Convict lease

Convict lease

Convict leasing was a system of penal labor practiced in the Southern United States, beginning with the emancipation of slaves at the end of the American Civil War in 1865, peaking around 1880, and ending in the last state, Alabama, in 1928.

Convict leasing provided prisoner labor to private parties, such as plantation owners and corporations like Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company. Corruption, lack of accountability and racial violence resulted in "one of the harshest and most exploitative labor systems known in American history." [1] African Americans, due to “vigorous and selective enforcement of laws and discriminatory sentencing”, made up the vast majority -- but not all -- of the convicts leased.[2]

Writer Douglas A. Blackmon writes of the system:

It was a form of bondage distinctly different from that of the antebellum South in that for most men, and the relatively few women drawn in, this slavery did not last a lifetime and did not automatically extend from one generation to the next. But it was nonetheless slavery – a system in which armies of free men, guilty of no crimes and entitled by law to freedom, were compelled to labor without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced to do the bidding of white masters through the regular application of extraordinary physical coercion.[3]



Laboring convicts at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman in 1911. When Mississippi ended convict leasing in 1906 all prisoners were sent to Parchman

Convict leasing in the United States can be traced to the Reconstruction Period (1865–1876), after the end of the Civil War. Farmers and businessmen needed to find replacements for the labor force once their slaves had been freed. The constitutional basis for convict leasing is that the 1865 Thirteenth Amendment, while abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude generally, permits it as a punishment for crime.

Criminologist Thorsten Sellin, in his book Slavery and the Penal System, says that the sole aim of convict leasing “was financial profit to the lessees who exploited the labor of the prisoners to the fullest, and to the government which sold the convicts to the lessees.”[4]

The practice became widespread and was used to supply labor in railroad, mining, farming, and logging operations.[5]

The system in various states

In Georgia convict leasing began on May 11, 1868, when provisional governor Thomas H. Ruger issued a convict lease for 100 African American prisoners to William Fort for work on the Georgia and Alabama Railroad as a solution to the labor shortage problem.[6]

In Tennessee, the convict leasing system was halted on January 1, 1894 because of the attention brought by the Coal Creek War of 1891, an armed labor action lasting over a year. Free coal miners attacked and burned prison stockades, hundreds of convicts were freed, and the surrounding publicity turned Governor John P. Buchanan out of office. The end of convict leasing did not mean the end of convict labor. The state sited its new penitentiary, Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, with the help of geologists, built it as a working coal mine, and ran it at significant profit. These prison mines closed in 1966. [7]

Convict leasing began in Texas by 1883 and was abolished in 1910.[8]

The Convict Lease System and Lynch Law are twin infamies which flourish hand in hand in many of the United States. They are the two great outgrowths and results of the class legislation under which our people suffer to-day.

Frederick Douglass[9]

One result of this practice was the shift in prison populations to predominately African-American following the war. Data for Tennessee prisons demonstrates this change. African-Americans represented only 33 percent of the population at the main prison in Nashville as of October 1, 1865, but by November 29, 1867, the percentage had increased to 58.3. By 1869 it had increased to 64 percent and it reached an all-time high of 67 percent between 1877 and 1879.[4] Prison populations also increased. In Georgia there was a tenfold increase in prison populations during a four-decade period (1868–1908); in North Carolina the prison population increased from 121 in 1870 to 1,302 in 1890; in Florida the population went from 125 in 1881 to 1,071 in 1904; in Mississippi the population quadrupled between 1871 and 1879; in Alabama it went from 374 in 1869 to 1,878 in 1903 and to 2,453 in 1919.[4]

End of the system

Although the 20th century brought increasing opposition to the system, state politicians resisted calls for its elimination. In states where the convict lease system was used, revenues from the program contributed to 372% of the costs of prison administration.[10] The practice was extremely profitable for the government, not to mention those business-owners who utilized convict labor. However, there were other built-in problems with convict leasing and over all employers became more aware of the disadvantages.[11]

While some believe the demise of the system can be attributed to exposure of the inhumane treatment afforded the convicts,[12] others point towards causes ranging from comprehensive legislative reform packages to political retribution or payback.[13] Though the convict lease system, as such, disappeared, yet other forms of convict labor continued (and still exist today) in various forms. These other systems included plantations, industrial prisons, and the famous “chain gang”.[4]

The convict lease system was slowly phased out in the early 20th century. Florida governor Cary A. Hardee ended convict leasing there in 1923 after national attention to the case of Martin Tabert, a young man from North Dakota. Tabert had been arrested for riding a freight train in Tallahassee, leased to the Putnam Lumber Company in Clara, Florida, and flogged to death. [14] Coverage of Tabert's killing brought the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service to the New York World newspaper in 1924.

North Carolina, while without a system comparable to the other states, was the last state to outlaw the practice, in 1933. Alabama was the last to end the practice of official convict leasing in 1928. [15]

See also


  1. ^ One dies, get another: convict leasing in the American South, 1866-1928 By Matthew J. Mancini, page 1
  2. ^ Litwack, Leon F. Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow. (1998) ISBN 0-394-52778-X, page 271
  3. ^ Blackmon, Douglas A. Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. (2008) ISBN 978-0-385-50625-0, page 4
  4. ^ a b c d Slavery in the Third Millennium, Part II by Randall G. Shelden, Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
  5. ^ Zito, M. (2003, December). Prison Privatization: Past and Present. Retrieved October 1, 2006, from the International Foundation for Protection Officers Web site:
  6. ^ Todd, W. (2005). Convict Lease System. In The New Georgia Encyclopedia. Retrieved October 1, 2006, from [1]
  7. ^
  8. ^ "Handbook of Texas Online". Retrieved 2007-12-08. 
  9. ^ The Convict Lease System by Frederick Douglass From The Reason why the colored American is not in the World's Columbian Exposition published in 1893
  10. ^ Mancini, M. (1978). Race, Economics, and the Abandonment of Convict Leasing. Journal of Negro History, 63(4), 339–340. Retrieved October 1, 2006, from JSTOR database.
  11. ^ "Forced Labor in the 19th Century South: The Story of Parchman Farm" (PDF). Retrieved 2007-12-08. 
  12. ^ Todd, W. (2005). Convict Lease System. In The New Georgia Encyclopedia. Retrieved October 1, 2006, from [2]
  13. ^ Mancini, M. (1978). Race, Economics, and the Abandonment of Convict Leasing. Journal of Negro History, 63(4), 339–340. Retrieved October 1, 2006, from JSTOR database.
  14. ^
  15. ^ Fierce, Milfred (1994). Slavery Revisited: Blacks and the Southern Convict Lease System, 1865-1933. New York: Africana Studies Research Center, Brooklyn College, City University of New York1. pp. 192-193. ISBN 0-964-32480-6. 

Further reading

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