By Liz Ryan
A gruesome report released last month detailed the results of an investigation into the deaths of more than 100 boys buried on the grounds of the Florida State Reform School, also known as the Florida Industrial School for Boys (and more recently as the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys).
The January 18 report, submitted to the governor of Florida by the Florida Institute for Forensic Anthropology & Applied Sciences at the University of South Florida, underscores a century of reasons why the youth prison model should be dismantled.
Located in Marianna FL, the Dozier School opened in 1900 and finally closed in 2011. Youth prisons like Dozier have been—and still are---the signature feature of state juvenile justice systems. They consume the lion’s share of state juvenile justice spending and are grounded in an approach that came into existence nearly 200 years ago.
The report makes clear why the youth prison model in juvenile justice, embodied by Dozier, should be replaced with less costly and more effective community-based alternatives to incarceration.
There are many reasons—but one stands out.
It isn’t safe.
Many of the causes of death at Dozier were unknown: Records are missing and location of burials is not known. According to the report, “This absence of record keeping and absence of grave markers suggest intent to obfuscate the true number of burials located at the School and to hinder later potential investigations into the true causes of specific individuals’ deaths.”
The known factors leading to the boys’ deaths were traced to fires, physical trauma, drowning, disease, and deaths following attempted escapes. Youths were flogged, and placed in isolation, including one instance of a youth dying form being placed in a sweat box.
While the Dozier report details abuse from decades ago, abuse is still all too common today in youth prisons---and it is increasing, according to Maltreatment of Youth in U.S. Juvenile Correctional Facilities.
Young people in youth prisons throughout the U.S. today experience intolerable levels of physical abuse, sexual violence, excessive use of physical and chemical restraints, and overuse of isolation. They are often subjected to solitary confinement.
Another reason: It isn’t fair. The youth prison model disproportionately impacts youth of color.
The Dozier report highlights the fact that the vast majority of the boys buried at the school (67 percent) were African American.
The most recent data from the U.S. Department of Justice, as shown on the Haywood Burns Institute’s Unbalanced Justice map, reports that African-American youth are five times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth; Native American youth are more than three times as likely to be incarcerated than white youth; and Latino youth are two times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth.
Reason # 3: It is over-used.
Originally designed to house children with delinquent offenses, Dozier also housed young people for truancy, running away and “incorrigibility.” Children in the child welfare system were also housed there.
According to the latest U.S. Department of Justice data, over two-thirds of individuals held in youth prisons are confined for offenses such as status offenses (running away, skipping school), technical violations, public order, drug, and property offenses. These young people do not pose a risk to public safety and could be more effectively served in the community.
Finally, reason #4: It breaks crucial family ties and penalizes families.
The extent of the loss of family ties for the children at Dozier has yet to be fully told. The report alludes to the fact that so many of the children couldn’t afford the bus fare home and had to work in labor camps to raise the needed funds to go home, and as we now know, dozens of boys never made it home.
Youth prisons like Dozier are scattered throughout the U.S. and are located in similar places far from youths’ families, with limited access and visits. Families are often excluded from involvement in their children’s treatment plans but assessed the daily cost of incarceration. (Every state allows, with most requiring, parents to be charged for the cost of their children’s incarceration.)
With the dramatic drop in youth incarceration rates in the last decade, youth prisons are obsolete and should be closed. That would free up millions for community-based alternatives.
Communities can hold youth accountable and help them realize the consequences of their actions without resorting to incarceration in youth prisons, like Dozier, that harm, maim, even kill children.
We can and must do better. No more Doziers. Our children deserve no less.
Liz Ryan is CEO of the Youth First! Initiative and a frequent commentator on TCR. She welcomes comments from readers.