OKEECHOBEE — The announcement from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) that the contract for the Okeechobee Youth Development Center expires in December 2020 and will not be renewed brings an end to the facility’s 60-year-long history in Okeechobee.
First opened in 1959 as a second campus for the Florida School for Boys in Marianna, the Okeechobee location was initially welcomed as a new source of jobs in the small town of about 6,000.
At a Rotary Club meeting in Okeechobee in 1955, Florida School for Boys Superintendent Arthur G. Doizer pitched locals on the benefits the facility would bring to the local economy. According to a report in the Sept. 11 edition of The Palm Beach Post that year, Doizer told Okeechobee Rotary Club members that the school would bring in an annual payroll of $300,000 plus an annual outlay of $450,000 for supplies that would be bought locally.
Four years after that meeting the first 50 boys were transferred to the Okeechobee campus from Marianna along with 20 staff members.
The Florida School for Boys in Marianna already had a history of abuse by the time the newer satellite campus opened. When some staff members transferred to Okeechobee from Marianna, it appeared they brought the abusive practices with them.
“They say Marianna was tough, but I think Okeechobee was tougher,” said Marvin L. Mike in a 2009 interview with the Okeechobee News. Marvin spent 18 months at the Okeechobee campus in 1961.
“They would make boys run away just so they could beat them,” continued Marvin. “It would make you cry if you saw what went on.”
Frank Zych, the former superintendent and deputy superintendent of the Florida School for Boys in Okeechobee, would administer corporal punishment himself.
“When you walked in there was a desk, and chairs in front of the windows where you sat and waited for the whipping,” explained Marvin. “You look to the left and there was Mr. Zych’s office and to the right was a small room. It was just big enough to get in there. In the room was a bed, like an old bunk bed, with a pillow. There was blood, vomit and slobber on it. They didn’t wash it, they would just wipe it off.”
Marvin, who was 12 years old when he was first sent to the school, said the leather strap used by Mr. Zych was smooth and about 4-to 5-inches wide. But the strap used by the school superintendent W.M. Sult was the most damaging.
“Mr. Sult would use a strap that had holes in it,” he said. “When he beat you with that one he intended to tear your hide up. It would pull the hide from you.”
Marvin also described the time Mr. Sult issued a frightening warning that stuck with him throughout his entire life.
“He said, ‘if you keep running your little black mouth you’ll end up like your friend,” Marvin recounted.
Marvin’s friend, a boy named Tony, had disappeared one day. Tony would run away because when he was whipped they would also hit him in the face.
“They last time they caught him, he was so messed up he couldn’t sit down,” Marvin recalled. “He disappeared. They said he ran away. When they found him he was inside the sewer plant. He drowned in all that waste.”
“But Tony could swim,” Marvin added, his voice quieter. “He was a good swimmer.”
Others who were at the boys school in the 60’s tell similar stories.
Micheal Anderson was at the reform school from 1965 to 1967. He runs a website at www.okeechobeereformschool.com where he details what his time was like in Okeechobee. In one particularly harsh episode, Micheal describes being sent to the infamous “Adjustment Unit” after staff at the school found a lone cigarette under his pillow.
He was beat with a leather strap similar to the one that was used on Marvin Mike.
“The pain was excruciating,” says Micheal in a blog written about the punishment. “At one point I was trembling so violently that one of the men said ‘you better stop that shaking boy or we gonna have to start over.’ I stopped immediately. My buttocks were burning so intensely that it felt like someone had poured gasoline on them and set them ablaze. I cannot remember if there was blood. I just remember having a horrible back ache and trying to lie down on my back was impossible. I could not sit to eat. I had to stand up. I slept for many nights on my stomach and sleeping on my side was out of the question. I stayed in lock-up for two more weeks for a total of six weeks. I had lost more weight.”
“All things precious, tender and lovely left my soul that day,” Micheal concluded.
Records indicate that Florida Governor Claude Kirk toured the facility in 1967 and labeled conditions there as “deplorable.”
According to the book “Private Prisons” by Charles H. Logan, the state had sought to close the Florida School for Boys in Okeechobee but found it could not afford to do so.
“For years it allowed the facility to deteriorate, with no money budgeted for physical improvements. Conditions were bad and led to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and other groups charging “cruel and abusive conditions and confinement,” wrote Mr. Logan.
Instead of closing the school, state officials opted to privatize it.
In 1982, the school was taken over by the Eckerd Foundation and became known as the Eckerd Youth Development Center. Then in 2009 the non-profit Eckerd Foundation lost the contract to operate the youth offender facility to G4S Youth Services, a for-profit provider.
In 2015 the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office conducted a search of the property with six cadaver dogs for long rumored human remains said to be at the former Florida School for Boys. Unlike a similar search at the Marianna campus which turned up 32 unmarked graves, none were found in Okeechobee.
In 2017 G4S Youth Services was renamed TrueCore Behavioral after being bought by BHSB Holdings Inc. for $56.5 million. BHSB Holdings itself was acquired by the Minnesota-based investment group Spell Capital Mezzanine only a month prior in March 2017.
Now after December TrueCore’s contract for the facility will expire. And Florida DJJ spokesperson Amanda Slama says that state will not procure further services at the site.
“I was released on a Thursday,” said Micheal Anderson of his last day at the Okeechobee school in 1967. “And while driving off campus, I reached for a cigarette, lit up and blew a bunch of smoke out of the car window as we slowly drove past one of the swing blade crews. One of the guys looked up and began smiling broadly. I smiled back as we drove off campus, never to return again.”