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The Convict Leasing System: Slavery in its Worst Aspects

This post was written by Lynn Weinstein a Business Reference Librarian in the Science, Technology, and Business Division.

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Article XIII, February 1,1865

While many believe that the 13th Amendment ended slavery, there was an exemption that was used to create a prison convict leasing system of involuntary servitude to fill the labor supply shortage in the southern states after the Civil War.  Black Codes regulated the lives of African Americans and justice-involved individuals were often convicted of petty crimes, like walking on the grass, vagrancy, and stealing food.  Arrests were often made by professional crime hunters who were paid for each “criminal” arrested, and apprehensions often escalated during times of increased labor needs.  Even those who were declared innocent in the courts were often placed in this system when they could not pay their court fees. Companies and individuals paid leasing fees to state, county, and local governments in exchange for the labor of prisoners in farms, mines, lumber yards, brick yards, manufacturing facilities, factories, railroads, and road construction. The convict leasing fees generated substantial amounts of revenue for southern state, county, and local budgets, and lasted through World War II.

“We punish a man who steals a loaf, if he steals an entire railroad, we say a financier; let us ask him to dinner.”Rev. Dr. Wayland
as quoted in The Crime of Crimes or the /convict System Unmasked (image 4)

The Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company (TCI) one of the original 12 companies listed in the Dow Jones Industrial Index, was one of the largest users of prison laborers, mostly comprised of African Americans convicted of petty crimes. The number of convicts employed increased after United States Steel, the largest corporation in the world at the time (formerly known as U.S. Steel and USX), acquired TCI in 1907. The working and living conditions for these prisoners were brutal, as companies leasing convicts sought to house, clothe and feed them for minimal expense, with little interest in their survival. Justice-involved individuals were housed in rough board shanties unfit for the habitation of human beings. Torture and beatings were common, and countless individuals perished from abuse; poor and dangerous working conditions; communicable diseases, such as tuberculosis, malaria, and pneumonia; and from environmental conditions like contaminated water.

The nominal wages given to the prison laborers “drives honest labor out of employment and into starvation.” Many institutions in the late 1800s and early 1900s employed convict labor as a way to avoid strikes, shortages of laborers, and high turnover.  Convict leasing undermines competitive labor markets and decreases living standards by reducing wage and employment rates among the free population. Government use of prison labor can distort incentives for incarceration, particularly in the for-profit prison system.  The Coal Creek War was an early 1890s armed labor struggle across Tennessee that was launched against the state government’s convict-leasing system. The labor movement fought against it, because it resulted in suppressing employee wages and increasing unemployment. At the same time, manufacturers rallied against the system, because they could not compete against companies deploying cheap convict labor.

Forced labor took many forms, including convict labor, debtor’s servitude, and peonage. Self-made industrialists of the southern United States, including John T. Milner and James W. Sloss, built their wealth and industries on this labor. Much of the country’s infrastructure, encompassing roads, railroads, buildings, and levees, was built out of this abusive system.

Learn More:

Examine the Reentry and Employment Resources for Justice-Involved Individuals library guide. This guide provides a wide variety of online and print resources for justice-involved individuals who are incarcerated, or were formerly incarcerated, with starting points that will assist them with their reentry into society. It may be useful for other individuals re-entering the job market, navigating employment resources, and those seeking safety net resources.


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