FLORIDA'S SHAMEFUL PAST CONCERNING JUVENILES
Link to Fl. Corrections History & Talbert Story: As below:
In 1889, another Joint Investigating Committee urged the Legislature
to establish a permanent penitentiary with enough land attached to
the site so that invalids and prisoners not otherwise employed could
be self-sustaining. It also recommended that the Legislature provide
juvenile offenders under the age of sixteen a separate correctional
Although urged by Governor Bloxham to create a state farm for all
prisoners, the legislators ignored his recommendation and focused
instead on creating a state reform school. In 1897, they passed an act
establishing a state reformatory designed "for the employment,
instruction, correction and reformation of juvenile offenders." They
resolved that criminals between the ages of ten and sixteen should go
to the reform school for not less than six months or more than four
years. The school would also provide a place to hold orphans or other
wards of the state.
Notably, the act creating the state reform school included a provision
for taxing the citizens of Florida for building and operating the
facility. This was the first act a Florida Legislature passed that levied a
tax to reform criminals.
Sixty-seven Jackson County residents donated $1,400 and 1200 acres
of land near Marianna for the construction of the reform school. In
1899, two three-story brick dormitories were completed each
designed to hold seventy-two children. One building housed white
children and the other black children. The reform school opened on
January 1, 1900, finally providing a separate place to incarcerate
some of the children in the Florida prison system.
The state provided a separate school for delinquent girls sometime
between 1916 and 1920. There is some indication that a "reform
school" of some sort operated in one of the buildings on the
Chattahoochee property after it became a hospital for the insane, but
the evidence is not definitive. When speaking to the Senate in 1911,
Governor Albert Waller Gilchrist mentioned that if the state ever
decided to "remove the reform school from Chattahoochee," it should
be somewhere on the 16,867 acres purchased for a state prison.
Governor Gilchrist explained further that he recommended this since
only ten percent of the 1800 acres the state owned at Chattahoochee
was suitable for cultivation. Any other record of a reform school refers
No mention of the Marianna reformatory appeared in the 1902 report
of the Commissioner of Agriculture. A 1903 report of a "Citizen's
Committee" to the Florida Children's Commission however, charged
that the reform school was "nothing more than a prison." This
committee found forty- four children imprisoned at the reform school
in Marianna, including thirty-seven black males, five white males and
two females. Committee members reported they "found them in
irons, just as common criminals, which in the judgment of your
committee, is not the meaning of a 'State Reform School' as defined
by the law creating said school."
A member of the Reform School Board took exception to the citizens'
report. In a public information release he explained, the "corps of
guards being so small it has been necessary to shackle many of the
prisoners while they are at work to prevent escape and to prevent the
over-powering of the guards." Children at the school worked in "step146
chains," until 1930. Step-chains were "bracelets" welded on both of
the prisoner's ankles and joined by a chain long enough for the child
to walk freely but not long enough for him to run.
In its first five years of operation, the school provided neither
vocational nor academic education. Children were "hired out" to work
for people in the area, or they were compelled to cultivate the school's
farm acreage and does maintenance work. The Marianna Times
Courier explained that the Board of Managers of the school told their
reporter "the Legislature has never provided money to pay a teacher."
The reformatory was meant to separate children convicted of a crime
from the general prison population, but it is obvious in several Prison
Reports that not all juvenile offenders were sent to the industrial
school. A writer in the Tallahassee Weekly True Democrat reported
that under a 1905 contract, the Board of Commissioners recently
signed, "Men, women and boys would be leased."
In 1901 and 1902 one of the most frequent complaints Governor
William Sherman Jennings received from citizens about state and
county convict camps questioned the propriety of leasing out the
labor of juvenile prisoners. Counties also leased all prisoners
regardless of their age. In several instances, they leased the labor of
children less than twelve years old to turpentine and phosphate
concerns where the work could be brutal. The lessees expected those
children to perform the same amount of work they required of other
prisoners, and if they did not, the complainants said, they suffered
As late as 1909 the Commissioner of Agriculture continued to
complain in Prison Reports that the state forced him to lease the
labor of young children. This was almost ten years after the reform
school opened. Reporting the age of new prisoners inducted into the
convict lease system stopped in 1911. The omission of this
information significantly diminished the public's complaints about
leasing the labor of children.
