The Boys from Boonville

In 1963, a group of African-American runaways and truants was sent to a rural reform school. Then the nightmare began.

In the sepia-toned photos taken in the 1890s, the Missouri Training School for Boys looks like a cross between a Southern military college and a particularly nice insane asylum. Set amid rolling hills and embarrassingly lush orchards, the brick buildings imply restraint, discipline and order. In 1933, a MTS Plant and Needs report described them with a candor that comes only when capital improvements are being sought: "Most of them have good lines and from outside have a dignified and restful effect. Inside they are bleak, bare, unlivable."

That report probably won the buildings, at best, a paint job. But with the establishment of the Board of Training Schools in 1948, the institution's punitive tone did soften, at least in theory. Emphasis now fell on education -- which meant that troublemakers had to be plucked from the ranks. Alas, there were no alternative residences for "hardcore" juveniles, and under Missouri's indeterminate-sentence law, these kids had to be kept until they turned 21 or could be pronounced reformed. So the staff began deciding who the "incorrigibles" were, then shipping them off to adult prisons with neither charge nor hearing.

In 1967, four years after Joseph's group was transferred, reporters and legislators began to scrutinize MTS, which was then crowding nearly 600 children into a facility built for 350. "It's not a rehabilitation center like it should be," State Rep. E.J. "Lucky" Cantrell (D-Breckenridge Hills) told the St. Louis Globe-Democrat (July 22, 1967). Then he added, with unwitting irony, "I'd say it's almost as bad as if the kids were put in the state penitentiary."

On March 7, 1963, it was "alleged that Stanley Joseph has failed to abide by the rules of supervision in that he was truant from school, remained out of the house overnight without parental permission and failed to keep appointment with Court worker." A month later, these "crimes" landed him in prison.
Dan Gill
On March 7, 1963, it was "alleged that Stanley Joseph has failed to abide by the rules of supervision in that he was truant from school, remained out of the house overnight without parental permission and failed to keep appointment with Court worker." A month later, these "crimes" landed him in prison.

Cantrell, who still lives in St. Louis (and who was himself convicted of embezzling union funds in 1990), says he was never told about the practice of transferring "incorrigibles" to adult institutions. Yet as chair of the House appropriations committee, he spent considerable time at MTS, bringing a fact-finding team to investigate disturbing reports about the school's operations. "A lot of the kitchen help were kids from the facility," he recalls, "and kitchen duty was punishment, so they would spike the food -- urinate in it, spit in it. The dormitories were overpopulated; they didn't have enough staff to properly discipline the kids; and their methods -- they'd put 'em on work details that were degrading, for an excessive amount of time, for some small infraction. It was ... chaotic. I also saw several kids whose problems seemed to be mental, not behavioral."

After photos of cots jammed 2 inches apart hit the newspapers, public officials began saying MTS should be replaced by smaller schools so that intensive counseling (the great new hope) could replace uselessly harsh punishment. "Courts are apparently using the institution only as a last resort," reported the St. Louis Globe-Democrat on Dec. 18, 1967, noting that in the preceding year, the average number of juveniles sent to MTS each month had dropped from 48 to 26. There had been no corresponding decline in the juvenile crime rate; instead, it had jumped 30 percent. But judges were refusing to send kids to Boonville. They complained about inadequate aftercare, and, indeed, MTS had only 12 placement officers to supervise 800 boys on parole. But W.E. Sears, the director of training schools, quickly pointed out that Boonville had no place to segregate the older troublemakers from the younger boys they were trying to rehabilitate.

For those "troublemakers," there were "adjustment units": 14 small, dingy cells -- no mattresses because the boys would tear them up, no ventilation to move the foul air. Two of these cells had no beds or bathrooms; they were reserved for youngsters "who go berserk," an officer told the Globe, whose reporter investigated further and found a 15-year-old who'd violated an institutional regulation locked in an adjustment unit simply because the other cells were filled.

Bureaucrats made noises about reform, but nothing much happened -- until one of the boys transferred from Boonville filed a lawsuit.

Back in April 1966, 14-year-old Frank Allen Boone had been found "delinquent by reason of petty larceny and trespass" and sent to Boonville. MTS records indicate that he was a "Negro." They also say that in late July, "as the boys were going downstairs to change clothes for church, Frank was involved in a fight." The school's Classification Committee promptly recommended that he be transferred, "should his aggressive and assaultive behavior continue." In September, Boone "created a disturbance in the dormitory after bedtime" and "threw pillows at the supervisor when another boy turned off the lights." The Classification Committee again recommended transfer, calling him the "ringleader" in "gang activities."

Despite the request, Boone stayed at MTS through the winter of 1967. Then a more serious incident was logged: A staff member said that some of the boys said Boone had tried to force them into sodomy. On Feb. 3, the committee voted unanimously to transfer him, saying "all efforts have failed" and insisting he be kept in restriction until he was transferred.

Boone was sent to Algoa, transferred to Moberly, transferred to the Missouri State Penitentiary. From there he wrote Phillip Fishman, then a 28-year-old lawyer with the St. Louis Legal Aid Society. Fishman opened the pencil-scrawled, misspelling-riddled letter -- and decided to take the case.

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