In 1905, Florida passed a law that allowed Duval County to force incarcerated Floridians to work on its roads and bridges with low or no pay and without any say in their working conditions, which were usually hot, exhausting, and dangerous. In 1907, the Legislature expanded this pilot program so that all of Florida’s then-46 counties could do the same — not just on county roads and bridges, but in all cities and municipalities where Floridians were imprisoned. Furthermore, the 1907 convict labor law maintained existing law that allowed private companies to bid on incarcerated people for their labor, known as convict leasing. Notably, Floridians trapped in this labor system included those who were unable to afford the harsh fines and fees imposed upon them.
At a time when many Southern states were terminating convict leasing, Florida maintained it. Governor Albert W. Gilchrist vetoed a bill that would have ended local convict leasing in 1911. He later recommended abolishing the practice, but only so that the same “able-bodied male prisoners” could be freed up for state projects, free of private or local government competition. Instead, under Governor Park Trammell in 1917, convict labor was expanded from local labor camps to state roads with the creation of the State Convict Road Force, commonly referred to as “chain gangs.”
It was not until 1923, after a white inmate from North Dakota died from a brutal prison guard beating, that the Florida Legislature finally heeded public concern and ended convict leasing. It did not, however, stop using incarcerated men to build and repair state roads and other public infrastructure. Florida’s expanded vagrancy laws a decade earlier and these enhanced convict labor laws arbitrarily labeled everyday Floridians “vagrants;” arrested them without a warrant; beat, fined, and jailed them; then forced them to work for state and county jails (or the highest bidder). This was state-sanctioned indentured servitude, and incarcerated laborers — who were disproportionately Black — had no say in the type of work they did, for whom, or for how long. They were workers completely bereft of power.