The Pensacola Journal reported on two white girls and two black girls
at the reform school at Marianna in 1912. J. H. Sherrill, member of a
Special Investigative Committee of the Legislature, explained that "at
present these girls live in the same buildings with the boys but in
rooms connected with the matrons who have them constantly under
supervision and busy at housework." Sherill said the committee
members heard that the state intended to build a residence for the
girl inmates, but they felt it would be wise to locate the "girls and boys
in different towns."
A 1913 law enacted by the Legislature resolved to create the Florida
Industrial School for Girls at Ocala and ordered the removal of the
girls from the Marianna school. If the authorities removed the girls at
that time, available reports do not indicate where they held them until
the new industrial school was ready for use.
Revelations of abuses committed on juveniles in county convict
camps continued to appear in the Florida Times Union and described
in letters sent to the Governor. One report stated a sixteen-year-old
white boy from Georgia named Girrard H. Brake, charged with
vagrancy, and received a sixty-day sentence in the Alachua County
jail. The County authorities included Brake in a lease to a phosphate
concern operating at Dutton. Witnesses reported that two men held
Brake down while the owner of the camp applied the strap. The boy
died as the result of the beating. Five physicians performed autopsies
and they all attributed his death to torture.
Ex-convict W. F. Brown explained that a young prisoner named Oscar
Anderson "was a docile boy, obedient to every order, and tried to do
the tasks assigned to him as manfully as he could." Brown reported
that the boy had orders to collect fifty-two buckets of turpentine every
day, the same as required of an adult man, but the boy could not do it.
"I saw them beat Oscar Anderson each and every day upon the alleged
ground that he had not completed his allotted task. They beat him
with a piece of leather, a strap, and they beat him until he was raw on
the back." Brown explained the productivity quota doubled what free
laborers did in a day. "The boys are given the same tasks as the men,
and are obliged to work sick or well. I have seen them fall over in the
fields and afterwards whipped because they fell."
Dr. S. H. Blitch, who the state hired to oversee the health of prisoners
in the labor camps, represented Florida at the American and
International Prison Congress held in Washington, D.C., on October
2-8, 1910. His report to the Commissioner of Agriculture on the
Prison Congress expressed the consensus of its members: specialists
who "understand and sympathize with children" should interact with
juvenile offenders. He argued that when arrests and detention occur,
the children should not share quarters with adults. Further, the
members of the Prison Congress agreed, cases of young delinquents
"should never be heard at the same session with cases of adults."
Members of the Prison Congress did feel government needed to deal
with the "idleness and vagabondage of children in large cities." They
recommended that states pass laws "making parents responsible for
the wrong doing of their children." They also urged the several states
to "compel deserting fathers to return to their duty or to support their
children." Finally, members passed a resolution advocating that all
state governments create laws that would allow children to be
removed from "unfit homes and properly placed for training and
The Prison Congress considered "legislative measures and moral and
social propaganda necessary for the protection of illegitimate
children." The members advocated state intervention to benefit
children. In an illegitimate birth, they agreed "the decision as to
which parent shall have the future care of an illegitimate child should
be based upon the child's best interest and its needs as a future
The members concluded "that no person, no matter whatever his age
or past record, should be assumed to be incapable of improvement."
They recommended reformation of prisoners of all ages by "religious
and moral instruction, mental quickening, physical development, and
such employment as would place the prisoner on a good industrial
basis." Describing this system of rehabilitation as "incompatible with
short sentences," they advocated long periods of such "treatment"
with "special treatment" for adolescent criminals whether they were
recidivists or not. They further recommended that the long periods of
institutional treatment combine with closely supervised parole.
