November 29, 1987 — By Jonathon King, Staff Writer
Jimmy Williams leans against the side of A dump truck and looks through dark, wraparound sunglasses at cars passing by in the free world.
In his hand is a bush axe, a three-foot staff topped with a foot-long iron blade. The handle has been polished and smoothed over several years by a lineage of road prisoners; its hardwood rubbed down with salty sweat and the blood of broken blisters. The blade is finely sharpened to slash easily through an inch-thick limb of tough Florida holly.
Williams is a convicted murderer. He has just pulled his six-foot, 210-pound frame out of a ditch along U.S. 1 on Cudjoe Key. He and five other members of the “bush gang” from Big Pine Key Road Prison have been whacking at encroaching brush with their axes and two-foot-long machetes all morning.
Standing nearby with his hands in his pockets is detention officer Mike Grayson. He is directing the inmates with orders asked rather than demanded. Grayson is by himself and is unarmed.
“All right, fellas. Let’s get back to it and clear this out some before we take a break to eat.” Grayson calls out. His charges are slow to return to the ditch, but not a grumble is heard.
“You got it, Mr. Grayson” says Williams, reaching out to clap the officer on the shoulder on his way down the embankment.
What we have here, is an abundance of communication.
The chain gang existence — once depicted in the novel Cool Hand Luke, written by Fort Lauderdale author Donn Pearce and adapted into the 1967 hit film starring Paul Newman, has in many ways changed, and in many ways remained the same over 70 years.
In the modern version, started in 1917 when convicts were leased to the state’s road department, Florida’s road gangs worked as construction crews, building highways on the swampland. Eventually the road prisons became maintenance camps and in 1957 they were incorporated into the state’s Department of Corrections.
Prisoners still do some of the work performed by road gangs for decades: Chopping at roadside brush, filling and leveling road aprons, shoveling hot asphalt and picking trash.
But gone are the leg shackles that gave the gangs their name. Gone are the shotgun-toting guards demanding silence and only accepting requests to “Move it up here, boss” and “Takin’ it off here, boss.” Gone are the baying bloodhounds that would run down an escapee.
Yet, imprisoned men still yearn for glimpses of the “free world.” An inmate that “messes up” still goes to the box. And convicts still dream of their EOS — end of sentence.
Mike Grayson is a road boss at Big Pine, one of seven penal institutions in Florida where 549 prisoners are working out their time on what was once known as The Hard Road.
Despite being physically overmatched by the inmates, Grayson’s only trouble during the past seven years has been a couple of fights among inmates. At those times he used the only weapon he has, a radio, to call for help. “The officers who come will bring weapons and leg chains and cuffs,” Grayson says.
“Other than that, what we’re dealing with is a communicated trust and fairness between me and them.”
Williams wipes away the sweat and cockleburs from his neck, smearing a few red ants with the stroke. His eyes are hidden behind darkened plastic glasses, but he swings his head with the movement of passing cars.
“Free world people wave at you. That’s all they can do. They can’t stop and talk even if they want to,” says Williams. “We’re out here with the free people, but we’re not of them. We’re still in prison.”
For 11 years, Grayson has seen prisoners like Williams come and go. He has seen the Hard Road grow softer as restrictions and regulations were passed down and corrections procedures became more humane, the techniques of rehabilitation more understood.
“These men used to be treated, well, like these rocks,” says Grayson, kicking at the scrabble along the roadside. “Detention officers aren’t just pulled off the farms and handed a shotgun like the old days. They’re trained to handle inmates head to head instead of club to head. You use psychology and you use gain time. Without gain time, forget it.”
A slightly built, soft spoken man, Grayson’s only defense against a squad of healthy felons brandishing sharp steel is his ability to cut down their tickets to the free world.
Working on the road gang, an inmate can gain 20 days on his sentence every month. Since most road prison inmates are near the end of their time, the enticement of early freedom is more than an ample prod to stay in line.
“You’ve got to stay out of trouble. Do your work and work with the boss man,” says Robert Sanders, who is doing at least three mandatory years on a 16-year sentence for “lots of stuff.”
