The secret history of Florida prison labor

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.

Read on

(Published in The New Tropic, Jan. 5, 2016)

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