Experience D’Orth    By Bill Orth


Old Sparky  



A few days ago I was sitting at my workbench, illegally trimming a new license plate with tin snips so it would fit on the abbreviated rear fender of one of my dirt bikes.    Naturally, as I fingered the indented letters and numerals, that plate made me think of the day I sat in the electric chair.  At first, that may seem an odd connection, but for me, many odd connections are pretty normal.  We’ve all bought dozens of license plates, but how much do you know about them?  Do you know how they’re made? Many of today’s new plates have the alpha-numerics smoothly printed on the metal, instead of the traditional stamped-in-relief style, like the one I was mutilating, but they’re not relevant to this discussion.  An interesting fact of license plate lore is that they’re usually made in prisons.  Every state doesn’t require a volume of new plates each year that would justify setting up a production facility, so many contract with those states who already have the facility and excess capacity.   One of those states is Florida, which produces license plates for several southeastern states.


One of the elective courses I had taken at the University of South Florida toward my Behavioral Psychology degree had been Criminology.  Sounded like lots of theory and an easy ‘A,’ so I signed right up—and that was even before I found out that the course included a field trip to Raiford State Prison!  Well!  How often do you get to do that?  So, some weeks later about ten of us caravanned up to Raiford in the North Florida wilderness.  The rest of the class had begged off, for some reason.   Actually, there are two separate prisons up there, the Minimum Security one and the Maximum, with big solid walls and guard towers, just like in the movies.


We started our tour in the Minimum Security facility, which was a worn-looking collection of concrete block and wooden buildings, and a couple of barn-like structures, all surrounded by tall barbed-wire fencing and some floodlights.  (just like the Cool Hand Luke set) Inmates there were expected to work during their stay, in return for less intense scrutiny and getting to go outdoors every day.  The administrator showing us around was proud of the fact that in the surrounding fields and dairy farm, the prison grew something like 80% of the food all the prisoners ate.  They earned some pittance per day that they could spend in the commissary on cigarettes, magazines and candy bars.  A failure to bend to the rules would lead to suspension of these privileges, and egregiously aggressive behavior would send you a mile up the road to the Place With Walls.


Anyway, if an inmate didn’t care for agriculture, he could opt for service in the laundry, the kitchens, maintenance crew…or the License Plate Factory.  Nobody wants to visit a bean field, so we were paraded through the LPF.  It was an 1800s Industrial Revolution diorama come to life.  Housed in a large, HOT, dark, structure that was permeated with eons of dirt, was a gigantic mechanized hydraulic press.  There were huge rolls of license plate-width steel stock that were about 6’ in diameter.  One of these was spindled into a framework that allowed the steel to peel off, just like a Scotch tape dispenser, while several other rolls stood ready along the wall.  The steel from the roll was fed into a cutter that punched out blank plates, complete with rounded corners and the four mounting holes, all at once.  This blank was fed into a queue that led to The Press.


Manning the press that day was a very large shirtless man who stood facing the monster.  The press was easily eight feet high, at least that long and built like a locomotive.  Sticking out of the front face of it, right in front of the operator and at about chest level, were six wooden handles.  These handles were attached to individual steel shoes about two inches square and a foot long.  Cast onto these shoes were single letters or numbers in the 4” height used on license plates.  A large wooden rack stood adjacent and at a right angle to the press, and arrayed neatly in its pigeon holes were multiples of all the letters of the alphabet and numerals.   Pushing these shoes into the press correctly aligned them to stamp out the plates uniformly. The pressman would, say, insert three AAA and three 000 shoes and the press would stomp down with a crash and imprint that sequence into the plate blank that had been fed into the frame.  Already inserted into the frame’s perifery were narrow shoes that would impress the state’s name, slogan and the year into each plate, and these, of course, were not changed until another series of plates were to be made.  With practiced speed, the inmate would quickly pull out the last ‘0,’ put it back in the rack and place a ‘1’ in the vacant receptacle in the press just before the building shook with another huge bang as the press stamped again.  The stamped plate was automatically shot out of the press frame onto a conveyor and instantly replaced with a fresh blank. This sequence took maybe ten seconds.  As the stampings progressed, the operator systematically worked through every possible permutation in each letter/number position.  With every resounding crash, all the dust on the floor and surrounding equipment jumped into the air and couldn’t resettle before the next one, so there was this layer of dirt suspended six inches off the floor, plus a fine mist of dust filtering down on our heads from the dark exposed beams high overhead.


The noise was deafening and the sweating prisoner worked deliberately, shuffling the ever-changing six shoes iin his mental sequence and the finished plates disappeared through a hole in the wooden wall on their conveyor.  The entire ambiance; the ancient building, the fifty-year-old press and crude conveyor system all had an air of dilapidation.  Obviously, all maintenance was carried out by prisoners, as was the manufacture of the rickety conveyor and wooden shoe rack.  I have no idea how long a shift the press man endured, but he was getting a hell of a workout keeping up with the relentless press.   Now that we were all nicely dusted and pretty damp, we went into the next room to see where that conveyor went.

Other inmates were hanging the newly-stamped plates, four wide, onto wire hangers that were on an endless chain.  This chain drooped the plates into a paint bath of the background color being used and then moved back up, allowing the dangling plates to drip the excess onto a tray that ran back into the vat of paint.  From here, the chain carried them into a heated chamber that quickly dried the paint.   After emerging from the dryer, the plates were laid face-up on a rubber conveyor belt.  This then passed under a wide rubber roller that would dip itself in a shallow tray holding the secondary paint color being used and then roll back and forth across the raised numbers and letters.  The last step had the plates with their still-wet numerals pass under a sifter that sprinkled the little reflective particles down onto the plates.  Obviously, I’m still fascinated by the process, and you, like my classmates, are/were bored to death.


Speaking of death, now it was time to journey up the road to the Maximum Security prison.   For obvious reasons, we weren’t able to tour much of that facility…except for Death Row.  Florida was/is one of the states still doing capital punishment, so there was a separate building attached to the main prison that housed these unfortunate souls and the execution chamber.  This was a room maybe twelve feet square with a raised platform in the center, upon which was mounted the large three-legged solid oak chair.  There was room behind the platform for attendants to work and a recess in the wall screened by a curtain where The Switch was.  And the obligatory wall-mounted telephone.  From The Chair forward was an unobstructed view through a large picture window.  The view, however, was of another, larger, room in which were arranged several rows of wooden chairs facing back at the window.  These were for the legally-required witnesses.  As he walked us around, our escort was explaining what everything was, the various legal stipulations involved, why the identity of the executioner was a closely-guarded secret and other uncommon knowledge.  When in the smaller room, next to Old Sparky, which is that particular chair’s nickname, he asked if anyone wanted to sit in it.  I stepped right up to be first, but it turned out I was the only one, as the rest were busy backing up. Go figure.  Anyway, the seat has corrugated rubber matting on it, the back is quite high and supports a steel skullcap with a thick cable coming out of it and the central single front leg is because the guest’s legs are shacked to it, against a large copper ground post.  There are heavy leather straps attached to the chair’s arms and to fit across the condemned ‘s chest and lap.  The closest thing to it I have ever seen since then was one of the lesser thrones in the palace at Versailles, but sans the specialized hardware. 


Sitting there, I saw no ghosts or departed spirits, but I decided quickly enough that serious crime was not for me.  So, that’s why, when forty years later while I was defacing a license plate, I found myself remembering exactly how it was made and wondering if that was a capital offense.


                                                                                                -- Bill Orth –