The once bloody blisters on Sanders` hands have hardened to calluses after two months at Big Pine, the result of pitching 35-pound shovel loads of steaming asphalt for 10 hours a day.
Working the Road is hardly easy time: A hot Florida sun sizzles uncovered arms and heads. Sweat stains the blue cotton prison shirts and trousers. The heavy, black work boots are scuffed and sometimes caked with dried, cracking asphalt.
But the road inmates are free to smoke, carry on conversations, and listen to a radio hooked to the truck.
“Long as you got a good boss man, you can work,” Williams says, within ear shot of Grayson. “It’s not so tough. It’s up to you, the individual.”
The days start early at Big Pine. While the sun is just rising, the road crews are fed from a breakfast menu that varies from French toast, sausage and biscuits, to scrambled eggs, oatmeal and hash browns. Lining up behind the barracks, they are patted down and counted out to the half-dozen trucks that will take them to the job sites. The inmate work is contracted by the state Department of Transportation which paid the corrections department nearly $800,000 in reimbursement last year. The prisoners work four 10-hour days a week. Friday, Saturday and Sunday, a visiting day, are taken off.
The departure of the road crews leaves the main prison dorm in a silence of gray and steel. Two rows of iron, double-stacked bunk beds line the 50-foot- long room. Some of the beds are unmade, others are military-style straight. Personal signs are few — a pair of high-top basketball shoes, a biology textbook stacked next to a Bible.
The “house man” is sloshing a mop over the tile floor. A huge exhaust fan serves as the only air conditioning. In an alcove separated by a low concrete curb are eight open standing toilets, eight wash basins and eight open showers to serve 56 men. There are no private places here.
The new look in the washroom areas has been provided by inmate maintenance men, plumbers, carpenters and tile layers. The old look remains in several forms: a 10-foot by 10-foot cage formed by floor-to-ceiling bars called the Wicket where at least one officer will be caged to watch the prisoners at night as they sleep; the prison walls themselves, 18-inch reinforced concrete with iron-barred windows, constructed by the state in 1950 when the institution was built as a maximum security prison.
There is an exercise yard behind the barracks where lifting bars and weights will later be hefted until last bell at 8:45. A basketball court is situated in the front yard and a softball diamond off to the side.
A spartan mess hall is attached to the complex where breakfast, lunch and dinner are served. All cooking and cleaning are done by the inmates. Tableware is meticulously accounted for.
The physical layouts of Florida road prisons are similar. All of the old- fashioned wooden bunkhouses, like the one depicted in Cool Hand Luke, were ripped down after a deadly fire in 1967 swept through the road prison barracks at Jay, Florida, killing 38 inmates. There are three road prisons in South Florida: Big Pine, Loxahatchee in West Palm Beach, and Copeland, just south of Alligator Alley in Collier County.
The 10-acre Big Pine prison ground, shared with a substation of the Department of Transportation, is surrounded by a six-foot fence topped by barbed wire. There are no guard towers. Doors to every room are locked, but the front gate is never closed.
Captain J.L. Thomas, commander of the camp, says that the prison averages one escape every two years. If someone goes over the fence or flees the gang on the road, the Florida Highway Patrol and other local law enforcement agencies are brought in. All escapees from Big Pine have eventually been caught, Thomas says. An additional five years at least is added to the escapee’s sentence and he is sent back to a major institution. That threat alone keeps the escape rate down.
“In the old days we would get the worst of the worst,” says Lloyd Griffith, director of the state’s road prison system for 42 years before he retired in 1976. “The only qualification was that they be able-bodied, so not only did you have the mean ones, but they were mean and strong.”
Working at one of Florida’s road prisons is no longer a punishment for hardcore prisoners. It is instead a form of reward for good behavior in the major institutions throughout the state. An inmate that has proven himself as a low security risk can be sent to a road prison or can request that assignment.
The type of offense has little bearing on an inmate’s qualifications for the road gang. There are prisoners with violations from murder to armed robbery to narcotics sales — but inmates convicted of sex crimes are not allowed. Sentences range from a few weeks to a few years.
The inmates interviewed at Big Pine say that the road prison is a vast improvement over institution living.
