Convict Leasing in the American South

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Thu Dec 16 22:29:06 MST 1999

Published by EH.NET (October, 1999)

Matthew J. Mancini. _One Dies, Get Another: Convict Leasing in the American
South, 1866-1928_. Columbia: University of South Carolina  Press, 1996. xi
+ 283 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN: 1-57003-083-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Garland Brinkley <garland at>, Department of
Economics, School of Public Health, University of California-Berkeley

Several economic historians have asserted that African-Americans were
better off in the aftermath of the Civil War. Ransom and Sutch's (1977)
classic leisure for labor trade-off, for example, suggests that freedmen
worked fewer hours and fewer days and that fewer members of the family
spent time in the fields after the Civil War with the resultant higher
utility (but lower income). What are noticeably absent from previous
histories of the South, was the continuation of slavery under the even more
brutal conditions driven by economic incentives. While most believe that
the thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, a
loophole was opened that resulted in the widespread continuation of slavery
in the Southern states of America -- slavery as punishment for a crime.
According to the thirteenth amendment, "Neither slavery nor involuntary
servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been
duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject
to their jurisdiction." Matthew Mancini documents the widespread nature of
post-civil war slavery in every state that composed the Confederacy except
Virginia. His book is divided into three parts: part one addresses the
convergence of forces (economic, racial, and political) that began the
convict labor system and perpetuated the convict labor system; part two
details the particular manifestation of the convict labor system in each
southern state; and, part three explains the demise of the system that
maintained African-Americans in slavery for a half century after the
surrender by Lee at Appomattox.

This book details the darker side of our discipline when economic
incentives prevail over simple humanity. Economically, when an asset is
replaceable at no cost, money spent upon maintenance costs will lower
profits. When the assets are human beings, duly convicted of (in many
cases) racially motivated trumped up charges and obtained at low cost and
through political machinations, the incentive is to work them as hard as
possible and to spend little on food, shelter, clothing, medical care,
etc., in order to maximize profits.

Georgia practiced the most undiluted and typical form of convict leasing of
any of the southern states. However, political favoritism determined the
issuance and bid price of convict leasing contracts and political pressures
ensured no interference in the working and living conditions of the
convicts. Average prison sentences lengthened dramatically during this
period. Convicts were invariably leased to prominent and wealthy Georgian
families who worked them on railroads and in coal mining. Even though
reformers exposed the brutalities of the system in Georgia, the demise of
convict labor in Georgia came about due to political reform and market
forces when the bids that contractors had to pay for convict labor finally
became equal to free wage rates.

Alabama used the convict labor system as an enormously successful revenue
generating mechanism. Not only did convict leasing last longer in Alabama
than in any other southern state, but it was also notable due to the
extreme quantity of convicts in the system. Convict leasing began in
Alabama in 1846 and lasted until July 1, 1928 when Herbert Hoover was vying
for the White House. In 1883, 10 percent of Alabama's total revenue was
derived form convict leasing while in 1898, 73 percent of total revenue
came from this same source. Death rates among leased convicts were
approximately ten times the death rates of prisoners in non-lease states.
In 1873, for example, 25 percent of all black leased convicts died.
Possibly the greatest impetus to the continuance of convict labor in
Alabama was to depress the union movement.

Arkansas was notorious for the brutality of its convict leasing system
resulting from the lack of official monitoring of convict laborers.
Economically different from other southern states, Arkansas actually paid
companies to work their prisoners for much of the time the system was in
place. Arkansas' system of convict leasing was also quite political in
terms of issuance of contracts and oversight or lack of oversight of
convicts. No state official was empowered to oversee the plight of the
prisoners and businesses had complete autonomy in the disposition and
working conditions of convict laborers. Mines and plantations that used
convict laborers commonly had secret graveyards containing the bodies of
prisoners who had been beaten and/or tortured to death. Convicts would be
made to fight each other, sometimes to the death, for the amusement of the
guards and wardens.

Both Mississippi and Louisiana are extremely similar in terms of lack of
oversight of their convict leasing population, almost exclusive use of
convict leasing on agricultural plantations, and failure of the state to
recoup any revenue from the system. Mississippi was noted as having
epidemic death rates without an epidemic. Louisiana institutions seemed to
be unable to distinguish between the terms 'slave,' 'Negro,' 'convict,' and
'farm work'. The lessees generally did not pay the full amount of the
contract price to the state and usually paid nothing. Convicts were
generally among the black population. For example, in Louisiana, a black
social group consisting of thirty-eight members were convicted in a mock
trial and sent to prison for contract labor.

Tennessee convict leasing lasted from 1871 to 1896 and was bitterly opposed
by free miners from the beginning. The conflict between the huge Tennessee
Coal, Iron, and Railway Company (TCI) and mining population was
characterized by violence. This conflict resulted from the wage rate of the
miners falling from $1.25 per ton of coal before convict leasing to just
$0.50 wherever convict leasing was implemented. TCI admitted that the main
reason it used convict labor was to break strikes and undermine union

Texas, Florida, and the Carolinas each had their own unique features and
economic issues with contract leasing of convicts. However, all were
economically motivated and all were brutal, life shortening, and profitable
for the lessees. Rarely did the state actually receive revenue but
generally they did not experience a drain on the treasury. Texas convicts
were concentrated mostly in sugar plantations, Florida's and the Carolinas'
convicts were almost exclusively involved in railway building. Later in the
century, the Carolinas shifted into state farms and county roads and out of
railway building. Unlike the other southern states, only half of Texas
inmates were black. However, the African-American convicts went to the
sugar plantations while the white and Latino population were sent to less
harsh and hazardous work.

The convict labor leasing system came about mostly after the Civil War and
in earnest after reconstruction due to the economic realities. The Southern
States were generally broke and could not afford either the cost of
building or maintaining prisons. The economic but morally weak and
incorrect solution was to use convicts as a source of revenue or, at least,
to prevent them from draining the fragile financial positions of the
states. The abolition of the system was also motivated mostly by economic
realities. While reformers brought the shocking truths and abuses of this
notorious system before the eyes of the world, the real truth is far
different. In every state, the evils of convict labor and abuses were in
newspapers and journals within two years of implementation and were
generally repeated during every election cycle. Mostly due to political
reform, the process whereby convicts were obtained became market oriented.
As a result, the costs to businesses rose until convict labor was
comparable to free labor. Monopoly profits derived from rent seeking
behavior no longer accrued to private firms ending the economic incentives
of maintaining convict leasing. The convict leasing system was not
abolished but merely transformed. Prisoners who labored for private
companies and businesses increasing their profits now labored for the
public sector. The chain gang replaced plantation labor. There was in truth
little change in the lives of convicts themselves since life was still
short and brutal but rather change occurred in the flow and distribution of
money that spelled an end to the forced labor of postbellum "slaves."

This book is necessary for any serious student of the history of the
postbellum South or any advocate of unfettered capitalism. The lessons to
be drawn from this study can be applied to many of the policies proposed by
the IMF or the World Bank fostered upon third world nations. While the
circumstances surrounding the convict labor system in the aftermath of the
Civil War can be considered unique, economic incentives and economic
realities are unchanging and repeats of convict labor leasing are
widespread today.

Garland Brinkley is the author of "The Decline in Southern Agricultural
Output, 1860-1880" _Journal of Economic History_, Vol. 57, No. 1 (Mar.

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