Convict leasing

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Jul 28 12:51:05 MDT 2003

Matthew J. Mancini. One Dies, Get Another: Convict Leasing in the
American South, 1866-1928. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina
Press, 1996. xi + 283 pp. Index, Bibliography. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN

Reviewed by Garland Brinkley, Department of Economics, School of Public
Health, University of California-Berkeley.
Published by EH.Net (October, 1999)

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.


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.



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