“The first week or so it’s tough. You’re working the bush axe squad. You’ve got blood dripping down your hands and the sun is burning you. But you find out who wants to work,” says Tony Norton, who is serving three mandatory years on a 13-year sentence. “It’s all right to be out on the road where you can see the free people.”
Norton arrived at Big Pine after doing time in institutions in Daytona Beach and Belle Glade. He worked his way up to pushing mowers, then riding tractor mowers and then a job in the prison laundry.
“You’re pretty much on your own here,” he says. “The food’s a lot better, and you don’t have to be locked down all the time with guards walking around with guns. But mess up, and your a** is in the box.”
A yellow bulb glows above the single door to a concrete bunker near the back fence of the prison grounds. Someone has messed up. Now he’s in the box — locked in one of four cells in the squat bunker — for fighting. The light bulb atop the bunker burns for as long as the box is occupied. An inmate under confinement can spend up to 30 days in the box. There are no windows, and ventilation comes only from thin slots at the roofline. Inmates in confinement are fed regular meals, have shower privileges and exercise periods.
Former prison director Lloyd Griffith recalls the old days when inmates were stuffed in a wooden, 3-foot-square by 6-foot-tall box. During the day, they were brought out to work on the road, then given bread and a pitcher of water and put back inside the box until morning. An old sweat box, saved as a memento, still stands empty on the Big Pine prison grounds as a reminder of days past.
Captain Thomas has kept a variety of mementos of his 20 years at Big Pine. In a private office attached to his nearby home, he has a collection of 30 knives he confiscated from inmates over the years. He has an old pair of “bed irons” — leg shackles worn when inmates were locked up for the night with just enough space between the ankles to allow a prisoner “to shuffle to the john.” Thomas also has a braided leather strap once used to “just whack ‘em across the feet to wake ‘em up. We weren’t allowed to touch them with our hands.”
Lloyd Griffith recalls that the chain gangs` striped uniforms and leg shackles were banned in the late 1940s. Road prisons, once segregated for white and black inmates, were integrated in the `60s.
In preparation for the 1967 movie, Cool Hand Luke author Donn Pearce said he visited the road prison in Lake County, Florida 16 years after he did two years hard labor there in 1949 and 1950.
“That was in ’66 and the change was already tremendous. There’s absolutely no comparison to the work that used to be done and the punishment men endured,” Pearce says from his Fort Lauderdale home.
“For days on end guys would be ‘bearcaught,’ half unconscious from heat exhaustion.”
“They accused me in Hollywood of trying to exaggerate the work. But I was there. It’s hard to describe the work to people who never did it, to a generation that doesn’t know what that kind of deadly work is.”
Although he does not keep up with the recent changes in the road prison system, Pearce said he is not sure he approves of reverting the Hard Road to an easier path.
“I never thought I’d be old enough to say that. But I’m sure the work is ridiculously easy now and I think (prison reformers) may have gone too far,” Pearce said. “These days those guys give ex-cons a bad name.”
Thomas has seen changes both good and bad since he began working at Big Pine as a 24-year-old barracks officer hired without training and few instructions.
“There were abuses in the old days, there’s no denying that. There were officers who mistreated inmates and nobody wants to go back to that,” says Thomas. “The biggest change for the better has been in the training of officers. The staff is taught to deal with inmates on a level above physical threatening. They learn to talk to them as people.”
Thomas says that road prison society has changed in much the same way that free society has changed.
“Maybe it’s because the image of work has changed. These guys don’t know what work is. For most of them the hardest job they did on the outside was to spend an afternoon making drug deals.”
Thomas has mixed feelings about bringing back some of the old methods, including the “gun squads,” which he admits made him feel more secure about the safety of his officers.
“It’s just not right having these officers out there with no protection,” he says. “I don’t see it as an intimidation thing, just an added protection.”
He recalls an officer who, a dozen years ago, found himself facing machetes wielded by a couple of inmates “who had turned strange” on him.
“They stripped his clothes off and locked him up in the cage truck and then drove away in the DOT truck. They didn’t hurt him bad but he’s never been the same,” Thomas says.
The captain admits that those events are rare and he also attributes that lack of aggression to a change over the years in inmate population.