New York and other northeastern states established houses of refuge
for wayward girls beginning around 1825. Although publicly financed,
these institutions also received support from charitable groups and
individuals. The houses of refuge employed solitary confinement and
corporal punishment to control rebellious or violent girls, but the
reformers were "remarkable for their honest attempts to help
delinquents." Their method was to "subdue them by kindness" by
teaching self-discipline and clean living. The rate of success was,
however, disappointing. Reformers wondered if "the failure might not
actually lie with the clients." Some reformers of that era suggested
that perhaps delinquents were innately bad, the offspring of "poor
stock" and therefore unsalvageable.
In the 1850s, several states began Reform Schools in rural areas
where they established the "Family Plan" placing girls and boys in
small groups that functioned somewhat like a household. While this
practice improved the reform school's effectiveness, many reformers
in the early 20th century still believed that delinquents were not
Dr. Blitch's report on opinions expressed at the National Prison
Conference held in Lincoln, Nebraska, in October 1905, expresses this
fear. He cited an opinion offered by one "expert" advocating the
sterilization of habitual criminals. Another opined that the authorities
should incarcerate for life adult habitual criminals when "he or she
has proven, beyond doubt that they will continue to war upon all that
is right and proper." These ideas particularly focused on girls and
women who broke the law.
As late as 1913, girls were still at the Marianna reform school.
Members of a visiting committee advised the Legislature that "the
state should make arrangements to have a separate school for girls, or
the girls placed, to the expense of the state in some institution where
they can be properly cared for." Committee members recommended
this because they believed the "character of the girls sent to said
school, as a rule, is such as to make their presence there a menace to
In 1920, Commissioner of Agriculture W. A. McRae, asserted "there is
no economic question of greater importance to the State or Nation or
one which is receiving more consideration than the question of
delinquents of all classes." Florida provided an Industrial School for
Boys and another for white girls, but little change occurred in
developing juvenile courts, removing children from county or town
jails, or providing trained probation officers. The state provided
nothing for black girls classified as juvenile offenders or wards of the
state, and continued to sell their labor.
In Florida and in most other states, children were still arrested,
detained, tried, and sent to prison by adult courts, and under the
same rules as adult criminals. In 1928, Lawyers and juvenile court
judges of several states representing the National Probation
Association drafted a Standard Juvenile Court Law. The National
Probation Association published this proposed body of law as the
In 1931, the Legislature directed the Florida State Board of Public
Welfare to study how the state's courts addressed children. The Board
found that only seven Florida counties had juvenile courts: Duval,
Dade, Pinellas, Orange, Monroe, Hillsborough, and Broward.
(Broward County's legislation creating a juvenile court was waiting
for voter approval in 1931.) In other counties, "judges in juvenile
session, justices of the peace and municipal judges, all heard cases
involving or affecting children." The entire state had only sixteen fulltime
probation officers, and they all worked in the counties that had
A Legislative committee formed to investigate juvenile courts
reported that the "method of appointment of all probation officers is
faulty and invites political influence and in competency." Committee
members complained that "in no county did we find [probation] work
of high standard being done." Committee members also found
probation used as a "gesture of leniency or tolerance" when it should
offer individualized treatment and an "opportunity for the state to
cure crime in its incipient stage." The members concluded that few
children who left the state's industrial schools received the guidance
of probation to assure their finding a place in society.
Recommendations of the Legislative Committee on Juvenile Courts
included a complete revision of state laws, to meet the requirements
of the Standard Juvenile Court Law as published by the National
Probation Association. The Committee also recommended the state
stop charging children with crimes prosecuted in the criminal courts.
They urged that "Juvenile Court should have exclusive original
jurisdiction over children's cases." They also advised immediately
changing the General Laws of Florida so the juvenile court would not
lose jurisdiction when a child under its purview married.
