‘They stuck up for one another’

News | January 31, 2019

For years, Dan Barry wrote a column called “This Land” for the New York Times. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, he wandered around the country to tell stories. At some point about five years ago, he realized that he hadn’t been to Iowa in a couple of years. He thought it might be time for a visit.

To give him some ideas on where to go in Iowa, he went to the state’s newspaper websites. On one of those sites, Dan saw a wire service story that gave a brief synopsis of the culmination of a civil lawsuit regarding intellectually disabled men who had lived in Atalissa, Iowa.

Thirty-two men with intellectual disability. Living in a dilapidated school house. Working 35 years in a turkey processing plant. Making $65-a-month salary that never changed. Exploited verbally and physically.

“Those phrases just grab you by the neck,” Dan said.

One day, Dan called the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawyer on the case. His name is Robert Canino. Dan asked if he could talk with the men. Robert said yes. Dan headed to Iowa, and started to spend time with them. The more Dan got into the story, the more he realized it was much more complicated than a column for the New York Times. He did publish a 5,000-word story for the paper in March 2014. Then he took his remaining notes and started on a book.

The Boys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland, is the 2019 All St. Paul Reads selection. A dinner and discussion event will be held on Thursday, Feb. 28., 6-8 p.m., in Fellowship Hall. Jeff Ashcraft, president and CEO of Handicapped Development Center, will present. Dinner is free, please RSVP at stpaulqc.org/signups or outside of the Book Corner.

Atalissa, Iowa, is just 40 miles west of Davenport.

Dan will never understand why criminal charges were never filed in the case. Officials indicated it was unclear whether the men could testify accurately if they had to take the stand – even though other criminal cases are prosecuted with witnesses who have intellectual disabilities. “It’s not insurmountable,” Dan said. “They were living in this squalid building that was never meant for habitation,” Dan said.

The ceiling leaked. Cockroaches skittered around. The men were not taken care of properly. The men were often punished for not working hard enough, Dan said. What did punishment include? On their way home in the afternoon, their van would stop at a convenience store to get an end-of-day treat. If one of the men was perceived to have not worked as he should have, he was not allowed to go in.

“I remember being struck by that – how cruel that was,” Dan said. “We’re talking about adult men.”

Another punishment was to go to the gym at the bunkhouse (a former school), put their hands on a pole, and not move for an hour. Once, a supervisor hit one of the men while he stood at the pole. A fellow bunkhouse resident came over and said, “Don’t you hit that guy. I’ll hit you. He’s my friend.”

“Think about these guys having nobody but themselves,” Dan said. “They stuck up for one another when they could.”

Dan asked to give credit to Clark Kauffman. Clark, formerly of the Quad-City Times and Des Moines Register, was the journalist whose reporting ultimately led to the men’s freedom.

“He wouldn’t let go of it. He knew in his heart and soul this was wrong and someone had to be held accountable. He kept going. He’s a great journalist.”

Dan hopes that readers will be reminded that people with disabilities belong in our communities – really belong. Institutionalization was declared cruel many years ago. Yet, “the truth of the matter is that the segregation has continued,” he said. Regulations and practices are slowly changing.

“People like Gene Berg and the Penner brothers deserve to have choice in their lives, and they were denied it,” Dan said, noting that a second similar house in South Carolina was shut down as a result of his reporting. “The message is to remain ever vigilant for your brothers and sisters.”

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