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 Florida State Prison Cemetery in Raiford

P. Marlin January 2019

 

A brief history of Florida State Prison

In 1911 the Florida legislature began appropriating funds to establish a prison farm. Completed in 1914, Florida State Prison Farm (also called Raiford Prison), was located in northwest Florida near the town of Raiford. At the farm, prisoners were used to clear lands, build roads and bridges, dig ditches and prepare crops. By 1915, cotton, corn, cane, potatoes, and peas were being grown on the prison land. Women prisoners sewed, made garments and worked in garden patches. The plan was to turn the prison farm into a "self-sufficient and ultimately profitable operation with an obedient and disciplined task force." 4

Entrance to Florida State Prison Farm (Raiford prison) in 1934.

Entrance to one of the facilities at Florida State Prison in 2018.

Prior to 1913, Florida's penal system was described as being one of 'aimless experimentation' following by years of convict leasing. Beginning in 1877, the convict leasing program allowed prisoners to be leased to corporations and individuals to work in a variety of industries. The state was paid a fee from the leasee and the leasee had to clothe, feed, house and provide medical care for the prisoner. The first buildings at Florida State Prison Farm housed infirm inmates who could not be leased to private businesses. Abolishing the convict leasing practice in 1923, Florida State Prison Farm was one of the last prisons to do so. 3

Raiford Prison inmates plowing a field in 1927. Florida Memory.

Raiford Prison inmates filling milk containers in 1927. Florida Memory.

During the 1920's, an 'industrial prison' was created in addition to the prison farm. This was considered essential for Florida to "maintain a profitable and efficient penal system offering full employment and the tools for rehabilitation." By the end of the 1920's, a shirt factory (1925), shoe factory (1926), tag plant (1927) and underwear factory (1928) had opened. Tags from the factory were also used for inmate's gravesites in the nearby cemetery.5

The prison farm continued to expand. The number of salaried farm employees, agricultural specialists, and factory managers increased. In 1925 a horticulturalist was hired to grow palms, ferns, and shrubs which were sold on the open market. There was a State Prison newspaper called "The Raiford Record" and a tobacco factory. Inmates worked full time to process and package cigarettes and chewing tobacco to be supplied free of charge to the prison population. By the 1940's, the farm continued to be self-sustaining with an abundance of chickens, pigs and cows.5 5

Tag plant building in 1949. Florida Memory.

Prison inmate making license (tag) plates in 1928. Florida Memory.

Making garments included making uniforms for fellow inmates. Female inmates in the garment factory in 1928. Florida Memory .

Also in the 1920's, a main housing unit nicknamed, "The Rock" was added. Considered Florida's toughest prison, "The Rock" covered three acres and consisted of concrete and tool-proof steel. The prison farm had transformed from a "ramshackle wooden prison farm into concrete and steel maximum-security prison." With an influx of criminals in 1955, "The Rock" quickly become severly overcrowded. There would be as many as eighteen men in a 6 man cell causing tensions in the prison to rise. Violence in the prison was at an all time high with incidents of rape and murder occurring every week. "The Rock" was torn down in 1999. More on The Rock. 4

"The Rock" in 1937-38. The prison closed in 1985. Florida Memory.

Prison cell of a "lifer" in the 1940’s. Florida Memory.

Over the years, Florida State Prison expanded and restructured many times.The first buildings of the East Unit were built in 1972 and would be called Florida State Prison. The old prison building was redesignated as the Union Correctional Facility.

Old Sparky

In 1922, inmates skilled in carpentry were given the task of building Florida's first electric chair to be used to execute inmates sentenced to death. Lawmakers considered the electric chair a more humane method of execution than public hanging, which took place in the yards of county courthouses. "Old Sparky" was used 240 times from 1924-1999. A new electric chair (made of oak like the original) was constructed in 1998 by Department of Corrections personnel and was installed in the prison in 1999 to replace the old one. In 2000, offering lethal injection, Florida began allowing inmates to select how they will be executed, following growing controversy over the electric chair.

The electric chair in 1936. Florida Memory.

Frank Johnson, a black male, was executed for murder on October 7, 1924. He was the first person to be executed in the electric chair at Florida State Prison. He was executed for shooting a locomotive engineer during a robbery. Johnson is buried at Florida State Prison Cemetery.

Frank Johnson, the first executed in Florida's electric chair in 1924. 6

Image: Florida Department of Corrections.

Capital Punishment

In June 1972 as a result of the case of Furman vs. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court held that capital punishment was unconstitutional and struck down state death penalty laws nationwide. As a result, the death sentences of 95 men and one woman on Florida's Death Row were commuted to life in prison. However, after the Furman decision, the Florida Legislature revised the death penalty statutes in case the Court reinstated capital punishment in the future. In 1976 the Supreme Court overturned its ruling in Furman and upheld the constitutionality of the death penalty in the case of Gregg vs. Georgia. Executions resumed in Florida in 1979 when John Spenkelink became the first Death Row inmate to be executed under the new statutes.6

Two lists of inmates executed at Florida State Prison is provided on the Florida Department of Corrections website. From May 1964 to May 1979 there were no executions in Florida.

Execution List 1924-1964
Execution List 1976 - present

Notorious criminals executed in Florida's electric chair include, Giuseppe Zangara (see below), Danny Rolling, the "Gainesville Ripper," who murdered five college students near the University of Florida campus, and serial killers, Aileen Wuornos and Ted Bundy (both were cremated and ashes scattered). In 1999, 74 of Florida's 240 executed criminals were buried in the prison cemetery. Newer burials include "Gainesville Ripper," Danny Rolling.