Potentially, the most critical modification of court procedure for
children in Florida was the committee members' urging that "the fee
system be abolished in proceedings with children." Most children
brought into court were "charged with a crime," when this happened,
the juvenile court, if it existed, lacked jurisdiction. Florida's county
judges received a fee for each case they heard as a crime, but if they
heard a case as a juvenile judge, they received only their small salary.
In one county, prosecutors brought criminal charges against fortyone
out of forty-five children in court in 1929.
The committee found that additional complications existed for
juveniles brought into court. In one county, five separate courts
handled children's cases. "They were the county judges' court in
juvenile session, the county judges' court in criminal session, the
justice of the peace court, the police court and the circuit court."
This confusion and the complete lack of available probation services
resulted in a high incidence of children sent to industrial schools. The
report said "in one county having a population of 73,000, the county
judge sent nineteen boys to the industrial school in 1929. This county
has inadequate probation service." Most Florida counties were the
same, but "in nearby Orange County, population 55,000, having a
full-time juvenile court judge, two full-time probation officers, and a
local parental home, two boys were committed to the industrial
school in 1929."
Commissioner of Agriculture McRae included in his 1920 Prison
Report information that in the Industrial School for Girls at Ocala,
the records show "an average attendance of approximately forty girls
since the opening of the school, four years ago." McRae pointed out
that a new building under construction would provide room for forty
The Legislature had appropriated money for this new building for
delinquent girls. Construction was to begin in 1916. If this school
existed for four years before 1920 as the Commissioner stated, it must
have occupied a rented building. James C. Lanier, Probation Officer
of the Juvenile Court of Duval County confirmed this through a letter
to R. A. Gray, Secretary to the Board of Commissioners of State
Dated October 31, 1916, Lanier's answer to a letter in which Secretary
Gray explained that the state had not been able to fund this "unusual
and extraordinary appropriation." Lanier argued the "immediate
need of some school for the care of the Florida delinquent girls, who
are entitled to the same consideration for reformation that the boys
are." He asked "what position the Board took on furnishing a
temporary school for the urgent and immediate needs?" He explained
that "for instance, in the last two weeks we have rescued two
fourteen-year-old white girls from the restricted district in this city."
He claimed the girls belonged to good families from Jacksonville, but
older companions led them astray.
Lanier complained that the only thing he could do in such cases was
"to send them to a Catholic Convent in Memphis, which is a great cost
to the families of these girls and places them where we lose entire
supervision of their care or of their conduct." He argued that his office
lacked detention places and "one of these girls is at this time in the
county jail waiting the time that her people can raise the money to
send her off" to the Catholic Convent.
Janetta F. Johnson's study of girls committed to a training school in
nearby Georgia; found that most of the charges against these girls
were "offenses against self," which included being "ungovernable", a
"chronic runaway", and drinking. The next category of charges listed
was "offenses against society." These charges included promiscuity,
violation of school attendance law, incest, gang activities, and
In 1933, the Florida Industrial School for Girls was completed and
operating. The facility held ninety girls and had a long waiting list.
The industrial school first served girls from nine to seventeen, but
later it stopped receiving girls under the age of twelve. The girls held
in the Industrial School engaged in "home economics," by "doing all
the work connected with the school, including dairy and poultry
work." They received a "common school education through the 8th
grade, are in school three hours each day, and in sewing class one
hour." The girls made all clothing used in the school.
Commissioner McRae reported in 1920 that The Boys'
Industrial School at Marianna had an average attendance of
"approximately three hundred since it was established some twenty
years ago, one-third of the boys were white and two-thirds were
black." By 1920, the school operated two racially separate campuses.
McRae expressed much concern with the quality of the executive
supervision of the boys and girls schools. He asserted that the
Governor and his cabinet, which also served as the Board of
Commissioners, provide supervision. McRae recommended "that the
Legislature, at its next session which convenes on April 5, 1921,
provide for a "Board of Control of State Institutions." He explained
that this Board should have "direct control and supervision" of the
State Farm, the State Hospital, the Industrial School for Boys, and the
Industrial School for Girls."
