| One popular method of controlling ex-slaves,
while perpetuating a form of slavery, was convict leasing.
This was introduced throughout the South because “free” blacks represented
such a threat to white supremacy, convict leasing would be just another
form of chattel slavery that would function to keep the black race
in a subordinate position. Some might argue that this was one way
to provide an abundant source of cheap labor to help re-build the
war-torn South. While this is no doubt partly true and an abundant
supply of cheap labor was in fact readily available, this form of
labor was not much of a help in the enormous task of rebuilding that
faced the South.
The subjugation of African-Americans became common throughout the
South after the war. Several laws were passed (or old ones were
reinstituted) which helped keep the African-American population
in its place, such as vagrancy, loitering, disturbing the peace,
and Jim Crow laws, to name just a few. When these methods failed,
the use of force was relied upon, especially lynching (and lynchings
increased after the war). Indeed, as several writers have
documented, the use of force to keep African-Americans in a subordinate
position increased dramatically after the war, one example being
the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.
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;
a slight decrease in the number of inmates (especially African-American)
between 1880 and 1898 can be explained in part by the opening of
two branches of the main prison, Brushy Mountain and Inman, in the
1890s. The population of Brushy Mountain Prison was predominantly
African-American, much more so than at the main prison. The only
data available for the Inman branch are for prisoners on hand as
of December 1, 1898. At that time there were only 58 prisoners,
all of whom were African-American.
Data from other states also illustrate the predominance of African-Americans
in the Southern prison system after the war. In 1888 the prison
at Baton Rouge, Louisiana, held 85 whites and 212 African-Americans;
in 1875 in North Carolina 569 African-Americans and 78 whites were
sentenced to prison.
The actual increase in the populations within Southern prisons
is staggering. 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
Convict leasing involved leasing out prisoners to private companies
that paid the state a certain fee. The convicts worked for the companies
during the day (convicts were usually not paid) outside the prison
and returned to their cells at night. 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.” One example
was a lease system in Alabama. Sellin explains it as follows:
"In 1866, the governor of Alabama leased the penitentiary
to a contractor who was charged the sum of five dollars and given
a sizable loan. The legislature granted him permission to work
the prisoners outside the walls; they were soon found in the Ironton
and New Castle mines."
In Tennessee by 1870 convicts were being leased from the main prison
at Nashville to three separate railroad companies in Tennessee.
During the 1880s the legislature appropriated about $14 million
to relieve the railroad companies that had suffered great losses
during the war. It is no exaggeration that convicts rebuilt Tennessee's
railroads. In 1871 coal mining companies began to use convict labor
and by 1882 more than half of the convicts at the Nashville prison
were leased out. In 1884 the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railway Company
took complete control and leased the entire prison population.
A sociologist once described how one company, especially the owner
Joseph E. Brown, made huge profits from convict leasing in Georgia:
”In 1880 Brown, whose fortune could he estimated conservatively
at one million dollars, netted $98,000 from the Dade Coal Company.
By 1886, Dade Coal was a parent company, owning Walker Iron and
Coal, Rising Fawn Iron, Chattanooga Iron, and Rogers Railroad
and Ore Banks and leasing Castle Rock Coal Company. An 1889 reorganization
resulted in the formation of the Georgia Mining, Manufacturing
and Investment Company. This rested largely on a foundation of
The convict lease system was cruel and inhumane, to say the least.
Deaths were common and the treatment caused much sickness and suffering.
In a coal mine in Georgia convicts were routinely whipped if they
did not produce the daily quota of coal. In Alabama inmates were
punished by being placed in a “sweat box” during the day in the
hot sun. A Louisiana newspaper reported that “it would be more humane
to impose the death sentence upon anyone sentenced to a term with
the lessee in excess of six years, because the average convict lived
no longer than that.” Indeed, the death rate in 1896 was 20 percent.
The mortality rate for inmates in the South was 41.3 per thousand
convicts, compared to a rate of 14.9 in the North.
The ideology of white supremacy dominated the entire leasing system.
One writer has noted that the “lessees regarded black labor as a
commodity inseparable from the convicts themselves, much as slaveholders
had regarded slaves.” At the same time, such a system also fit in
well with the emerging industrial capitalist system. Indeed, it
can be said that the labor of convicts “depended upon both the heritage
of slavery and the allure of industrial capitalism.” The convict
lease system was not merely a replacement for slavery, but an extension
of it, albeit in a new form and serving new interests.
The control of the black labor force, writes Criminologist Mark
Colvin, “was a constant goal of the southern punishment system since
the Civil War. This labor control function was enhanced with the
rise of industrialism in the ‘New South,’ rather than eliminated.”
One additional fact that needs to be underscored, especially as
we consider what has been happening in recent years, namely that
convict leasing received wide support in the South because of its
alleged success in controlling the so-called “black crime problem.”
The fact that there was no “black crime problem” is irrelevant,
since this was largely an invention and the vast majority of black
prisoners had been convicted of rather petty crimes, such as “loitering,”
“vagrancy” and “trespassing.”
The convict lease system, as such, disappeared, yet other forms
of convict labor continued (and still exist today) in various forms.
Prison historian Blake McKelvey notes that “the lease system was
doomed by its decreasing usefulness to the state, and it was not
abandoned until profitable substitutes were perfected.” These other
systems included plantations, industrial prisons, and the famous
“chain gang.” The chain gang actually developed alongside the convict
lease system as one of the two major forms of convict labor. Sociologist
Robert Weiss provides us with the following graphic description
of this system: “Chained together in fetid bunkhouses, suffering
malnutrition and exposed to rampant disease, these hapless charges
suffered one of history's most degrading punishments.” It should
be noted that the vast majority of those on these chain gangs were
African-Americans, often convicted for merely being black. If you
think chain gangs are part of the distant past, think again. This
is explained in the third and final installment of this series.
Randall G. Shelden is Professor of Criminal Justice at the
University of Nevada-Las Vegas. He is the author and co-author of
several books on crime and criminal justice, including Controlling
the Dangerous Classes: a Critical Introduction to the History of
Criminal Justice, Criminal Justice in America: a Critical View,
Girls, Delinquency and Juvenile Justice and Youth Gangs in American
Society. His latest book is Delinquency and Juvenile Justice
in American Society, to be released this summer. A more detailed
version of this series, complete with footnotes, is available on
his web site: www.sheldensays.com.