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Reformatory CP - April 1994

Corpun file 16234

The Capital Times, Madison, Wisconsin, 28 April 1994

Floggings in State recalled

By Todd Moore
The Capital Times

News that an American teen was about to be caned in Singapore has jogged the memory of a retired Madison police detective.

At the Wisconsin School for Boys in Waukesha in the mid-'50s, John Sheskey remembers old-timers he worked with talking about floggings that took place there. While some of what he recalled didn't jibe with the memories of others, one point was made clear: In days past, Wisconsin authorities didn't spare the rod. In Singapore, a court has sentenced a 17-year-old American, Michael Fay, to six lashes with a rattan whip for vandalizing cars. The caning, which is expected to take place soon, has drawn both strong expressions of support and outcries of denunciation in this country.

Fifty years ago in Waukesha, "that was when 'the jack' ruled," recalled Carl Thomas, who put in 32 years at the youth facility at Waukesha and its successor, Ethan Allen in Wales. Thomas arrived at Waukesha in 1956, after the jack was abandoned, but when memories of its use among his veteran colleagues was fresh.

Today, John Ross, who supervises the state's juvenile facilities, says that corporal punishment is forbidden under state law.

But things were different up until the 1940s. The jack, an instrument designed to keep teenagers in line, was a footlong piece of heavy leather, perhaps eight inches wide, attached to a handle similar to that found on a paint brush, Thomas said. "Some of them had small holes in the leather to cut down on wind resistance," he said.

"The principle was the same as in Singapore," he said. "It was applied to the posterior."

Donald Clusen, who taught at the school briefly in the 1940s and later became a school superintendent in Green Bay, said, "It was something to be feared. The boys were all in awe of the jack."

According to accounts at the time, the jack was applied to the bare buttocks five to 10 times for such offenses as assaulting an officer or attempting to run away. Other early punishments included starvation diets and forcing inmates to wear a pickle barrel with a hole punched in the top for their head to poke through.

The use of the jack was ended after a series of articles in the Milwaukee papers in 1948, in which Waukesha school authorities were charged with giving one boy more than 25 lashes for stealing a set of keys. Two other boys were whipped with a braided leather dog leash by then-superintendent T.R. Uthus. An investigation by the attorney general's office at that time resulted in Uthus' firing.

It had been the school's longterm policy that corporal punishment was against the rules. But in practice, according to the 1948 report by Assistant Attorney General William Platz, slapping and beating were everyday occurrences. After Uthus' firing, corporal punishment in any form was officially ended.

Not that Platz disagreed with the practice. He would have been right at home in Singapore.

In his report, he says that there once had been an order to suspend corporal punishment. But after the boys learned of it, they took full advantage of the suspension order and discipline collapsed.

"Charges that the use of 'the jack' constitutes 'brutality' in and of itself are mere name-calling," Platz wrote. "If corporal punishment is to be authorized at all, the 'jack' appears to be an ideal instrument for its infliction. It cannot injure the boy but it can inflict substantial pain, probably about equivalent to that caused by paddles used in college fraternity initiations. The object of corporal punishment is to inflict pain."

The school, which began as the House of Refuge in 1857, was closed in 1961. Thomas became the institution's unofficial historian and still tends a cemetery plot in Waukesha. The graveyard holds the bodies of 40 children who died while at the facility, most of them from the influenza epidemics at the beginning of the century.

His step-uncles were once paid $5 a head to capture runaway boys. Merchants used the boys as cheap labor. Several runaways were killed and injured, Thomas said, trying to escape by hopping nearby freight trains. He adds that there were girls at the school in the 1800s, some of as young as 7, picked off for vagrancy.

A perusal of decades-old documents from the school reveals that not much has changed. There was no money for prevention or intervention. Most of the children came from broken homes and big cities. There was an ongoing debate whether cruelty or kindness was best. There were sporadic attempts at using military training tactics, not unlike the recently enacted "boot camps."

An 1897 report sounds contemporary, at least until an older rhetoric appears. "Too little attention has been given to the repression and prevention of crime," it concludes. "Society seems to have forgotten that it is still true that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and it is just beginning to realize that the ax must be laid at the roots of the tree of evil, and that the streams of vice must be cleaned at their sources."

A 1928 rule book, which lists corporal punishment and losing keys as the biggest of 88 misdeeds, warns, "Do not fondle the boys. THIS RULE APPLIES TO BOTH MEN AND WOMEN." Other documents contain unusually frank discussions of homosexuality in the dormitories, and there's even the story of a boy who contracted syphilis "in the usual way."

For Thomas, there is no question that corporal punishment backfires. "They used to say that what these kids needed was 'a good dose of knuckle therapy,' " he said quietly. "For me, the first person to get physical is the closest to the animal. I don't believe that corporal punishment is effective."

Copyright (c) 1994 The Capital Times

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