June 23, 2007 Florida reform school's Class of '88 paints picture of its failure

MARIANNA — The cottage is snared in vines, as if the jungle is trying to consume the bricks and broken glass. It sits on an abandoned edge of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, a 109-year-old reformatory for the state's troubled kids. The old cottage is the only accessible corner of an inaccessible place, a state-run institution with a long and ugly history of violence and abuse, protected by privacy laws and razor wire. Inside, past the graffiti-covered lockers and overturned bunks, is a bathroom. In a toilet, on a cold morning earlier this year, a reporter found a document. Four fragile pages containing 180 names. A list of boys confined here on April 22, 1988.

Such records are supposed to be kept confidential. No telling why this one survived in a toilet for two decades. But the list offers a window into an unexplored time at the reform school. It allows, for the first time, a public accounting of a single Dozier class.

Using public records, the St. Petersburg Times tracked the boys on the list. How good was this place at fulfilling its mission of reform? What became of the Dozier Class of '88?

At least 174 of them — 97 percent — were arrested again after Dozier. They raped and killed. They sold drugs near schools and beat their wives and swung on cops. They held guns on store clerks, drove getaway cars and left victims across the state.

Talk to them, and many say their real troubles started here. They are Dozier's legacy.

Aaron Burns is on the list.

In September, in his final days in prison, he secretly bequeathed his pet lizard to an inmate he trusted and made a promise to never come back.

He put on the clothes his sister saved when he was booked two years ago: Wolverine boots and blue jeans. He pocketed his wallet, which contained a social security card, a Winn-Dixie preferred customer card, and a receipt for the guitar he pawned for $20 to buy gifts for Christmas 2007.

That's when he found himself out of work and broke. He drank vodka and woke up in jail and learned he had hit his girlfriend.

Two years later now, the first step in his plan to fix his life starts at Serenity House West in DeLand, in a room full of men trying to mend their mistakes. He takes a seat under a sign that says "First Things First."

The man up front begins.

"If we're not careful, we tend to think of ourselves as bad people," he says. "We're not. Put the plug in the bottle and we're very intelligent, capable, friendly people. Society out there doesn't understand this.

"Check your own story, folks."

Where does Burns' story start?

At age 6, when his dad killed himself in the garage?

At 13, when he and some friends broke into a house looking for booze and walked away with a pistol?

Or at 15, when he arrived at the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna?

The first week, he was attacked while a guard looked the other way, he said. When it happened again, he fought back. That was the start of months of ambushes and sleepless nights, and pity the kid who tried to tell an adult.

"Marianna left scar tissue," Burns says, smoking a cigarette outside the halfway house. "They'd tell you, 'Your parents don't love you. Nobody loves you. That's why you're here.

"You think you've got nothing to lose."

Can you blame the choices of a batch of criminals on a single place? No. But it's hard to argue that time at Dozier makes boys better citizens.

The Times has written about two other generations molded by Dozier. Hundreds of men who spent time there in the 1950s and '60s, called the White House Boys, have filed a lawsuit claiming they're haunted by the bloody whippings they endured.

Those types of beatings were stopped, but documents show the boys there in the past five years have suffered medical neglect, sexual abuse and broken bones.

So what about the Class of '88?

Out of 180 boys, at least 174 were rearrested after Dozier was supposed to have straightened them out.

Of the six who were not re­arrested, one was shot and killed in St. Petersburg in 1989, riding in a drug dealer's Thunderbird. Another died in 1998 in Jacksonville at age 27. One appears to have no arrest record. The Times couldn't account for the other three.

At best, the Class of '88 represents a lifetime recidivism rate of 97 percent.

Three-fourths were rearrested within three years. Eighty-three percent were rearrested within five years.

Many have long rap sheets and served numerous sentences. They have helped drain the coffers of a state where Department of Corrections spending has shot from $600 million a year in 1988 to more than $2 billion.

Twenty-one years later, almost a third of them — 51 of the 180 — are still incarcerated in Florida. Four are serving life.

Still others are dead after serving sentences.

It's hard to compare Dozier to some statistical mean, because states calculate data in different ways.

But 97 percent?

"This is extraordinarily high and deeply concerning," said Angela Hattery, professor of sociology at Wake Forest University who is co-authoring a book, Prisoner Re-entry and Social Capital.

It's especially high because many Dozier kids were sent there for non-violent crimes.