“Back in the old days when a man said he wasn’t going into the box, you’d better buckle down because you were going to have a hell of a fight getting him in there.”
“Now, when a man says he’s not going into the box and you tell him he’s going kicking or scraping, sitting or laying, about five minutes later he changes his mind and walks in.”
Part of the change to a less confrontational atmosphere is due to the way that inmates are assigned to the road prisons.
“When you’re looking at 15 years versus 18 months, there’s a lot of difference in how you’re going to act,” Thomas points out.
Nevertheless, the bitterness of incarceration does not just disappear in the slash pines of the Florida Keys.
“You’ve still got some tough cases to handle,” Thomas says, lamenting that when he does have discipline problems, the only punishment available is confinement. “If they’d just give us one gun squad, I’d give (inmates to be disciplined) the dirtiest, roughest jobs. But you just go by the book these days, and stay within your boundaries.”
According to North Florida Sen. Wayne Hollingsworth, the gun squad concept is making a comeback after Gov. Reubin Askew, under criticism by the tourist industry, banned the squads in the early 1970s. Hollingsworth was the author of a bill passed in 1985 that allowed inmates to return to doing outside work for city and county governments. It is Hollingsworth’s plan to push a bill in the next legislative session to put more serious offenders on work details throughout the state with a return of “under the shotgun” security.
“We’ve got some of the close security crews working out around the prisons now, and all we need is the money for trucks and we can get them out on the roads,“ says Hollingsworth. “You’d have about 30 men in the crews, with a couple of shot-gunners and a walking boss.
“Of course, you’d have to keep them out in the open areas because they might run on you. If you’re out in the open, the officers can get the dogs on them and catch them pretty quick.”
According to Captain Thomas his biggest problem at the Big Pine camp is trying to keep contraband out of the prison. Big Pine detention officers talk of inmates smuggling in marijuana and cocaine, often obtained while out on the road.
“Ever since they required us to have telephones for the prisoners, you’ve got them setting up contraband drops out on the road,” says Officer Dave Kufnowsky. “They just let someone know what mile marker they’ll be working at the next day, and somebody drives by and tosses out a package or leaves something under a rock or in a bush.”
The contraband is often found in hiding places carved out in the leather of shoes or secreted in clothing during the daily pat down. Prisoners are strip searched at the end of visitors’ day on Sunday.
“But the stuff still gets in. It’s a full-time job just watching for it,” says Kufnowsky. “These guys can be pretty ingenious when they can spend 24 hours a day just thinking of ways to beat you.”
Thomas says that the drug problem is something he didn’t have to deal with in the past.
“They didn’t know what drugs were 20 years ago. The old-time inmates were big on trying to get away with mixing buck.”
Buck is the name for homemade alcohol, a distasteful mixture of whatever fruit the prisoners could save, blended with some stolen sugar and yeast and then left to ferment in whatever hidden vessel they could find.
“Some of the places they’d find to mix it were pretty disgusting,” Thomas recalls. “They’d end up being sick for days.” The road prison still keeps its supplies of sugar and yeast in a locked cabinet.
Although there are at least 10 dozen eggs stacked in the prison’s walk-in refrigerator, Thomas says that he has never seen anyone attempt the famous movie scene in Cool Hand Luke where Paul Newman ate 50 hard boiled eggs in an hour. Yet, he did witness an inmate gobble 67 pancakes on a bunkhouse bet.
“They were big pancakes too,” Thomas says with a grin.
By 8:45 p.m., Jimmy Williams and 52 other men are filing back into the barracks after the last yard buzzer has sounded. They have had a dinner of baked pork chops, mashed potatoes, peas and black-eyed peas, iced tea and a sugary brownie. They’ve spent the evening outside shooting baskets, lifting weights or inside playing cards, not always able to conceal the illegal betting that is going on.
Lights out is at 10:30. One officer makes an inmate count walking in one direction while another officer follows the same procedure while walking in the opposite direction. When they meet, the numbers had better match: 52 men in the building, two bunks to be filled and two men in the box. It is one day closer to EOS and the free world.
Fence on north side 2010
In 2012 a dangerous felon was transferred to the road prison by mistake and he escaped. He was the only dangerous felon ever sent there.