The secret history of Florida prison labor

Florida electric chair
The original electric chair, unveiled in 1923, was used continuously until the wood was finally replaced in 1998. (Courtesy of Doug Smith/Florida Department of Corrections)

In 1922, inmates skilled in carpentry were put to the task of building Florida’s first electric chair. It’s a macabre and illustrative metaphor for how the prison economy has sustained itself by using those who are confined to it.

Manifest destiny and the birth of Florida prisons

The United States dropped a cool $5 million to purchase Florida from Spain in 1821. Throughout the 19th century, a national push was made to drain the marshlands and extend the reach of farmable land. Florida stood as the swampy, southern conclusion of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. The Seminole Wars were fought to eradicate or resettle Florida’s tribes so the space could be made “virgin” again.

Following this, there began a migration of thousands of American farmers to the region between the Apalachicola and Suwanee rivers. By 1861, the start of the Civil War, there were 61,000 slaves in Florida, accounting for 85% of the cotton production of the state. In 1865, as the end of the Confederacy approached, Florida Governor John Milton committed suicide on his plantation in Jackson County before he had to witness those 61,000 slaves go free.

Though officially free, they were not off the proverbial hook.

Florida — like all Southern states going through Reconstruction — enacted laws and codes collectively known as Jim Crow. In Florida they were known as the Black Codes, and they ranked as severe as Jim Crow laws in Mississippi and South Carolina. These laws restricted the real and social movement of African Americans through segregation, forcing them into economies based on low wages and debts. One of these codes was an expansion of vagrancy laws, which were used to charge, convict and sentence African-Americans (and others) to up to a year of labor.

The birth of the Florida prison system — unlike most in the U.S. — came after the Civil War in 1868. Shortly after, the state legislature “arranged to offset the new prison’s expenses with the returns of the labor of its prisoners,” according to One Dies, Get Another: Convict Leasing in the American South. Labor that would be performed both inside and outside the prison’s walls.

Florida, always rapidly developing since its acquisition, was in dire need of laborers. So the state created new ways to capitalize on the disenfranchised in order to keep up with the pace of growth, satisfying not only the labor demands of development, but also the moral demands of racism. In 1877, Florida’s Governor George Franklin Drew codified the convict leasing system, whereby prisoners were leased out to private entities and industries. As Douglas Blackmon notes in his Pulitzer Prize–winning book Slavery by Another Name, convict leasing was a method undertaken by the Southern States to replace the economic setup of slavery. The convict leasing system was especially harsh in Florida, where convicts worked long days mining phosphate and turpentine, clearing out tropical landscapes, and laying roads in hellish temperatures without adequate food, water, or shelter. They were subjected to brutal punishment not unlike the cruelties performed on slaves — including whipping, solitary confinement, and torture.

Convict leasing grew into a wide network of sheriffs, wardens, and state officials who traded in contracts for prisoner labor. As Blackmon puts it, “By 1900, the South’s judicial system had been wholly reconfigured to make one of its primary purposes the coercion of African Americans to comply with the social customs and labor demands of whites.” In Florida, “companies that benefited from the system gave tacit and direct support for the social and legal barriers aimed against the black citizens,” according to the World Digital Library, a project created by the U.S. Library of Congress.

In South Florida in particular, the practice of convict leasing has not been well explored, though it existed. Dr. Paul George, a professor at Miami-Dade College and an affiliate of HistoryMiami, describes the dichotomous nature of African American labor in Miami. “Black laborers were largely responsible for the construction of roads in Miami, and many of them were black Bahamians,” according to George. “Some were entrepreneurial, like Ebenezer Woodbury Franklin Stirrup, who was a farmhand in Coconut Grove who saved and invested in real estate and became a millionaire by the 1920s. … Regarding convict lease, it was almost like another form of slavery. People would get picked up on bogus charges or for small slip-ups, get convicted, and sent to work.”

Convict leasing was actually used to create the Tamiami Trail, which was started in 1915, though it’s not a well-known fact and it appears little academic or journalistic work has been conducted on it. Arva Moore Parks McCabe, historian and author of many books on Florida, notes that there was not enough labor in the state to keep up with development, and that convict leasing was used on many state road projects throughout Florida.

Convict leasing by another name: chain gangs and cheap labor

In the early 20th century, Florida’s systems of labor drew a lot of attention from the Progressive Movement. Muckrakers in the press vied to expose the horrors of both convict leasing and the peonage system, a similarly brutal form of extracting labor from those who owed debts. The momentum created a push for prison and labor reform in the state, and in 1923, Governor Cary Hardee outlawed convict leasing.

