History of the Prison System in Georgia

Of course, the state’s history has included crimes other than capital offenses, and the penal system for law-breakers in general has also undergone a series of revisions. The General Assembly funded the first state prison on December 11, 1811. At a cost of $10,000, the facility was built in Milledgeville, then the state’s capital, and was opened in 1815. Known as Prison Square, it was located directly across the street from the Governor’s Mansion and was where Georgia College is today. Due to the institution of slavery, it was an all-white facility, housing both males and females. The outer walls of the penitentiary are made of brick, are twenty feet high and two and a half feet thick, enclosing two and a half acres. The cells were in a three story granite building, 200 feet long by 30 feet wide, divided into four wards designated by the letters, A, B, C, and D. A hospital was added in 1832, and workshops were constructed in 1844, and they, too, were built of brick, one story high. The form at the common center is an octagon. The facility also had a two story building of brick, forty feet square, which contained apartments for female convicts and the sick.

During the Civil War years, 1861-1865, the prison was not maintained properly. In 1864, Governor Joe Brown offered pardons to all the men who would serve in the Confederate Army. After the male inmates left for the war, according to legend, the female convicts began to burn and destroy the prison. Sherman on his march to the sea then finished the job the women had started.

In the days following the Civil War, with no money for prison construction, the state of Georgia adopted the convict lease system. This program began in March 3, 1874, when Federal Governor Ruger signed the bill authorizing state prisoners to be “leased out” to private individuals and companies. Each convict brought the state about $10.00 per year. Prisoners were often the labor sources for mining operations, rock quarries, and the turpentine industry. Amos G. West, the “Iron King of the South, supposedly made his fortune using convict labor. Then in 1897, the General Assembly passed an act to end the lease system in favor of a “reformed” system run by a prison commission.

Also in that same year, $50,000 was appropriated to build a new prison farm for men, women, and boys. The term in old gangster movies, where the criminals talk about being “sent to the farm” may have been slang for being sent to prison, but in Georgia it was an actual farm. Built near Milledgeville and surrounded by stockades, it featured sturdy, separate buildings for men, women, and boys. It also had a gin, a mill for corn grinding, a depot, a warehouse, and other structures.
In fact, it was one of the largest agricultural undertakings in the state and was both a financial and humanitarian success.

In 1903, the state prison board commissioners once again authorized contracts with individuals and corporations and started the chain gang.. In this new system, counties received a share of the state inmates for public construction of highways, railroads, and other forms of public service. These prisoners were housed in camps, and by 1929, Georgia had 140 prison camps. To cut down on travel time between the camps and work sites, inmates sometimes spent the night at the sites in rolling cages. These had a lattice steel design, which provided ventilation. Today these convict cages are jokingly referred to by the manufacturer as the country’s first RV’s. Grand Jury Presentments from 1911 note that Turner County had two such “convict cages in good condition.”

In this new system, prisoners were expected to repay their debt to society through physical labor, often back-breaking work performed in leg chains. They were highly visible in black and white striped uniforms and worked under threat of a whip and armed guards. The chain gang had a reputation for harshness. However, the Grand Jury Presentments published in the March 21, 1911 issue of The Turner County Banner makes reference to 35 men in the county chain gang who are found “well cared for and properly clothed.” In a 1912 edition, though, the presentments are contradictory and imply cruel treatment: “There has been some complaint to this body relative to the Warden whipping convicts on the public roads near the residences of some of the citizens, we would suggest that the Warden be a little more careful in this respect and not whip them near the residences of any of the citizens nor on public roads.”

National attention to this cruelty came when escapee Robert E. Burns’ book, I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang, was turned into a movie. Named the “Best American Film of 1932,” this movie based on his real life experiences exposed the brutality of convict camps and helped turn public opinion against chain gangs. Although “Georgia” was dropped from the film title, the southern setting and characters provided a negative depiction of the South in general and the chain gang in specific. “The movie also helped establish the Hollywood image of southern sheriffs and prison wardens as mean, not-too-bright power abusers, an image still too familiar sixty years later,” observes Kaye Lanning Minchew in an issue of the Georgia Journal.

About ten years later, Life magazine ran an article on the inhumane conditions of Georgia inmates. At one site, the prisoners supposedly cut their own heel tendons and broke their own legs in order to avoid the heavy labor. Such negative national publicity caused Governor Ellis Arnall to order an investigation of the prison system; the result was the Prison Reform Plan. He also pardoned the famous prison escapee, Robert Burns, in 1945. Because of his stand for prison reform and against the Ku Klux Klan, Governor Arnall lost his bid for re-election in 1946, but his actions did lead to improvements in prison conditions.

Today there are thirty-two prisons in the state of Georgia. According to Georgia Trend magazine, Georgia “is still a leader in prison growth”; in fact, it has the “highest growth rate among the ten largest prison systems in the United States” and has the eighth largest prison system in the country. This “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” mindset in Georgia has resulted in enormous costs. In 2000, Georgia Corrections Commissioner Jim Wetherington predicted a “billion-dollar budget.” Wetherington calls it Georgia’s “concrete-and-steel approach to prisons, in which the state builds more jails and fills them up. “It’s my job to make sure we have adequate space – hard beds for hard criminals – and make sure they do hard time. Yet, I want to help those people who are willing to change their lives. Expanded vocational training, for instance, costs money, but it’s eventually cost-effective. And we estimate that seventy percent plus of inmates are in jail in part because of some kind of abuse problem – alcohol or other drugs. You have to address that,” says the commissioner.

Today’s Georgia inmates are expected to work, and there is an increase in the number working outside the correctional facilities. “It’s free labor. It’s good for the taxpayers and good for the prisoners,” Wetherington explains. This latest strategy sounds a lot like the old chain gang system, doesn’t it? Just take away the black and white striped uniforms, the ball and chain, the sometimes abusive guards, and substandard food and shelter, add white uniforms with bright orange vests, low profile guards, adequate facilities, and vocational and educational opportunities, and you have the look of Georgia’s current penal system.