Prison Cemetery

Two sections of the prison cemetery are located on a dirt road just off the main highway that passes through the prison grounds. Part of the dirt road is blocked by a gate, so when I arrived, I parked at the gate and walked to the cemetery furthest down the dirt road. This section of the cemetery contains the oldest inmate burials. When the old cemetery filled up, a new section was added in 1995.This new section of cemetery is located close to the gate.

Both cemeteries contain bodies of inmates who were unclaimed by family or friends. Each grave has a concrete slab with a silver tag showing the name, Department of Corrections number, and death date of each inmate. Some of the old graves are partially covered by the ground. Located in a far corner, closest to the densely wooded area, was the oldest marked grave. This belongs to Justice Rice, an inmate who died on October 30, 1913, about the time the prison farm was established.

View of the older section of the cemetery.

Cemetery History

Online research did not provide much history on the cemetery, however, one article from 1999 provided some interesting details, including the cemetery's nickname, "Gopher Hill." Excerpts from the article, "Florida's Gopher Hill, a final stop for outlaws," can be read below.

"All died in Florida prisons. Their grave markers give no hint of the crimes that led to them spending their final days behind bars. Their plots are marked with concrete slabs bearing license tag-shaped metal plate stamped in the prison's motor vehicle tag plant with name, date of death, and Department of Corrections number.

The first inmate buried in the cemetery was Justice Rice, a black who died on October 30, 1913. He was followed by Samuel Small, a white who died on April 10, 1914. Unlike many cemeteries of the time which segregated graves by race, Rice and Small were buried side by side.

Another notorious criminal interred here is Ottis Toole, who confessed and later recanted his involvement in the 1981 slaying of Adam Walsh. Toole, once a sidekick of Texas of Texas killer Henry Lee Lucas, died in prison in 1996 after being diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. He was never charged with the Walsh death.

The deceased get a simple wooden coffin with metal handles and a funeral suit of civilian clothes. All inmates get simple funeral, said Robert Flyatt, one of 12 chaplains who rotate performing last rites. "It's pretty much like other funerals, except we don't have any singing," said Clyatt." 1

Gravesite of inmate Justice Rice.

 

Gravesite of inmate Samuel Small.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This photo is of the section of cemetery that contains more recent inmate burials.

 

The interesting story of Guiseppe Zangara

Giuseppe Zangara, a 33-year Italian bricklayer, arrived in the United States from Italy in 1923. A former Italian army officer who also suffered from severe abdominal pain which the doctors said was uncurable, Zangara moved to Miami in 1932 in hopes that the balmy weather would benefit him. It was during this time that Zangara made an assassination attempt on President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt. When captured, Zangara explained his actions stating, "Sometimes I get a big pain in my stomach, and then I want to kill these presidents who oppress the working man." Shots rang out while Roosevelt was giving a speech from the back of an open car. Missing the president-elect, Zangara fatally wounded Chicago Mayor Anton J. Cermak, who died three weeks later.6

An excerpt from the Florida Historic Quarterly, Zangara's Attempted Assassination of Franklin D. Roosevelt. tells Zangara's story.2

"While Roosevelt had been speaking, Zangara and a companion came down through the crowd and shouldered their way into the second row of a group of seats ahead and to the right of the car-about thirty feet away. When people began to leave after the speech, Zangara stepped onto the seat of a chair, jostling Mrs. W. H. Cross in the action. She was annoyed and endangered by his rudeness. From this elevated position, Zangara pulled the pistol from his pocket and began firing. Mrs. Cross grabbed his arm; pushed it upward after the first two shots and screamed for help. This brave act spoiled his aim so that Cermak, and not Roosevelt, was shot. When Zangara felt the interference with his arm, he bent his wrist downward to adjust his aim but kept on firing until he had emptied the cylinder. Zangara shot through a crowd of people around him; shot through a group of people around Roosevelt's car and wounded six people with five shots."

Zangara on death row at Raiford Prison in 1933. Florida Memory.

In perhaps one of the shortest periods of time between crime and execution, 32 days, Zangara was executed in Florida's electric chair on March 20, 1933. After swearing at the witnesses because no cameramen were there to take photographs, he exclaimed, "Viva Italia! Goodbye to all poor people everywhere! Push the button! Go on and push the button!" Zangara is buried in the Florida State Prison Cemetery.

 

W.H. Nettles

The only upright headstone in the cemetery belongs to W.H. Nettles, a guard at the prison. Nettles died of a heart attack on March 31, 1953, at the age of 26. No family claimed his body, so he was buried with the inmates, "Gone But Not Forgotten."

 

Sources

1 Florida's "Gopher Hill" a final stop for outlaws. 1999

2 Shappee, Nathan. Zangara's Attempted Assassination of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Florida Historic Quarterly, Vol. 37 No.2 October 1958

3 Florida: A Guide to the Southern-Most State. Federal Writers' Project. 1939

4 Schoenfled, Heather. Building the Prison State: Race and the Politics of Mass Incarceration. The University of Chicago Press. 2018

5 Miller, Vivien. Hard Labor and Hard Time. . University Press of Florida. 2012

6 Florida Department of Corrections Website.

7 Find A Grave Florida State Prison Cemetery.

8 Prison Documentary - Florida State Prison. You Tube.