By Bo McMullian
Big change is coming to the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna; it won’t even be called “Dozier” anymore. The institution is being modernized from its prison-like past history, with an unproven but persistent reputation for child abuse, to something more akin to a serious treatment facility.
Among other significant changes, existing residents classified as sex offenders will be shipped out, to be replaced with juvenile delinquents with developmental and medical problems. The name change, an idea of the current superintendent, Michael Cantrell, is very descriptive of this new focus.
On July 1, the new name will be “The North Florida Youth Development Center”. At present, the Dozier complex is divided into two sections, the original Dozier facility and the maximum security unit, Jackson Juvenile Offender Correctional Center (JJOCC). There is currently a program for 32 sex offenders.
The two sections are planned to be combined, and then split up into “smaller, more effective programs,” Cantrell told the TIMES in an interview Monday. “There will be five different populations, one for delinquent high risk, one for developmentally delayed, one for medically complex kids, one for maximum risk and one for high risk intensive.”
Mike Cantrell, 43, is a different sort of corrections superintendent. He may be just what the local community needs to effectively save Dozier from closure and clean up its image, for good.
He explained that there are now a lot of empty bunks at the 140-bed facility. The state likes those “smaller, more effective programs” which get better rehabilitative results. And, Dozier has received a lot of bad press during the last two years, particularly from the St. Petersburg Times which published book-length articles on past abuse and what the newspaper considered to be failures concerning rehabilitation. Cantrell, a resident of Florida only since 2005, takes exception to the St. Pete Times coverage and disagrees with the paper’s conclusions and statistics on recidivism.
But the negative publicity had its effect. When the job of Superintendent came open last December for the third time in two years, no one jumped at the chance, Cantrell said. He was in Tallahassee working as a Regional Detention Director for the Department of Juvenile Justice. Although he knew the Marianna facility was dying from “under-population” and was being considered by some for closure, Cantrell took the job for the challenges it offered.
“Dozier was failing audits and quality assurance inspections,” Cantrell said. “I had a good job in regional detention. But I believe something special can be done here and I think we are on our way.”
Among Cantrell’s first assignments upon taking over in January was to cut the budget by $2 million, like most state agencies being required to cut back because of the recession. He was told to cut from $13 million to $11. Bed space will be cut at JJOCC but beds will be added at the new developmental and medical units. About 27 JJOCC positions are being cut. But new jobs will be available at the new units.
“We’re right-sizing this campus,” Cantrell said. “Right-sizing makes us more viable to be here for a long time to come.” He anticipates that most of the jobs will be saved, but a few employees may be offered DJJ jobs in Panama City. “Our goal is to have no job losses here,” Cantrell said. Dozier employs about 200 personnel currently, he said. The bed space is expected to remain about the same, at 150, but will be filled to capacity soon.
Cantrell says he wants to keep this job. After almost six months at Dozier, he is still struck by the well-kept green lawns and red brick buildings of the historic old campus. “Look at this place,” he said. “It’s beautiful.”
Cantrell and those like him in his profession have a different understanding than most of the concertina wire that festoons the “campus” and the high security which includes requiring all visitors to turn in their keys for lock-up until they depart. Cantrell has a social worker background, not one of prisons and corrections. An old country boy from the hills of West Liberty, Ky., he earned a degree in sociology at Union College in Barbourville, Ky., in 1990. He started working as a mental health counselor for “at-risk kids,” he said, and received training from the National Institute of Corrections. He took a job in Florida in March 2005 as assistant superintendent at Desoto Juvenile Corrections complex in Arcadia. After only one year, he was noticed in Tallahassee and took the regional job.
He said he came up with the name North Florida Youth Development Center because of the “negative connotations of ‘Dozier’”, and to emphasize the new, more therapeutic nature of the revamped facility.
Two programs Cantrell wants to keep and enhance are the Home Builders International activities which provide vocational training in carpentry, plumbing and facility maintenance and the high school/GED classes.
“The ‘effectiveness’ we talk a lot about is only for the kids,” Cantrell said. ”We want to positively impact their lives. They are treated well here and have every opportunity to change their lives.”
Cantrell also speaks highly of his staff and says he needs the community’s help. “I couldn’t be more appreciative of the good done by the staff here. The credit goes to them. They’ve done a good job. His two assistant superintendents are Charles Wright and James Godwin. Cantrell said he works a 24 hour day once each month to better understand the night shift. “We need the community to be part of it and to be supported by them. I want to strengthen the homebuilders program in which picnic tables and toys are made and given to Habitat for Humanity. We want to build on that and strengthen our relationship with the community.”
Cantrell still lives in Tallahassee but he said he and his wife may move to the Marianna area after his two children finish high school in a couple of years. They also have a child who is a sophomore at Florida State University.
So, this is the dawning of a new era at the facility. Let us all wish them success.