Not Long Ago, 'Prisoner' Meant Lease Me For Strenuous Labor
written and submitted by: Roger Landers
this article appeared in the Hernando Times Edition of the St. Petersburg Times Monday, August 6, 2007.
In his 1891 book The American Siberia, J.C. Powell referred to the 19th century prisoner work camps of Florida as Siberia. Use of the word conjures up thoughts of a vast wasteland: isolated, miserable and never-ending confinement. Those unfortunate souls sent to state prison during the Reconstruction and Redemption Period of the South faced certain extreme, desperate and deprived conditions. The officials responsible for the care and supervision of prisoners found an opportunity for misuse of state funds. Malachi Martin, superintendent of prisons and a state senator, used his position to allocate funds as he wished - a situation ripe for graft. The old U.S. Arsenal at Chattahoochee became Florida State Prison, and there prisoners were underfed, poorly clothed and often chained to the floor. When Reconstruction ended, new Democratic state officials sought ways to curb spending and stop misappropriation of funds. One cost saving was the leasing of prisoners to private contractors. The contractors would sublease to entrepreneurs in the agricultural, lumber or naval stores business. These contractors would feed, clothe and provide security for the leased prisoners. The practice flourished in Florida and throughout the South. Unfortunately for the prisoner, breaking the leaseholder's rules led to "discipline" such as flogging, deprivations and isolation. Because of this, prisoners often tried to escape, which led to the extension of sentences or death in work camps. Annually, the superintendent of prisons of Florida reported to the Legislature the number of incarcerated individuals. The 1884 report listed only six Hernando prisoners, one serving a sentence dating from 1871 and the others from 1876. Their crimes ranged from adultery to larceny. Local contractors also bid annually for the lease of prisoners in county jails. The lease system in Hernando ended in 1911. The last lease, in 1910, was to the Weeks Brothers (Weeks Mining and Manufacturing Inc.) turpentine still. The Weeks bid was $26.20 per capita. In 1911, the County Commission hired Quitman Varn as the new road camp prison captain. In the case of capital murder, after the governor signed a death warrant, the local sheriff supervised the execution. Records available from the state show one executed in Hernando in 1873, one in 1886 and four in 1907. The numbers do not reflect any lynchings. Powell wrote about two men from Hernando County in the private camp he supervised in Putnam County. The first was Thomas Jump, sent to prison for killing his brother-in-law. Jump was described by Powell as a "shiftless cracker ... and not used to hard work." One day, Jump stopped working and was told to get to work or be whipped. He replied: "Then it will be the first time since my Mammy used to do it." Jump, using a heavy iron weight, "struck himself in the head hard enough to fell an ox." Jump was soon pardoned and sent home. The second Hernando prisoner under the control of Powell was John R. Clow. According to Powell, Clow, an educated but lazy man, blinded himself in one eye. When he tried to blind himself in the other eye, to escape work, he was severely punished. He later died in prison. Prison reform was slow coming to Florida. In 1917, the state prison system leased to the Florida State Road Department 300 prisoners for work on roadways. This signaled the end of the state lease system to private entrepreneurs. In 1919, the state built a new state prison at Raiford. Though the leasing of state prisoners to private concerns ended, prisoners in local jails were still eligible for lease. The obvious misuse of the lease system eventually played itself out. In 1923, the case of Martin Tabert, a young man from North Dakota traveling about the United States to see the sites, became a national tragedy. Tabert, out of money, was arrested in Leon County for vagrancy. Although his parents wired money to pay his fine, he was leased to the Putnam Lumber Co. He died in their care. His parents didn't learn of his death until a year later. That tragedy and several others exposed by writers led many to question the inhumanity of the prison system. Many Southern states moved to abandon the practice of leasing and initiate prison reform. By 1928, Alabama closed its last prison leasing camp, following Florida in 1924 and Georgia in 1908. The use of state and local prisoners for the improvement of roads expanded. In 1933, a prison work camp relocated from Homosassa to near Tooke Lake in Hernando County. This road crew of about 50 worked at clearing the right of way for the new State Road 15, now U.S. 19. On July 4, the prisoners were told of new policies concerning prisoner treatment. A new policy stripped the guards of much of their power. The night before, five prisoners had kicked out some boards of the bunkhouse and escaped. At the noon meal on the Fourth, a riot broke out in the mess hall. The riot was contained in the "bull pen" by four guards and 14 trusties. Soon, Hernando Sheriff Neal Law, with two deputies, and Citrus Sheriff Charles S. Dean arrived to assist. They decided that the assistance of the National Guard was required to quell the prisoners. Maj. T. Byrd Sparkman and 24 guardsmen of the 116th Field Artillery of Tampa arrived. Law captured two of the escapees later that day, and Sumter Sheriff Bill Coleman arrested two others. Howard Beck was the only prisoner not recaptured. Beck, having made his way into Brooksville, stole clothing and made his way to Sumter County, where he stole a car. Two weeks later, he was still at large. The ringleaders of the disturbance were returned to Raiford Prison. The other men returned to work.
Roger Landers is retired from the Hernando County School District, where for nearly 33 years he was a teacher, principal and district administrator. He is the historian for the county's Heritage Museum, historical adviser to the new Hernando County Historical Advisory Commission and a member of the Florida Historical Society. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.