A 1931 report of a special committee representing the National
Probation Association and the Florida Board of Public Welfare
criticized both of Florida's industrial schools as inadequate in
education and capacity. On June 30, 1930 the Boys Industrial School
at Marianna reported a rapidly growing population and a high
incidence of escapes.
CHILDREN IN THE FLORIDA
INDUSTRIAL SCHOOL FOR BOYS
In residence 194 258 Escaped 73 16 Paroled 298 369 Released 2 36
Discharged 2 27 Transferred 1 0
According to the Committee report, boys held in this institution were
aged ten to eighteen years. The authorities had continued
"jurisdiction up to twenty-one years for both dependents and
This committee's greatest criticism of the juvenile system stressed the
number of parolees lacking supervision. Most Florida counties did
not have probation officers, but it appeared to this committee that
even when a probation officer was available, supervision did not
occur. The Committee did not comment on the astonishing number of
escapes from the training schools, especially among the white boys. It
criticized the practice of not separating older boys from younger, or
inmates convicted of crimes from inmates merely dependent on the
The committee also cited a jurisdictional conflict in releasing children
from the schools. It explained that the committing magistrate
maintains "right to release" over children sent to the schools.
However, the Laws of Florida provide that the Board of
Commissioners of State Institutions may release children on parole.
Further, a Florida "law passed in 1915, permitting the judge of any
circuit court of record or county judge to commit any person over 10
and under 18 years of age to the Industrial School was held to be
Florida counties without juvenile courts or probation officers locked
children in county jails pending their court appearance. In Polk
County, committee members found "children, white and colored, over
fourteen and under seventeen, were, in some cases, sentenced to the
road gang." The committee recommended that a provision be enacted
ordering that "no child under fourteen years of age be detained in
A 1927 law prohibited placing any children in jails, but according to
the committee's report, most Florida counties violated this law. "In
one county we found forty-three children, both white and colored,
held for various periods in the county jail. Several were under
fourteen years of age." The Committee learned that in this county it
was the custom of the police to "pick up" youngsters and put them in
jail for a "day or so" and release them, just for the "lesson." The
children in question did not appear in court nor receive a legal
sentence. The Sheriff held some of the jailed children "on suspect."
The children remanded to county jails without trial included girls,
and the committee argued that the Industrial School for Girls was
"entirely inadequate for the present needs of the state." They also
noted there was "no institution in Florida for delinquent colored
girls." The committee did not explain where the state or counties
incarcerated delinquent or dependent black girls. If prohibited in
either the boys or girls Industrial School, there was no other place to
send them but the adult prison system.
The investigating committee's report urged the Florida Legislature to
enact laws creating juvenile courts in every county, rather than
waiting for each county to create the courts. They also strongly urged
the use of probation officers and preliminary hearing reports in every
county. Committee members advised close follow-up by state
probation officers on juveniles released from the state industrial
schools. They made no recommendation concerning the recapture of
children who escaped from the school. Minutes show that members
discussed the problem of recidivism at length, but ignored the high
number of escapes.
Several changes made in Florida laws in 1927 attempted to develop a
better system of juvenile justice throughout the state. Some of the
changes sought uniformity, but in many cases confusion as to
jurisdiction continued. Laws affecting juveniles remained a
patchwork. New and modern provisions existed, but so did many old
statutes, some conflicting with the new laws.
In a report based on a 1930 survey of criminal justice systems, the
National Probation Association recommended a complete revamping
of Florida laws to bring them up to national standards. The
Legislature created a Children's Code Commission to recommend
changes in the laws to provide Florida a juvenile justice system.
Florida's systems of incarcerating deviants changed and improved
slowly. When authorities finally removed women and children from
the convict lease system, legislators imposed taxes to fund their
housing and maintenance. Florida citizens accepted the tax and still
opposed the lease system, fully aware that building and maintaining a
state prison would require additional tax increases.