"Those kids are not difficult to turn around," said Kathleen Heide, professor of criminology at the University of South Florida and author of two books on juvenile homicide. "Those figures are alarming. They're tragic even."

Dozier should have been a safe and effective program in 1988.

Aaron Burns had been there a short time by then, and state officials had just announced plans to overhaul the juvenile justice system. Dozier was finally getting cleaned up.

Ever since kids were found shackled in 1903, one investigation after another had documented abuses and fueled fresh alarm. In 1968, an official from the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare called Dozier "one of the worst examples in the nation of a boys' reform school." Gov. Claude Kirk visited and told reporters: "If one of your kids were kept in such circumstances, you'd be up there with rifles."

In 1983, the ACLU and others filed the class-action Bobby M lawsuit claiming kids were hog-tied and isolated for long stretches. The resulting settlement forced the state to outlaw hog-tying, reduce the population at the school, retrain staffers and install a federal monitor.

"These reforms launch Florida into a new and progressive era in the way we treat young offenders," said the secretary of the state's Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.

Here is how men who were there in 1988 describe that progressive era:

"Kids were raped, beaten and abused all the time," wrote William Mantle, 37, who is held in Tomoka Correctional Institution for stealing a car. "I've been to prison 3 times and ... there isn't a prison I've been to that compares to Dozier."

The Times wrote letters to everyone on the 1988 roster who was incarcerated in Florida. About half wrote back. One man claimed he was locked in a dog cage for several hours as punishment for hiding on campus. Another said guards beat him unconscious, then told him not to tell. Many said rape and beatings were common among the boys, and guards looked the other way. Some said guards pit kids against each other, offering single cigarettes or Little Debbie snacks to the winner.

Charles Anthony Jones, imprisoned for 18 of the past 21 years, said he was whipped with a belt until he was bruised and bleeding. Steven Long, a 39-year-old addict serving time for forging prescriptions, said he saw boys with those kinds of injuries locked in the infirmary.

"I still have facial scars that reminds me of Marianna every time I look in the mirror," wrote Sherman Atkins, 37, serving time in Wakulla for cocaine possession and driving with a suspended license. "I still think about how scared I used to be when I was confined there. ... We was constantly threatened repeatedly not to speak about it with no one, especially our family, and I never did."

"It was a gladiator school," said Derek C. Gavin, 38, who was released from prison in 2003. "It was dog eat dog. It was a terrible experience in that dorm. Man, I'm talking about like you wouldn't believe."

The man who ran Dozier in 1988 is dead. The assistant superintendent, Daniel Pate, is 63. He retired in 2002 and still lives in Marianna.

He acknowledged that during the Bobby M litigation, and during the transition period after the settlement in '87, the school had troubles.

"There was chaos for a while."

Staffing was too low, he said, and there were "a lot of things that happened during the litigation that caused the staff to feel vulnerable and kids to feel empowered." A power struggle ensued.

Carole B. Shauffer, executive director of the Youth Law Center, worked on the Bobby M suit and visited the school before the case was filed.

"The conditions were terrible, but the most basic thing is that the staff hated the kids," she said. "The staff spoke contemptuously of the kids . . . The staff just thought they were bad kids and there was absolutely no other way to control them."

The man who was assigned to monitor Dozier as part of the '87 settlement said the reforms did not handicap the guards, they just reduced the brutality.

"Dozier was a brutal place for years and years and it had brutal policies and practices," said Paul DeMuro, who led a team of monitors. "And the Bobby M decree did not put the kids in charge."

Pate said things at the school began to get better after the staff was retrained and funding was increased, around 1988.

He said he is surprised by the stories of the boys who were at Dozier then.

"I'm sorry that they would have said that," he said. "I'm sorry that they had a bad experience. I really am."

Randy Griffin is on the list.

He had been a quiet kid who liked to shoot pool after school at Campbell Park in St. Petersburg, but somehow got misguided. His mom, Phyllis Coachman, believed the judge when he said reform school was the best place for her son.

The Marianna compound reminded her of a college campus. But her son would confide that he couldn't sleep for fear he would be beaten. She didn't know what to do.

"I thought when I was sending him there that he was going learn something or that his behavior was going to be different," said Coachman, 62. "But he came back even worse. He came back offensive."

After Dozier, he was arrested again and again for 15 years: cocaine possession, counterfeiting, grand theft. In 2007, Randy Griffin was shot dead outside a nightclub in Atlanta.

David Allen is on the list.

