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.

Judge James T. Riley of Cole County sat through Fishman's arguments, asked, "Do you have anything more?" and waited. When Fishman said, "No, Your Honor,' Riley pounded his gavel. "You lose."

Fishman appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court. "One week after the appeal was lodged," he says, "I got a telegram saying the court had taken the matter on en banc (all nine judges would hear the case) and sped up the calendar." Why the urgency? "The significant issues," Fishman retorts. "There were 37 other kids in the penitentiary who didn't belong there."

Boone's lawsuit named a long list of state corrections officials, including John C. Danforth, Missouri's attorney general at the time, as the formal representative of the Department of Corrections. Danforth was only nominally involved and says he doesn't remember the case, but he cosigned a brief arguing that Boone's case was moot because he had been released from the penitentiary; that the Legislature hadn't provided enough resources to handle incorrigibles within the system; and that "something has to be done to isolate these incorrigibles from the others."

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.

Fishman had great fun responding, using everything from related U.S. Supreme Court precedents to common sense ("How do you send a kid to the penitentiary for a pillow fight?"). On Feb. 8, 1971, the Missouri Supreme Court found "administrative transfer" unconstitutional, calling it "a denial of equal protection and due process." Writing the majority opinion, Justice James A. Finch Jr. added that the Board of Training Schools had exceeded its authority by sending juveniles to institutions where the juvenile court could never have placed them.

The decision was close -- a 5-4 split -- and it set an important legal precedent nationwide. Missouri wasn't the only state transferring "incorrigibles": Iowa, Tennessee and several other states followed the same practice (although their criteria for incorrigibility may have differed). Massachusetts, on the other hand, expressly forbade it, and at least seven other states required a judicial hearing before such a transfer. Because the U.S. Supreme Court had yet to address the question of constitutionality, other states avidly read the Missouri Supreme Court decision, which stopped the practice cold.

No one mentioned the odd coincidence that, although Boonville's population was reportedly more white than black, the boys branded "incorrigible" were nearly always black. (Disproportional punishments continue: In California, researchers recently found that minority youth were much more likely than white youth to be transferred to adult courts and more likely to be sentenced to prison for comparable crimes.)

At MTS, Wainwright says, "They used to send white kids into T Company (a dormitory building for black boys) when they wanted to punish them, but they never transferred them." Joseph vividly remembers one white boy getting transferred to Algoa: "He became one of us. We were all just kids, and we had to stick together."

Joseph also remembers hearing the MTS staff rail about the civil-rights protests gathering strength across the nation and says "they made no attempt to hide or repress their racist ideologies." The staff was predominantly white (183 of 200 employees), and five of the six board members had been criticized since the late '60s as rural white old-timers, clueless about the racial tensions of urban life.

After the Supreme Court decision, half the MTS board was asked to resign, and the short sentence about transferring "incorrigibles" was deleted from the standard MTS entry in Missouri's Official Manual. By September of 1971, Danforth was urging the immediate closing of MTS and the abolition of its board, proposing "a new philosophy" that would bring the kids back home and place them under probationary supervision.

Meanwhile, Fishman was still trying to reach Boone, to send him a copy of the victory. Before the case concluded, the boy had been released from prison, and all Fishman had was the prison address from his original letter. "He never did write to say thank you or anything," notes the lawyer, sounding hurt.

Maybe he never knew the case had been tried and won, suggests Wainwright, who had never known there was a Supreme Court case. Trying to absorb the news, he asks over and over, "Why didn't anybody ever tell us? Nobody ever said anything to me about it until now. Why didn't anybody tell us?"

In 1973, a full decade after Joseph's and Wainwright's incarceration, the Board of Training Schools was asked to develop a comprehensive strategy for Missouri's delinquent youth. The resulting Confidential State Plan said that although "traditional training schools may have at one time been effective," they could no longer meet the needs of a complex society. The Plan applauded MTS staff for realizing, back in 1967 when there were 692 boys at MTS, that many "were being damaged beyond any possibility of emotional repair" and setting out to find alternatives.

In other words, they'd shaved their population down to 150 boys. Now, the plan was recommending that Boonville be "phased out." Group homes began opening across the state, siphoning the boys from Boonville.

Ironically, the place had never run better. "They'd gotten rid of the more hardcore youth, sent them to the Department of Corrections, and started doing more treatment," explains Glenwood Einspahr, who came in 1970 as assistant director. "Our average age was 15.8, average length of stay was less than six months, and there were never more than 200 boys there at a time. The old methods -- the old behavior modification with token reinforcement -- were phased out." Instead, the state contracted with Positive Peer Culture, a group-therapy program developed in New Jersey. Soon there were "cottage treatment teams," and if kids got into fights, "it was the group's responsibility to hold 'em down. They were taught how to restrain somebody without hurting him, until he got himself in check."

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