cleaning plant, shoe and clothes repair shops, electrical plant, sewer and water facilities, carpentry and machine shops – even a library of sorts.

For many boys, it is their first time away from home. They're frightened, and they run away (143 of them in 1964). When they do, they sometimes burglarize a store or service station in Marianna … which doesn't help relations with the townspeople. The runaway youngsters are tracked through the piney woods with bloodhounds.

• • •

Phil, 16, keeps a weak smile on his face and talks in a monotone as he tells how he was sent to the state school for truancy. Phil's father died in an asylum, and the boy fears he has inherited his father's mental problem.

When his mother became ill, Phil took a part-time job in a grocery to help support the family. He started missing school. One day, the counselor in the rural county where Phil lived had the boy arrested. Phil spent two weeks in a jail cell.

One day, he was handcuffed and taken to a cemetery to watch his mother being buried. That was how he first learned that his mother died while he was in jail.

Back in his cell, Phil tried to hang himself with a towel. "If I hadn't been in jail, she'd be alive," he says.

Phil sometimes hallucinates now; he thinks he sees his mother and talks to her.

"A strange feeling comes over me," Phil says. "Sometimes I think I could kill myself. I've been under pressure. I'd like to be transferred to the state mental hospital."

Superintendent Williams says some juvenile court judges are a bit hasty in committing boys to the school. Sometimes, he adds, at the urging of parents who are anxious to get rid of a troublesome child.

Florida, in fact, seems to be commitment-happy. The state in 1965 sent 280 out of every 100,000 youngsters to training schools. In the entire Southeast, the ratio was only 177.7 children per 100,000.

• • •

The Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys at Marianna – named for its late, longtime superintendent – was founded in 1898, and is the oldest such facility in the state. A second boys school was built in Okeechobee in 1959. The state also has two girls schools, both near Ocala.

Long considered a "pioneer" institution, particularly after the fences were taken down, the Marianna school has suffered from neglect in recent years.

The current budget (1967-68 fiscal year) totals $1,698,674. About $1,168,000 of this goes for salaries for about 200 staffers, ranging from social workers to house parents at each cottage. The remainder is for food and other operating expenses.

The Florida Legislature in 1967 created a Division of Youth Services, which supervises the training schools as well as a new program of "after-care" for delinquent children. After a boy is released, counselors provide follow-up assistance.

The new division recently released a frank report outlining the inadequacies of Marianna and other schools. To start with, the report said, the schools are located in all the wrong places.

While most delinquents come from metropolitan areas, the schools are miles away from Florida's populous communities. This makes it hard, and costly for families to visit their children at the schools.

In 1958, an intensive psychiatric treatment facility was built at Marianna and staffed with psychiatrists and psychiatric aides. It lasted a year. "You can't attract the people you need in this kind of work for peanuts," says Williams. "We couldn't keep anybody."

Now the unit is used for detention. There are 10 small "quiet rooms" where some of the most severely disturbed children are kept locked up. The tile room has a bunk, a bucket for a toilet (emptied once a day), a peephole in the door and an opening to slide the food through.

"The boys can lie on the bunk, read or stare out the window.

• • •

Elmer, 17, was caught performing a sex act with another boy at the school. Because of that, and because he fights a lot, Elmer is kept in detention. Elmer, a veteran car thief, tells a disjointed story.

He insists he is the victim of a "frame job." He says the other boys fear him – "They act like I'm Superman or something." And he claims to be a brilliant scholar – "I made honors every six weeks."

Elmer's IQ is at the fourth grade level.

"I'm a super athlete," Elmer says. "I can beat anybody on campus. I read better than the others. I can't help that." Super, Superman – these words mean a lot to Elmer.

The social workers try to help him. Experts in the field say there should be one social worker for every 30 boys. At Marianna, the ratio is one for every 200 youngsters. The three social workers can't do much more than try to prevent a disaster.

Elmer asks to be released from detention. He feels he earned it – he "puked out" (told on) some boys who were going to run away. Elmer's request is refused.

"Are you going to lock me back up like a dog?" he asks. "I done reported seven boys and I don't get anything out of it? I just hope I die!"

"I hope you don't, Elmer," Superintendent Williams says softly.

• • •

Until recently, the boys at Marianna were crowded into cottages at night without any adult supervision.

Hopefully, a social worker says, the boys' natural aversion would have kept down the number of sexual assaults. "It's repulsive to the boys. They see it as a threat."

Since the last sessions of the Legislature, the school has an adult on duty at all times at each cottage. And more are needed.

While Florida's law prohibiting minors from smoking seems to be ignored over most of the state, authorities at Marianna are required to enforce it. It's an impossible task.

The boys get into visitors' cars and empty the ash trays. They fish butts out of urinals and dry out the tobacco. They smoke tea leaves, corn silk, banana leaves and a local weed they call rabbit tobacco.

Sometimes visiting parents bring the boys cigarettes, even though they're told the boys' terms at the school will be extended as punishment if they're caught. "Sometimes I think there's a plot to keep them here," says a staffer.

Since the boys are forbidden matches, they light their cigarettes by "popping a socket" – heating a piece of wire or a lead pencil by sticking it in an electrical outlet. By some miracle, no child has been electrocuted so far, but quite a few fuses have been blown.

Extending the stay or withholding privileges are about the only forms of punishment at Marianna. The boys once were beaten with a heavy, 4-inch-wide leather strap but that's no longer allowed. "If you spank a child nowadays," Superintendent Williams says, "you're putting your head in a noose."

• • •

Tommy is 15, but he's so small he looks no older than 11. Tommy is retarded. His father is a homosexual; his mother is promiscuous. As he speaks, the sound of one of the recorded bugle calls by which the boys' lives are regulated drifts over the campus.

"The other boys jump on me and beat me," Tommy says in a hushed voice. "They punch me because I won't fight back. They say do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I share with them even if they don't share with me."

Tommy needs psychiatric help. The others beat him because he pesters them until they do. Tommy enjoys the beatings. For a while, he proudly sported two black eyes.

Alan needs help, too. He keeps climbing up to the top of the 150-foot-high water tank and threatening to jump. Alan is an epileptic, and the staff fears that one day he will have a seizure up there and fall before they can get him down. They recently built guards on the legs of the water tank to keep Alan from climbing up.

Then there's another boy who is obsessed with choking women. He readily admits choking one and getting a lot of satisfaction from it. He's afraid of that feeling, and afraid one day he'll get "10 years of better" in prison.

"He's so disturbed he doesn't even know how to lie about it," says a social worker.

There are lots of youngsters with serious problems like these at the Florida School for Boys. They're not getting any help there.

Mariannese translated

Every institution develops its own distinctive jargon, and the Florida School for Boys is no exception. Here's a sample of the "in" talk among the youngsters there.

THE MAN – anyone in authority.

DING-DONG – a warning that The Man is coming.

A PUKE – a boy who tells on others.

PUKE SOMEONE OUT – to squeal on another boy.

GOURD – your head.

A SCUM – a boy held in low esteem.

TO RATE – to be popular.

A DUCK – to get out of a task.

LOUIE – a light bulb.

TIGHT MAN – a good, close friend.

STONE BRAIN – dumb, thick-headed.

A CJ – a con job.

GET STRAIGHT – straighten up and behave.

LAMP – an eye, as in "I'm going to bust you in the lamp."

SCARF HARD – eat fast.

Hell's 1,400 acres: a story published March 31, 1968 in the St. Petersburg Times 04/17/09 [Last modified: Friday, April 17, 2009 10:10am]
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