© 2024 All Rights reserved WUSF
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
You Count on Us, We Count on You: Donate to WUSF to support free, accessible journalism for yourself and the community.

PolitiFact Florida Checks Up On "Chain Gang Charlie"

Associated Press photo/courtesy PolitiFact Florida
Secretary of Corrections Harry Singletary and state Sen. Charlie Crist watch prison inmates get shackled together for a work detail near Decatur, Ala., in June 1995

Sparks were flying during Monday's debate between Congressman David Jolly and Charlie Crist for the Congressional District 13 seat. Jolly brought up Crist's former nickname, "Chain Gang Charlie," from 20 years ago and accused the former governor of looming over black prisoners in chains and calling it "a great sight." But did he? WUSF's Steve Newborn asks that question to Katie Sanders of PolitiFact Florida.

At a televised debate in St. Petersburg Sept. 19, 2016, moderators from the Tampa Bay Times and 10 News WTSP allowed the candidates to ask the other a question. Crist declined, saying he’d rather save the time for a question from a college student.

Jolly used the time to paint a vivid picture of Crist traveling to Alabama in 1995 with Florida’s first African-American corrections secretary to inspect a chain gang in operation.

"You stood there, over three African-American prisoners in chains, on their knees, on the side of the road. Saying that it was a great sight. Saying we needed to bring it to Florida," Jolly said. "And you did this — whether you know or not — on the eve of Juneteenth, the day the African-American community celebrates the end of slavery."

Here's PolitiFact Florida's ruling:

Crist earned the moniker "Chain Gang Charlie" by being a champion of bringing chained prison work crews back to Florida, a practice not used since 1946. He sponsored a state Senate bill allowing chain gangs during the 1995 legislative session. Despite criticism that making humans work in chains was inhumane and echoed the days of slavery, the idea gained traction in the state Legislature. In May 1995, he tacked his Senate bill onto an omnibus corrections bill as an amendment, and it passed. "The Department of Corrections shall implement a plan by Dec. 1, 1995, to require that selected inmates perform labor wearing leg irons in chain gang work groups," the measure read. The next month, Crist and state Corrections Secretary Harry Singletary, who had reluctantly agreed to the chain gangs provision, visited the state of Alabama, which had earlier revived the practice. Jolly said the visit was on "the eve of Juneteenth," the anniversary of the June 19, 1865, announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas. At least one newspaper (the New Orleans Times-Picayune) did run a Cox News Service story about the visit on June 18. But Crist and Singletary actually visited Decatur, Ala., on June 8, the same day the Associated Press snapped the photograph to which Jolly is referring (see above). In the photo, Crist and Singletary are shown watching over at least four inmates having their legs chained together prior to starting work. It’s difficult to determine the races of the inmates in the 21-year-old, black and white photograph, but it was clear from coverage that the vast majority of inmates in the work program were African-American. According to the Cox News Service article, which ran in the Palm Beach Post on June 11, 1995, Crist did say he wanted to bring a similar program to Florida, but he did not call it "a great sight," as Jolly alleged. Jolly spokeswoman Sarah Bascom pointed to that article, in which the reporter wrote, "For Crist, it was a mighty fine sight." But that’s the reporter writing, not Crist talking. The story later quotes Crist as saying, "I see justice. I see justice being done." In an Associated Press story that accompanied the photo, Crist said, "I’m very impressed by what I’ve seen so far."
Jolly missed the mark on the finer points of the visit and the photograph. Crist went to Alabama to observe chain gangs in action more than a week prior to Juneteenth. He also didn’t say it was "a great sight," although he expressed his approval of the practice. He also wanted to bring the same style of chain gangs to Florida, which had just passed a law allowing it. The Department of Corrections only implemented individual leg irons later that year. The statement is partially accurate, but leaves out important details. We rate it Half True.

As for Crist's rebuttal, he said during the debate: "In the mid 1990s, in our state, (Florida was) No. 1 in violent crime in America. ... The only concern I had was for the citizens of Florida, who were subjected to a violent crime every three minutes and 45 seconds."

Here's PolitiFact Florida's ruling on that:

When it comes to the facts, Crist is correct on both statistics. Crist’s campaign directed us to data from the Disaster Center, which used FBI Uniform Crime Reports to compare violent crime across states. The data shows from 1991 to 1997, Florida was ranked No. 1 for the rate of violent crimes for every 100,000 people. To calculate the rate of violent crime, you take the total number for each of the violent crime categories (murder, rape, robbery and assault) for every 100,000 population in that year. In 1998, Florida was ranked No. 2., with New Mexico earning the top spot. The number of violent crimes decreased in Florida throughout the 1990s, mirroring a national trend. Crist is correct on both factual claims. Florida led the nation in the rate of violent crimes per 100,000 population in the mid 1990s. And Florida did see a violent crime committed every three minutes and 45 seconds. In fact, for many years in the 1990s, a violent crime was committed even more often. We rate Crist’s statement True.

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.