Convict labor

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Nov 23 16:56:56 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 formation.

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. 1997).

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Louis Proyect
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