By the 1930s, following the recommendations of the National Prison
Congress, Florida offered most juvenile offenders the "separate and
specialized treatment" designed for children. From 1913 to the midtwenties,
citizens, state leaders, the press and one boy who was "out
to see the world," transformed the state's prison system.
The state was without question, permitting road camp captains to use
the whip to maintain discipline as late as 1921. The Tallahassee Daily
Democrat reported a mutiny in a state convict camp at Zellwood in
Orange County. Of the thirty-six state prisoners working on the road,
two refused to work. The captain whipped them. The other convicts
joined the original men and all refused to work. The Board of
Commissioners sent a new captain to restore order at the camp and
the men returned to work. A news reporter wrote that the state
planned to bring charges against J. A. Hayes, the original captain, for
cruel and inhumane treatment of convicts
The lease that eventually placed Martin Tabert in the hands of
Putnam Lumber Company began with a vote by the Leon County
Commissioners reported in the Tallahassee Daily Democrat on July 6,
1921. The Commissioners decided to advertise a large number of the
county's prisoners for lease because they had no work for them and "it
is a heavy expense to keep so many men for upkeep only."
The Commissioners agreed to lease most of their prisoners to the
Clara Turpentine Company in Taylor County. Either the prisoners
transferred from Clara Turpentine Company later, or Leon County
negotiated a new lease in 1922 that placed the prisoners with the
Putnam Lumber Company.
It was getting more difficult for Florida counties to maintain the
propriety of their lease systems. New people were moving into the
state, and public opinion firmly opposed the convict lease. Thousands
of Americans poured into Florida in the 1920s, resulting in
considerable economic and demographic growth.
Urban Americans had the time and money to travel, and many had
enough money to invest in Florida real estate. More importantly for
Florida, the automobile industry mass produced vehicles and lending
agencies amortized consumer purchases over time, creating a massive
middle class automobile market. Many in the middle class now owned
Earlier immigrants from the north were elderly, wealthy, and
typically visited Florida for a short winter visit. Florida, however, was
the staging ground for troops that went to Cuba in the Spanish-
American War. Many of those men wanted to see the state again and
communicated their favorable impressions to others. The state was a
training ground for troops in World War I.
Northern newsmen glamorized Florida and what became a real estate
boom, encouraging thousands of middle aged, middle class
Americans to invest in Florida land before the opportunity was lost.
This was the era of the "Tin Can Tourists," named for the large cans of
spare gasoline and water supplies they always carried. They could not
always count on finding gas stations or restaurants when they needed
them. In their vacations to Florida as many as three families would
travel in a single automobile or truck. They loaded the vehicle with
tents and food and headed for the beaches. Businesses along the
major highways built tourist camps with recreational facilities and, of
course, gasoline stations and automobile repair shops. Constituents
inundated Florida's leaders with demands that they build new roads
and "open up" the country.
The real estate boom started in Miami and spread through the
peninsula, up to Jacksonville and finally west to Gainesville and
Tallahassee. In addition to tourists, new residents poured into
Florida. The state's small farmers and residents of little villages and
towns did not benefit from the land boom unless they happened to be
on a major highway.
The Florida land boom happened in a time of general prosperity for
middle class urban Americans, but the 1920s was also a time of rising
racism and nativism. In Florida, the extreme manifestation of those
factors was the power of the Klu Klux Klan. Many individual racial
incidents occurred, including public hangings. Several times white
mobs attacked black communities and burned them out. Black's
homes burned in Perry, Rosewood, and Ocoee. Racism and nativism
occurred nationally, not only in Florida. The xenophobia of those
years, and its Florida component did not have an impact on the state's
real estate boom.
The peak of the national interest in Florida occurred in 1923. Officials
hoped the land boom would never end. The last thing they wanted
was adverse publicity, but the legacy of the convict lease system still
hung over the state. The system had officially ended, but many of the
counties still leased the labor of their prisoners to businesses or
individuals. County Commissioners found the system too profitable to
give up voluntarily.