Federal and state agents often helped the Jefferson County sheriffs enforce prohibition laws in the early twentieth century. Though the county was officially “dry” in 1903, illegal liquor manufacturing and sales were the most frequent crimes. Other common offenses included assault, theft, and traffic violations. Inmates were sentenced up to one year in the county jail. Those awaiting trial for more serious crimes – murder, manslaughter, and arson – transferred to one of several prisons across the state.
From 1877 to 1923, Florida participated in a convict lease system in which convicts were leased as laborers to corporations and individuals. Legislators saw it as a suitable means of relieving financial strain on the state and of promoting southern business after the Civil War. Counties participated on a local level as well. Jefferson County’s Board of Commissioners received annual bids from local businesses for convict laborers from within the county. Turpentine was one of the primary industries to benefit from the system in north Florida. The work was hard, and the care of the inmates was left to the discretion of the business owners. Often the food was meager, punishment was frequent, and living conditions were poor. The death of twenty-two year old Martin Tabert in a Dixie County lumber camp marked the beginning of the end of the practice throughout the state.
Living conditions for inmates within the jail walls were less than ideal. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Supervisor of State Convicts conducted regular inspections and reported the poor state of Jefferson County’s jail. He noted the presence of bedbugs in the cells where black inmates slept, and requested repairs to the outdated and leaky plumbing system. The Supervisor also reported complaints from black prisoners claiming they did not receive enough food, though they concluded the complaints were not “justifiable.” The county ignored some of these suggestions for improvement, and the same comments reappeared in following reports.
During the day, the jailer allowed inmates to walk outside their individual cells within the main cellblock. They used the painted brick walls as a canvas to record their time behind bars. The calendars, sums, messages, love notes, peace signs and portraits koffer a glimpse into that particular time in their lives.