The Merging of Capital and the State: A Brief History of Convict Labor in Florida

unnamedThe following piece is written by Miami IWW member, James Malley. It is a piece based on his research in the history of Florida’s convict labor which also ties with the South’s  history as well. He provided a critical perspective of prison labor where he highlights the economic and racial aspects that have led to evidently harsh oppression for the poor and blacks . This is a very insightful piece and we recommended everyone to read more below. 

By James Malley

Prisons have always been central to the capitalist system and the politics and administration of prisons have been subject to the whims of the capitalist class. In the southern United States, prison labor was an integral part of the South’s redevelopment and development after the Civil War. When studying the history of southern state penal systems, certain trends emerge that are reflective of broader society. Some of these are very visible, like the brutality, racism, and injustice that pervades the penal system. But these are just behaviors that manifest a part of a larger system.


I could not talk about prisons in the south without discussing race. Like I mentioned earlier, our modern prison system began in the aftermath of the civil war and was largely a function of the white power structure that was doing everything it could to hold onto its authority. The first penitentiary in Florida was originally an old Confederate fort and armory. Prisons in Florida were segregated until the 1950s. From the beginning, race was and is the single biggest factor in determining what a person’s treatment would be like while in prison. It determined what kind of job they would have, their treatment, the privileges they would have, and what kind of medical treatment they received. The modern prison system was set up to be used as a tool for the remaining white power structure and emerging bourgeoisie to control the black population. The methods of disciplining prisoners, the organization of the prisons, and the labor the prisoners did were directly taken from the plantation. Whether they had prisoners working in the fields, building roads, or manufacturing goods, prison labor and the entire prison system was based on the interests of the capitalist class. Prisons, no matter what rhetoric was used, were and are never there to rehabilitate people, but instead to punish and discipline human beings. Prison labor with little or no compensation, some call it modern day slavery, is completely legal under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which bans involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime.”

In the southern states at the end of the Civil War, prisoners were rarely ever sent to prisons like they exist today. In his book “Twice the Work of Free Labor,” Alex Lichtenstein describes the use of convict labor in Georgia as a way for the state to industrialize, diversify its economy, and modernize the state. Prisoners worked mining coal, doing agricultural work, and manufacturing the bricks that rebuilt Atlanta. In Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Texas and Florida prisons were built as self-sufficient farms, otherwise known as plantations. In Florida, before the turn of the 20th century, convicts were leased out to private companies to work for free. This system was abolished on humanitarian grounds in 1919. But this was just the beginning of a process of increased incarceration and more labor.

Florida, at the time that they abolished the convict-lease system, was beginning to increase in population and develop its industrial capacities. When prisoners were not on the Prison Farm outside of Gainesville, they were sent out into the farthest corners of the state to work on the chain gang building roads for 12 hours a day. Like the choice to build bricks for rebuilding Atlanta, prisoners were picked for building roads very specifically. Roads were essential to the development of the tourist industry that was flourishing in Florida at the time. Florida prisoners built some of the state’s most famous roads like the Tamiami Trail, linking Miami and Tampa, and the overseas highway connecting the keys with the rest of the peninsula. Prison road crews were also used to facilitate the growth of the other emerging industries such as lumber, dairy, oranges, and sugar of the interior. Similar road-building projects were done in other states as well. This is where we the popular image of the prisoners working on the chain gang comes from.

Eventually the chain-gang became obsolete as a form of work. Chain Gangs were regularly used into the 1950s, but muckraking journalists and hard work of communist organizers in the south swayed public opinion over this issue, leading to somewhat better conditions for prisoners building roads. The style of prisons that came next started to resemble the contemporary style. In the 1920s and 1930s, Florida’s prisons were able to modernize. The “Big House” at Florida State Prison in Raiford was built with concrete and steel and no air-conditioning using inmate labor. What was started as one of the prison farms with wooden buildings that aimed to be self-sufficient, now was a large complex of cell blocks, a clinic, a cafeteria, sprawling fields growing vegetables and pasture for livestock. All of it was built with prison labor. After the chain gain, most of the work that convicts did shifted to being on the prison grounds. As stated in Vivien Miller’s book, “Hard Labor and Hard Time,” agricultural production expanded rapidly in the Florida State Prison as well as industrial works. At this time the prison officials built a shirt factory and license plate factory. The system remained almost unchanged throughout the 1940s and 1950s. During this time, through a state agency called the Prison Industries Reorganization Administration and reforms from the national government, the modern prison industries system starts to take shape. However, as nice and as modern these policies seem to be, in practice the exploitation and alienation remains constant.

