Research News

Convict Leasing and Road-Camp Prisoners in Florida

IPR associate Heather Schoenfeld seeks to understand prison policies at the state level


The historical narrative of U.S. criminal punishment reform ignores the experience of Southern states like Florida.

“Florida incarcerates the third-largest number of people in the United States,” said sociologist and IPR associate Heather Schoenfeld. “And it’s a politically important state.”

So when Schoenfeld decided to interrogate penal modernism—the idea that after World War II, the main goal of criminal punishment was the “rehabilitation” and the reform of offenders—the Sunshine State served as an important case study.

Heather Schoenfeld

“Our theories about the progression of punishment in the United States are mainly based on the history of punishment in Northern states, ignoring the experience of the South,” she said.

As Schoenfeld points out in a recent journal article retracing the history of state punishment in Florida from 1900–60, a closer look at penal policies on the state level reveals major delays and even resistance to progressive prison reform. 

In the early 1920s, Florida became one of the last states to end “convict leasing,” in which states leased convicts to work for businesses. Following its demise, state legislators created a decentralized network of “road prisons.” Many prisoners were soon being transported throughout the state in portable iron cages to build highways and local roads.

According to Schoenfeld, the legacy of slavery and sharecropping shaped the demographics of Florida’s road-camp prisoners. “Black inmates were disproportionately sent to road camps between 1919 and the 1960s, when they were phased out,” she writes.

After World War II, Florida’s tourism industry grew, but national media stories about Florida’s chain gangs began to “create holes in the image Florida officials and residents wanted to portray,” Schoenfeld explained. However, decentralized road prisons benefited rural counties and rural legislators, who resisted efforts to centralize and modernize the system.

Schoenfeld concludes that by 1960, when Florida’s prisons were finally consolidated into a “Division of Corrections,” only a few administrators believed that prisons could or should reform inmates.

“Most imprisonment happens at the state and local level,” Schoenfeld said. “So it’s imperative that our theories take into account the political and cultural specifics of individual states. Rehabilitation was not the penal ideal in Florida until the mid-1970s and by then, prison administrators had difficulty implementing a reform agenda in the face of constant overcrowding.”

“States like Illinois are once again grappling with the goal of criminal punishment and the problems in the prison system,” she continued. “The solutions that develop will depend upon states’ particular history and political context.” 

Heather Schoenfeld is assistant professor of legal studies and human development and social policy and an IPR associate. For more information, read “The Delayed Emergence of Penal Modernism in Florida,” published in Punishment and Society. 

Top photo credit: Krystian Olszanski