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.
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 sheet metal. ''If I had them people in front of me, I'd have to ask them if they realize how many lives they destroyed,'' Robert Straley, 64, a Clearwater 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 Jr (the one armed man), 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. The FDLE is asking anyone who may have information about possible abuse at the school to call (850) 410-8240, or e-mail ExecutiveInvestigationsComplaints@fdle.state.fl.us.
I would also like to hear from any of the "survivors" of the Florida State Reform School for Boys in late 1950's or early 1960's or anyone who has additional information about the abuse inflicted by Troy Tidwell "the one armed man", contact Bill Warner Private Investigator at WBI Inc Private Detective Agency Sarasota Fl, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or phone toll free 1-866-755-8453, my website www.wbipi.com . I was working out of Panama City Fl, just South of Marianna from 1991 to 1998 and am well acquainted with area and the mentality. There are dirt roads that run off of the main highways with signs adorned with rebel flags that claim you will be shot on sight if you trespass, I never took the owners up on it.
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, boys who if they 'disappeared' no one would go looking for them.
In a building just across from the White House was a place the boys referred to as the rape room. Robert Straley, 62, of Clearwater FL, was 13 and about 105 pounds when he was sent there. He remembered being waked one night and accused of smoking. “I was on the entertainment list for the night. That’s what it was,” Straley said.
He remembers a man with an iron grip (one armed man) grabbing his arm. “They were monsters. Oh, my God, the things they did,” Straley said. “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.” Dick Colon remembers trying not to scream. He was told by guards that if he made a peep, the beating would last longer. Guards would force him to lie on a bed. “The pillow he asked you to bury your face in was all blood and snot and guts,” Colon said.
He described the pain as feeling like someone pouring a pot of boiling water on his naked body. The pain got worse with each hit. “You screamed in your mind and your heart, and in every ounce of your body you screamed, but you didn’t peep. The man told you, ‘Don’t peep! I’ll start at one and I’ll go all over again,’” said Colon, 66, who now lives in Baltimore.
He remembers standing up after one of the beatings and coming nose-to-nose with a guard who had a smile on his face. “I thought to myself, ‘God almighty, if I could right now, I would reach into your chest cavity and I would pull out your heart and I would bite it while you looked at me,’” Colon said. “He looked at me with a face of satisfaction and contentment over the whipping that he gave me.”
The “Whitehouse” was a small white house where boys were taken for severe punishment, mainly for running away. However, over the months things had gotten out of hand at the Florida School for Boys at Marianna, now known as the Dozier G. School for Boys. Boys were being beaten, some almost beyond recognition, for the simplest of infractions.
Tony, the young boy walking ahead of us was being taken for the crime of stepping on the house parent’s foot while playing a game we called “capture the flag.” As we stopped at the rear entrance of the dining room, the young boy and two men continued on to the white house, located some 200 yards from our location. All at once, Tony began to run, screaming at the top of us lungs.
Within seconds the two men had tackled him and were beating him with their fists. We said not a word, as we knew better than to open our mouths or act as if we realized what was happening in the distance.
Troy Tidwell, a one armed man, sat on the boy’s chest as Mr. Hatton took out his keys and unlocked the padlock on the White House door. Tony screamed, yelled and kicked as we was being drug into the single doorway. All that could be heard now was the sound of the large fan, used to muffle the sounds of screaming children as they were being beaten; an unmerciful beating with a large leather strap with a piece of sheet metal sewn between the two leather halves.
As we entered the dining room to eat, we constantly watched from the corner of our eyes to see if Tony was returning. More than a half an hour passed and no one came from the building. We were told when more than thirty minutes had pass; most likely the boy did not survive the beating and that his body would not be removed from the building until after dark.
I constantly looked at Mr. Sea Lander with a look of horror on my face. He would smile and wink back at me. “Don’t worry about it, son,” he would motion with his lips, as he waived his left hand out to his side. I too had visited the White House several weeks earlier where my underwear had been beaten into my buttocks.
I was taken to the hospital where the material had to be surgically removed by Doctor Wexler and Old Nurse Womack. As we lined up for a return to our cottage, the White House door opened. The two men, both their pants covered in blood; drug Tony out the door by his legs. I jumped as his head hit the ground about twelve to fifteen inches below the doorway.
Tony, twisting his body back and forth on the ground, leaves, dirt and pine straw were sticking to his bloody face and upper body. About twenty yards from were we were standing, the two men dropped the boy’s legs and left him lying in the dirt. Slowly rolling onto his stomach, Tony managed to make it to his knees. We watched as his house parent came around the building and walked up to Tony. “You little punk-ass afraid little bastard,” said the man, as he slapped Tony on the side of his face. Slowly, Tony raised his arms into the air, his face and neck so bloody that we could not even tell who he was, and he screamed as loud as he could, “I EARNED THE RIGHT TO BE AFRAID.”
The house parent slapped him across the face as hard as he could. “He earned the right. He earned the right. He earned the right,” yelled one of the boys from our cottage, from the back of the line. Immediately, all twenty-eight boys from our cottage were screaming “HE EARNED THE RIGHT,” over and over and over. “Okay Boys, you made your point. Let’s get moving,” said Mr. Sea Lander.
When we returned to cottage twelve Mr. Sea Lander lined us up on the clay basketball court and he began to speak.“You boys know that you have violated a serious rule and that severe punishment has to be accommodated. You know that I have to punish you in accord with the rules of this institution. What you did was very serious. As punishment, each of you is to report to the dormitory and sit on your bunks for five minutes. I will turn on the dormitory radio to try and ease your pain during that period of time. Then you fellows can play basketball for about an hour.
MOVE IT.” We boys hurriedly ran to the dormitory and sat on our bunks as instructed. After that incident a feeling of pride sat in amongst us boys. A feeling of what team-work meant and what we could accomplish by standing together. That sometimes ‘the power’ is in the masses and not in the single, even in the worse of places.
The lesson for me was taught through Mr. Sea Lander. A thoughtful man, though he had to do a thankless and very difficult job to perform, was always fair and treated us boys with kindness and respect. It was he who made it possible for me to not take my hatred out on an innocent society, a place in which I would one day live.