Filed Under:  Columns, Opinion

Tales of torture, terror, rape, close Reform School

2nd January 2013   ·   0 Comments

By J. Kojo Livingston
Contributing Writer

In the wake of the closing of a 111-year-old Florida reform school child advocates are claiming that the problem of institutional child abuse is neither unique nor a thing of the past.

In 2009 Roger Riser wrote the book, The White House Boys, An American Tragedy. The book (and now on video) chronicles his experiences in a Florida reform school.

The Dozier Reform School for Boys was shut down last year after books and lawsuits by former students brought to light horrible accounts of the torture, sexual abuse and murder of many of the young residents. Some of the beatings were on tapes that former residents got and used to expose the school’s practices.

The University of South Florida, using ground radar, has found to date 98 bodies buried on the grounds. Riser told The Louisiana Weekly that this was only the beginning. He expects at least 100 more bodies to be found.

He was 12 going on 13 when he was sent to what was then called the Florida Industrial School for Boys.

Riser was abandoned by both parents at age four and was raised in an orphanage until 1959 when he was sent to what became the Dozier facility. “When we drove in I saw the most beautiful place I had ever seen. There was a swimming pool, manicured lawns, beautiful buildings, a baseball field, a football field and a gymnasium and I thought I was in heaven. I said, ‘Thank you lord for sending me to this place.’ Little did I know that I was jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.”

Within a matter of hours he learned that there was total control. If boys did anything wrong they were taken to the white house, which was a beating room. Accor­ding to him, there was also a rape room. “I saw this little white house and I said, ‘I’m not going to run away so I don’t have to worry about going to this white house because I have nowhere to run. I have no parents. I have no friends. I have nobody outside that orphanage.”

Riser was wrong, “Within a week, I was in the swimming pool and I got on the diving board and I slipped.” For this, he says, he was sent to the white house where he was beaten bloody as was often the case. “I had not seen the boys who were beaten not just bloody but meaty.”

The “paddle” was two pieces of leather with a piece of sheet metal in between. They were beaten by Troy Tidwell, whom the boys called the “one-armed man.”

After his beating Riser, who was covered with blood, was taken to the hospital where, “They surgically removed my underwear from my buttocks. “I remember going into Mr. Hatton’s office. I said one day I’m gonna come back here and I’m gonna tell what you people are doing here. He got up out of his chair and pointed at me and said, ‘That’s a good way to wake up dead tomorrow morning, sonny boy!’ I wrote the book and have been working on this for over 20 years trying to get somebody to believe how bad it was.”

The sexual abuse was constant, according to Riser, “The younger the better,” he says. “Over that time period they would come into the dormitories and take young boys. They did not want the older boys. Many times boys would come up missing. They would go to the white house and wouldn’t come back.”

According to Riser the residents at Dozier lived in a state of constant terror. “At first the beatings were only to keep boys from running away because there were no fences there. Then they would get you for smoking, cursing, stepping off the sidewalk. They would beat you for eating too fast, eating too slow, not smiling, smiling too much. It was like a concentration camp.”

Riser wanted others to know about the facility but was met with disbelief, “When I told this to people through the years they would say, ‘This is impossible, he has to be lying. Nobody would ever do that to children.’ Every word I’ve said is the truth. They are starting to prove it now with the 96 bodies they have found buried and when they get over to the trash dump they’re going to find another 100 bodies.”

Riser alleges that racism was a big part of life at Dozier. “My story is bad and it couldn’t get any worse but it is worse, because when they got hold of Black boys they beat those poor boys half to death. One day somebody asked Mr. Hatton, ‘What’s your deal on this?’ He says, ‘I’m gonna beat the goodness into them by beating the badness out of them.’ Then they asked, ‘Why do you beat the Black boys so much harder than the white boys?’ He says, ‘Because their damn skin is a helluva lot tougher.’ When he said that one of the Black cottage fathers was with him. I have never seen so many Black men go along with white men in a Ku Klux Klan area and turn against their own people.”

Riser says that many adults, including medical personnel, witnessed the abuse but never came forward. “They did this for 111 years. Why didn’t anybody say anything?” Riser says that Dozier was protected by a veil of secrecy because it was actually a large plantation, with the boys providing free labor. “It was one great big farm, run by the Florida Department of Agriculture. They grew peanuts, corn and carrots. They had a slaughter house for beef, and pork and chickens. Everyday especially the Black boys were working in the field, these pit bosses would have the people from downtown come bring their trucks and they would load tons of beef and corn and everything and they would pay the pit bosses and the boys would maybe get a Coca Cola out of it.”

After, White House Boys was released, Riser received a letter from a 77-year-old former resident whose mother was a nurse at Dozier. When she complained about the abuse, his father warned her that bad things would happen to their family if she spoke out. According to Riser, the people of nearby Marianna, Florida, lived in fear of speaking out and some were even run out of the area for telling what they witnessed. He has also received letters from adults who were abused as children in other facilities.

Genealogist and peonage re­searcher Antoinette Harrell who began exposing modern-day slavery in the South over 10 years interviewed Riser on both cable television and radio broadcasts. She agrees that Dozier is not unique and that the practice of different forms of slavery continues across the United States. She has issued a call to protect children from such abuse. Other groups such as the Children’s Defense Fund and Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incar­cerated Children have also been working to address the ongoing problem of the institutional abuse of children.

This article was originally published in the December 31, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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