In 1927, the Florida Department of Corrections built an auto tag plant and a shirt factory, new additions to the portfolio of transportation and agriculture. In the 1930s and 40s, dairy farming and cigarette production were started in Florida’s prisons.

Sweat box used for solitary confinement at the Florida State Prison in Raiford, Florida. (Courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.)
Sweat box used for solitary confinement at the Florida State Prison in Raiford, Florida. (Courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.)

Developers, however, continued to collude with the prison system, using the state’s Black Codes to swell prison populations and then using those prisoners as a source of cheap labor. As noted on the Florida Department of Corrections Timeline: “Florida’s chain gangs are introduced in 1919 partly because an increasing number of roads are needed to keep pace with the growing number of tourists to Florida.” In chain gangs, groups of prisoners chained together labored on roads. As punishment, they would be whipped and put into sweat boxes, solitary confinement quarters directly in the broiling Florida heat. In the most severe and sensationalized case, a man was tortured and killed at Sunbeam Camp in 1932, a convict laborer camp just outside Jacksonville.

More prison reforms were finally implemented during this time as well, partly as a result of the Sunbeam case, and partly the result of a broader paradigm shift from “punishment” to “correction.” Prisoners were granted greater access to healthcare and education, plumbing and electricity was installed in the 1930s, and chain gangs were abolished in the 1940s.

However, even as more reforms were enacted as a result of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, the growth of prison populations exploded in Florida, as they started doing nationally. By the 1970s, the inmate population had increased by 127%, and in the 1980s, it grew another 93%, a result of the advent of crack cocaine and the War on Drugs.

With these incredible rises in prison population, the use of prison labor rose greatly, as well.

Florida’s prison industrial complex today

Florida’s prison system remains far from a model of rehabilitative justice. For many minority communities, the restrictions on real and social mobility — though not sanctified by law — are encoded in structural poverty, heavy and often brutal policing, and mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent drug and property offenses, according to  The Sentencing Project. And the labor of these inmates is used directly to offset the enormous costs of Florida’s enormous prison system.

As of 2014, Florida’s prison population was just over 100,000. Florida has one of the largest incarceration rates in the United States, and the prison population is highly disproportionate in terms of race. Though as of 2008, African Americans made up only 15.3% of the state’s population, 49.8% of the prison population was black, and the state’s prison population is still being put to work in many ways.

Chain gangs were reintroduced in Florida in 1995, except this time, they were chainless, since, “you can get more work done if people are not chained together,” as Eugene Morris, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections at the time, told The New York Times. Rather than leasing out convicts to private entities, inmate labor is now provided to Florida’s Department of Transportation, Division of Forestry, and nonprofit organizations. Most striking, though, is the amount of prisoner labor required to maintain the prison system itself.

When asked how the current setup of inmate labor is different from convict leasing, McKinley Lewis, Director of the Office of Communications at the Florida Department of Corrections, says, “The convict leasing system had a lot of problems. You leased human beings to outside entities. With inmate labor, they’re always under supervision of the state. It’s not for the benefit of a private entity — it’s for the benefit of the state of Florida.”

Though prisoners aren’t leased out to private entities, they’re still used on state road construction and cleanup, landscaping, and community betterment projects such as the repainting of schools. Rather than “chain gangs,” they’re now referred to as “work squads.”

As Lewis says, “Within the prison system, there are a number of ways that we keep costs down. The farm program has multiple large, very productive farms that produce tens of tons of produce a week, which is used to feed the inmate population. It’s a huge cost saving and it gives something for the inmates to learn. Another big cost saving measure is our inmate construction crews that do small repairs or building projects in the prison system.”

Obviously, this is a far cry from the convict leasing system. However, prisoners are not paid for this work. In a loop-de-loop of economic logic, prisoners are forced to work in order to save taxpayer dollars to maintain the state’s tremendously high (and growing) incarceration rate.

However, there are some programs that do pay, such as the work re-entry programs run by Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises [PRIDE], a nonprofit that operates throughout Florida. However, in 2013, PRIDE trained just 3,562 prisoners, out of a 100,000+ inmate prison population. And though the organization helps inmates pay court costs and get jobs once out of prison, the pay ceiling is 55 cents an hour.

It’s been 148 years since the birth of Florida’s prison system. Yet tens of thousands of inmates — half of whom, according to the national average, are languishing in prison because of nonviolent offenses — are still being forced to work.