Déjà vu in prison grave yards

Anyone old enough to remember the scandalous discovery of graves on the periphery of the Arkansas Department of Correction in 1968 will experience deja vu at recent revelations from a Florida boys’ reform school.

Just like former ADC warden Tom Murton’s fateful excavations on the Cummins prison farm, a small cemetery on the grounds of the now-defunct Florida Industrial School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, is at the center of new allegation of abuse and possible murder. The school dates back to the early 1900s. According to a CNN report, rusting white steel crosses mark the graves of 31 unidentified former students. Former students said the deaths came at the hands of abusive administrators, but a 2009 state investigation ordered by then-governor Charlie Crist determined there was no evidence of criminal activity connected with any of the deaths or of abusive treatment.

Even so, the investigation did not resolve the mystery surrounding the fate of 50 other students who died at the school and whose bodies have never been located. Following a renewed interest in the matter, former students, all now senior citizens, have come forward with stories of gross abuses, including alleged beatings, killings and the disappearance of students, from the 1940s to the 1960s.

Juxtapose the Florida report with our own local history. Back in 1968, Murton’s investigation uncovered three bodies, although two dozen depressions were clearly visible. According to a Time magazine article from the era, Murton’s inmate informant told him that as many as 200 bodies had been buried there. Not coincidentally, the number of prisoners listed as “escapees” since the early 20th century was reported as “more than 200.”

Erin Kimmerle, an anthropologist from the University of South Florida, is leading a scientific search on the grounds of the abandoned reform school. Kimmerle’s team has used ground-penetrating radar to locate what she says appear to be 18 more remains than previously thought to have been buried there. Her team has determined that a total of 49 graves exist —- all unidentified.

“We found burials within the current marked cemetery, and then we found burials that extend beyond that… for the majority, there’s no record of what happened to them. So, they may be buried here, they may have been shipped to their families, but we don’t know,” Kimmerle said.

According to Kimmerle, state and school records show that out of nearly 100 children who died while at the school, there are no burial records for 22 of them.

Again, gruesome parallels suggest themselves. Whether the disappearances at either institution can ever be linked to abuse, murder or other criminal negligence on the part of officials is largely subordinate to larger questions about correctional reform. It is clear that our thinking about the proper boundaries of administrative oversight and inmate discipline has changed in the last 40 years. Old, brutal habits have been set aside in favor of newer more humane penological methods. So too has the nature of prison changed in that the national inmate population ballooned well beyond what we could have anticipated.

Whatever arguable progress we as a society have made in the observance of human rights, we have surrendered in dysfunctional overcrowding. With that surrender we largely abandoned erstwhile ideas of personal reform and penitence. It is more than a semantic change that we now have “correctional facilities” as opposed to “penitentiaries” and “reformatories.”

Even so, whenever we confront alleged abuses such as those at issue in Florida, we are obliged to take stock of our current direction and the path that led us here. We are similarly obliged to ask whether we have eradicated old habits that led to those abuses or merely supplanted them with newer, but equally destructive ones.