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Rick Scott, Governor
Florida Department of Corrections, Secretary Michael D. Crews

Florida Department of Corrections
Michael D. Crews, Secretary

Time Well Served: A Century of Corrections

Inmate in Striped Pants

Some people believe that since criminal behavior always existed, there have always been prisons. Not so.

Prisons were rare hundreds of years ago and common public disciplinary practices included whipping, burning, branding, or putting offenders in stocks. Since many crimes were punishable by death, placement in a prison was merely a short step between arrest and the execution.

Toward the end of the 1700s, public opinion began to shift away from harsh punishment and torture. The historical development of prisons in America truly began in the 1830s, and was noted as an important step forward in the evolution of humanity.

In this space we cannot provide a complete history of the prison system in Florida. But we would like to highlight some of the important moments.

Perhaps the story of the Florida Department of Corrections begins in Chattahoochee, but who we were then is not different from what we are today, or will be in the future. Many things about the prison system have changed over the years. Yet, in this new millennium, our mission remains the same: protect the public by operating a safe, secure, humane and efficient corrections system.

After Seminole Indian, Spanish, French and British rule, Florida became a U.S. territory in 1821 and a state in 1845, but didn't actually create its first prison until after the Civil War.

In 1868, Governor Harrison Reed obtained the U.S. Arsenal property at Chattahoochee near Tallahassee and converted it into a prison. It remained a prison for almost a decade. That same year, the penitentiary received its first inmate, Calvin Williams, convicted of larceny and sentenced to 12 months.

Chattahoochee opened with 14 officers and nine inmates. Six months later the population escalated to 42 inmates. The prisoners shared the facility with the insane.

The first commander of the penitentiary held the rank of colonel and received $3 per day, a lieutenant earned $2 per day, sergeants $12 per month and a "private of the guard" $10 per month. The state provided employees with quarters, rations, clothing and equipment.

In 1876, the Florida State Hospital acquired Chattahoochee and patients started making mattresses, giving it the nickname, "the mattress factory."

Early state lawmakers faced challenges similar to those of today. The people elected George Drew as governor to preside over a state heavily in debt from Civil War Reconstruction. Drew argued that prisoners could be an economic asset, not only an economic liability. He successfully pushed for a prisoner labor lease system.

On December 1, 1900, twenty-two years after Calvin Williams arrived to serve his sentence, the population of prisoners had grown to 778 divided into 13 labor camps. Seven camps mined phosphate and six manufactured naval stores such as turpentine.

Prisoners ate bacon, meal, flour, grits, rice, dried beans, peas, syrup, and in the summer, fresh beef once a week. In winter they ate fresh pork once a week, as well as fish. At each camp the local manager cultivated one to three acres of garden vegetables. All cells had water, and inmates were required to bathe and put on clean clothes every Sunday morning.

Occasionally, leased prisoners tried to escape. The system leased prisoners to private contractors. These individuals had ultimate responsibility for the prisoners. They clothed and cared for them in exchange for their labor. In some cases the conditions turned harsh. The brutal side of the leasing system led to its downfall.

Arrested in 1921 for riding a train without a ticket, North Dakota resident Martin Tabert could not pay a $25 fine. He was placed in the custody of Leon County Sheriff J.R. Jones. Tabert then wired for the money and, while it was on its way, Jones leased him as a laborer to the Putnam Lumber company where Tabert died of a beating. The sheriff returned Tabert's payment unclaimed. The case attracted nationwide headlines, setting the stage for abolishing the convict lease system.

Prior to these events, Florida began building its oldest and largest correctional institution. The new State Prison Farm occupied an 18,000-acre tract purchased for $5.00 an acre. In 1912, the first buildings served as temporary stockades to house infirm inmates who could not be leased to private businesses. By 1919, the State Prison Farm property consisted of 4,000 acres under cultivation, extensive pastures, a garment factory, a shoe factory which made 10 pairs of shoes a day, and 40 correctional officers who were paid $35 per month and room and board.