Hard Labor and Hard Time: Florida's "Sunshine Prison" and Chain Gangs

Hard Labor and Hard Time: Florida's "Sunshine Prison" and Chain Gangs

Hard Labor and Hard Time: Florida's "Sunshine Prison" and Chain Gangs

Hard Labor and Hard Time: Florida's "Sunshine Prison" and Chain Gangs


"There are few, if any, state-level prison histories that are as impressively researched. This is an authoritative account that contributes a great deal to our understanding of the politics and practice of modern punishment."--Joseph F. Spillane, University of Florida

"Miller's extraordinary research into the history of Florida's prisons illustrates the fundamental disjuncture between a rural southern penal system that grew from chain gangs, turpentine camps, and a Jim Crow penal farm and the carceral needs of a modernizing urban sunbelt state. Yet, as her book demonstrates, the unsavory history of punishment still hangs over the Sunshine State like a dark cloud."--Alex Lichtenstein, author of Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South

Hard Labor and Hard Time is a history of continuity and change in Florida's state prison system between 1910 and 1957, exploring conditions at the state prison farm at Raiford (the third largest prison farm in the South at this time) as well as in the chain gangs and road prisons.

Vivien Miller examines the experiences of the prisoners as well as the guards and other prison personnel in this comprehensive, groundbreaking study. She demonstrates that despite progressive changes in the treatment of inmates (better diet, better structuring of work and leisure activities, better medical provision, and the like), these improvements were matched by continued brutality and mistreatment, unequal or discriminatory treatment according to race and/or gender, and neglect.


An old negro, who refused a pardon after serving twenty-five years of a
life sentence for murder, paid his debt to society in full today.

Florida Times Union, January 29, 1929

We must keep the prisoners busy or the devil will.

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nathan P. Mayo, n.d.

This book began with the chance discovery of an obituary published in the Jacksonville Florida Times Union in January 1929. Sixty-seven-year-old Joe Peacock had died in the inmate hospital at the Florida State Prison at Raiford on January 28 and was to be buried in the prison cemetery. Convicted of the first-degree murder of another African American man in DeFuniak Springs, he was sentenced by the Walton County Circuit Court in 1893, and spent the first years of his prison term laboring for private turpentine operators who leased state and county prisoners. Peacock was a “model prisoner,” and received a conditional pardon from Governor Sidney J. Catts in December 1920, by which time the convict lease system had ended and prison laborers had been reallocated to the state penal farm and chain gangs. Peacock reportedly told Catts, “I’ve been here so long now, I had rather stay, if it’s all the same to you, boss,” and, “I’ve nowhere else to go.” He set up house on prison property, cultivated a few acres of land, and was given the run of the prison grounds until his death. The report concluded with the statement, “Warden Blitch and others were deeply attached to Peacock, who was described as a typical antebellum negro,” which invited deliberate comparisons between the Progressive-era prison farm and the pre-Civil War slave plantation. Similarly, novelist James McLendon, son of a prison official, grew up at the prison farm later in the century, and he likened it to “the greatest of the ante-bellum southern slave-owning plantations” that “had been rooted out of the North Florida flatlands.”

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