He was always big for his age, his mom said, so when he got into trouble for things like throwing rocks at a school bus, police in the small town of Madison took it seriously. Rocks became deadly missiles.

"They would just lock him up for any old thing," said Margie Allen, 68.

Now David Allen is 38. He's 6 feet tall and nearly 300 pounds. His muscled arms and shoulders bulge under his prison jumpsuit. "I can't really remember a lot of what happened during those years," he said in an interview.

At Dozier, they gave him a pill three times a day. It made him groggy, a juvenile zombie. He spent about four years at Dozier.

He remembers getting into a fight. The guards dragged him to the isolation unit and handcuffed his wrists to his ankles behind his back. He can't remember how long he was left on his stomach, but he can remember how dark it was and how alone he felt.

"If I wouldn't have went there and experienced the things I did, I wouldn't be here now," he said. "How they treated you, it made you suspicious of everything."

He has spent 16 of the past 21 years in prison. In 2007, he was convicted of robbery with a weapon and grand theft. He's due to be released in 2066.

"I been locked up all my life," Allen said. "I don't know how to relate to people any more. I just don't know what goes on out there in the world."

Donald Wheeler is on the list.

In November 1997, the Pinellas County man led police in Maryland on a 50-mile chase in a stolen Oldsmobile.

He stopped on the median of a highway and held police at bay for eight hours, until they fired a tear gas canister into his car.

Wheeler, who had told his family he wasn't going back to jail, put a bullet in his own head.

By almost any measurement, Dozier falls short.

Heide, the USF professor, offers a comparison to a program in Texas that treats a rougher population than Dozier — exclusively kids with violent histories who are most likely to re­offend. The Giddings State School decreased the probability of re-incarceration within five years by 55 percent, and decreased the probability for any additional felony offense by 43 percent.

"The hard part of the puzzle is figuring out how much of the recidivism is related to the experiences these young men had in juvenile facilities, and how much is a result of other problems in their lives," said Hattery, the Wake Forest professor. "Either way, their experiences at Dozier must have contributed to their life trajectories."

Heide observes that juvenile justice legislation in Florida hobbles along on good intentions and a severe lack of funding. When lawmakers cut budgets, juvenile justice is a favorite target because young criminals don't vote.

It is easy to say criminals deserve whatever rough treatment they get. "Yet, not treating them will end up costing all of us more," notes Heide's colleague, assistant professor Shayne Jones. "Some individuals will pay for this lack of treatment by becoming victims of offenders we failed to treat. And taxpayers will continue to have their hard-earned money being used for more police patrols, increased court dockets, and prisons — much of which does not dramatically reduce the likelihood they will reoffend again."

The DOC estimates that it costs taxpayers $20,108 a year to imprison an inmate, which means Aaron Burns' confinement has cost Floridians somewhere near $170,000, not including the associated costs of police services, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges or county jails. That's enough to pay the yearly salaries of six juvenile justice residential officers today.

Using the same calculation, the 100 men on the list who have spent the most time in prison cost taxpayers about $22 million in the past two decades.

"If we had done nothing," Heide said, "we'd have done better for these kids."

When Aaron Burns was released from Dozier, he took a Greyhound home to Deltona and decided he would live right. It didn't last. The police came to his house to investigate a burglary in the neighborhood. He says he was innocent, but when he saw the cops walking toward his door, he ran.

In the two decades that followed, he was sent to prison four times: burglary, grand theft, battery on a law enforcement officer and escape. He has spent more than eight years behind bars, long enough to learn to make tattoo ink from melted checkers and guitar picks from snuff cans.

Burns is trying to stay straight this time. At the halfway house, they're teaching the men about changing their attitudes, teaching them to value themselves and to identify the root cause of their grief and to move on. Burns has thought a lot about Dozier in the past few weeks.

"I really don't know how my life would have turned out," he says. "But maybe I wouldn't have just assumed that I'm no good. Maybe my first instinct would not have been to run.

"A lot of my aggression was instilled in that place. It's something you learn as a young kid and it doesn't go away. It becomes a part of you."

He listens and scribbles notes in the margins of his handouts. If only he had learned these lessons 21 years ago, he says.

Every evening, he looks in the mirror at a man whose hair is graying, who has wasted much of his life.

He is free to leave this place when he wants. There are no bars or locks to keep him in. For the first time, he's not trying to run.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at or (727) 893-8650. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at or (727) 892-2283.


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