Convict leasing was a system of penal labor practiced in the Southern United States and overwhelmingly targeting African American men. Convict leasing provided prisoner labor to private parties, such as plantation owners and corporations (e.g. Tennessee Coal and Iron Company). The lessee was responsible for feeding, clothing, and housing the prisoners.
The state of Louisiana leased out convicts as early as 1844, but the system expanded all through the South with the emancipation of slaves at the end of the American Civil War in 1865. It could be lucrative for the states: in 1898, some 73% of Alabama’s entire annual state revenue came from convict leasing.
While Northern states sometimes contracted for prison labor, the historian Alex Lichtenstein notes that,
only in the South did the state entirely give up its control to the contractor; and only in the South did the physical “penitentiary” become virtually synonymous with the various private enterprises in which convicts labored.
Corruption, lack of accountability, and racial violence resulted in “one of the harshest and most exploitative labor systems known in American history.” African Americans, mostly adult males, due to “vigorous and selective enforcement of laws and discriminatory sentencing,” made up the vast majority—but not all—of the convicts leased.
The writer Douglas A. Blackmon described the system:
It was a form of bondage distinctly different from that of the antebellum South in that for most men, and the relatively few women drawn in, this slavery did not last a lifetime and did not automatically extend from one generation to the next. But it was nonetheless slavery – a system in which armies of free men, guilty of no crimes and entitled by law to freedom, were compelled to labor without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced to do the bidding of white masters through the regular application of extraordinary physical coercion.
U.S. Steel is among American companies who have acknowledged using African-American leased convict labor. The practice peaked around 1880, was formally outlawed by the last state (Alabama) in 1928, and persisted in various forms until it was abolished by President Franklin D. Roosevelt via Francis Biddle’s “Circular 3591” of December 12, 1941.
Convict leasing in the United States was widespread in the South during the Reconstruction Period (1865–1877) after the end of the Civil War, when many Southern legislatures were ruled by majority coalitions of blacks and Radical Republicans, and Union generals acted as military governors. Farmers and businessmen needed to find replacements for the labor force once their slaves had been freed. Some Southern legislatures passed Black Codes to restrict free movement of blacks and force them into employment with whites. For instance, several states made it illegal for a black man to change jobs without the approval of his employer. If convicted of vagrancy, blacks could be imprisoned, and they also received sentences for a variety of petty offenses. States began to lease convict labor to the plantations and other facilities seeking labor, as the freed men were trying to withdraw and work for themselves. This provided the states with a new source of revenue during years when they were financially strapped, and lessees profited by the use of forced labor at below-market rates.
Essentially, the criminal justice system colluded with private planters and other business owners to entrap, convict, and lease blacks as prison laborers. The constitutional basis for convict leasing is that the 1865 Thirteenth Amendment, while abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude generally, permits it as a punishment for crime.
The criminologist Thorsten Sellin, in his book Slavery and the Penal System (1976), wrote 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.” The practice became widespread and was used to supply labor to farming, rail road, mining and logging operations throughout the South.
The system in various states
Orphaned and “Criminal” Children. 1903
In Georgia convict leasing began in April 1868, when Union General and newly appointed provisional governor Thomas H. Ruger issued a convict lease for prisoners to William Fort for work on the Georgia and Alabama Railroad. The contract specified “one hundred able bodied and healthy Negro convicts” in return for a fee to the state of $2500. In May the state entered into a second agreement with Fort and his business partner Joseph Printup for another 100 convicts, this time for $1000, to work on the Selma, Rome and Dalton Railroad, also in north Georgia. Georgia ended the convict lease system in 1908.
In Tennessee, the convict leasing system was halted on January 1, 1894 because of the attention brought by the Coal Creek War of 1891, an armed labor action lasting over a year. At the time both free and convict labor were used in mines, although workers were kept separated. Free coal miners attacked and burned prison stockades, and freed hundreds of black convicts; the related publicity and outrage turned Governor John P. Buchanan out of office.
The end of convict leasing did not mean the end of convict labor, however. The state sited its new penitentiary, Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, with the help of geologists. The prison built a working coal mine on the site, dependent on labor done by prisoners, and ran it at significant profit. These prison mines closed in 1966.
Texas began convict leasing by 1883 and officially abolished it in 1910. A cemetery containing what are believed to be the remains of 95 “slave convicts” has recently (2018) been discovered in Sugar Land, today a suburb of Houston.
The Convict Lease System and Lynch Law are twin infamies which flourish hand in hand in many of the United States. They are the two great outgrowths and results of the class legislation under which our people suffer to-day.— Frederick Douglass
Alabama began convict leasing in 1846 and the practice lasted until 1928. The revenues derived from convict leasing were substantial, accounting for roughly 10 percent of total state revenues in 1883. This percentage surged to nearly 73 percent by 1898.
This lucrative practice created incentives for states and counties to convict African Americans, and helped raise the prison population in the South to become predominately African-American following the Civil War. In Tennessee, African Americans represented 33 percent of the population at the main prison in Nashville as of October 1, 1865, but by November 29, 1867, their 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.
Prison populations also increased overall in the South. In Georgia prison populations increased tenfold during the four-decade period (1868–1908) when it used convict leasing; 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 in 1919.
In Florida, convicts, who were often African American, were sent to work in turpentine factories and lumber camps. The convict labor system in Florida was described as being “severe,” compared to other states. Florida was one of the last states to end convict leasing, in 1923.
End of the system
Although the beginning of the 20th century brought increasing opposition to the system, state politicians resisted calls for its elimination. In states where the convict lease system was used, revenues from the program generated income nearly four times the cost (372%) of prison administration. The practice was extremely profitable for the governments, as well as for those business-owners who used convict labor. Other problems accompanied convict leasing and overall, employers became more aware of the disadvantages.
While some believe the demise of the system can be attributed to exposure of the inhumane treatment suffered by the convicts, others point toward causes ranging from comprehensive legislative reform packages to political retribution or payback. Though the convict lease system, as such, disappeared, other forms of convict labor continued (and still exist today) in various forms. These other systems include plantations, industrial prisons, and the infamous “chain gang”.
The convict lease system was gradually phased out in the early 20th century amid negative publicity and other factors. A notable case of negative publicity for the system was the case of Martin Tabert, a young man from North Dakota. Arrested on a charge of vagrancy for being on a train without a ticket in Tallahassee, Florida, Tabert was convicted and fined $25. Although his parents sent $25 for the fine, plus $25 for Tabert to return home to North Dakota, the money disappeared in the Leon County prison system. Tabert was then leased to the Putnam Lumber Company in Clara, Florida, approximately 60 miles (97 km) south of Tallahassee in Dixie County. There, he was flogged to death by the whipping boss, Thomas Walter Higginbotham. Coverage of Tabert’s killing by the New York World newspaper in 1924 earned it the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Governor Cary A. Hardee ended convict leasing in 1923, in part spurred on by the Tabert case and the resulting publicity.
North Carolina, while without a system comparable to the other states, did not prohibit the practice until 1933. Alabama was the last to end the practice of official convict leasing in 1928 by the State, but many counties in the South continued the practice for years to come.