A great example of a “Modern” prison is Glades Correctional Institution in Belle Glade, Florida. Now it is out of commission, but this prison was built in the 1950s to hold only Black prisoners, but was desegregated in the 1950s. This prison was regularly championed by the business community and prison administrators as a model prison. This makes a lot of sense, because this prison seemed as if it was designed solely as a way for the state to extract labor and profits from prisoners. In the 1950s, Glades Correctional Institution had over 1,100 acres of land under cultivation, a cannery to process the agricultural products, and various other mechanical workshops.

In Florida, the link between private industries and prison industries became even stronger. This was the time of Ronald Reagan’s presidency and free-market, pro-business ideology was pervasive in the realm of government. The state government was run by similar types of conservative politicians and The Florida Department of Correction was beginning a process of privatization of its facilities and institutions. In 1981, many of the most powerful businessmen and most brutal prison wardens in the state of Florida founded a new private, nonprofit corporation called Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises (PRIDE). That year the state legislature voted to use PRIDE to manage the prison industries. Florida is the first state to ever transfer their prison industries from the public sector to the private sector. PRIDE’s function was to manage all the prison industries inside the department of corrections, from manufacturing furniture, running a dairy farm, or making rubber tires. Although PRIDE was non-profit, it functioned exactly like a corporation. It had shareholders, a CEO, a board of directors, and plenty of workers that were paid practically nothing. Among the founders of PRIDE were multi-millionaire drug store chain owner, Jack Eckerd, and the brutal administrator of Glades Correctional Institution, Robert V. Turner.

At Glades Correctional Institution, PRIDE took off. More than 10 percent of the prisoners were working in a PRIDE run industry, with the rest of the prisoners were doing other work for the prison like laundry, cooking, cleaning, etc. Most despicable was the connection between PRIDE and one of the largest corporations in Florida, U.S. Sugar. The surrounding area of Glades Correctional is covered in sugar fields and the horizon is dotted with sugar processing plants, mostly owned by U.S. Sugar. The workers that produce the sugar live in small houses and apartments owned by U.S. Sugar. It was only natural that U.S. Sugar made a deal with the prison, to let the prisoners work for them for basically free. Glades Correctional acquired 4,000 acres of land in the mid-80s and immediately converted it into sugar fields. All the sugar harvested went to enrich U.S. Sugar. All together PRIDE Industries in the Florida prison system generated 70 million dollars of income, but only a fraction of that actually went back to the Department of Corrections, making the arguments of prison officials as PRIDE offsetting costs and saving taxpayers money as false.

Prison officials and conservative politicians regularly make claims that prison industries curb violence in prison, rehabilitate prisoners, provide practical job skills for when they are released, and generate income for the prison. This is completely false. How is spending your days in a sugar cane field and nights in a dormitory fearing for life rehabilitating? Glades Correctional Institution during the late 1970s and early 1980s was one of the most violent prisons and racially segregated in the Florida state prison system. In the spirit of cutting costs and brutal efficiency (the conservatives call it “fiscal responsibility”) Glades Correctional lacked adequately trained guards and administration turned a blind eye to the violence and depravity that was occurring. Guards turned to the toughest prisoners to enforce discipline for them. This meant being complacent in drug smuggling and prostitution rings going on inside of the prison. It was so bad that a group of prisoners actually successfully sued the superintendent Robert V. Turner for neglect and the abuses they experienced by prison guards and other inmates, while Turner remained complacent and occupied with making deals with corporations.

My point in bringing this up is not to say we need better funded prisons and more guards, but to be critical of the entire prison system and of the rhetoric that our oppressors use to justify imprisoning and enslaving our fellow human beings. Our prison system is not designed by experts or humanitarians, but by capitalists and politicians. Being locked up and disconnected from society, forced to work for little to no pay, and without an education system in place that focusses on personal development and liberation, there will never be the “rehabilitation” that prison officials promise. The root cause of crime is poverty, private property and racism. People will break the bourgeoisie’s laws so long as there is a division between those who have and those who have not. What’s more is our legal system and methods of policing targets and disproportionally affects People of Color.

We need is to first and foremost support the people our comrades in prison. We need to provide the emotional support and intellectual resources for liberation like books and zines, etc. to prisoners right now. We also need to support the self-organization of prisoners, so they can attempt to address their grievances so they can have basic human necessities and an acceptable standard of living. Some of the people in the IWW have taken the initiative on this issue and formed the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, which works directly with prisoners working in prison industries in the South, similar to the conditions of Florida as I described above.

But in the end we also need to be proactive and create the world we want to live in; a world free of domination, exploitation, and discrimination. Prisons do not exist in a bubble. They are just a symptom of the larger structural problems of society. They are a product of the racist, capitalist, and statist world we live. Therefore our organizing must try to incorporate an analysis that is inclusive and thinks beyond the structures imposed on us. Only then can we ever live in a world that prioritizes love, justice, and solidarity over punishment. A new world is possible, we are building right now in the shell of the old and they can never imprison our hope and imagination.