Convict leasing was a system of penal labor practiced in the Southern United States, beginning with the emancipation of enslaved Africans and African Americans at the end of the American Civil War in 1865, peaking around 1880, and officially ending in the last state, Alabama, in 1928. It persisted in various forms.
Convict leasing provided newly enslaved Africans and African Americans to private parties, such as plantation owners and corporations such as Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company. The lessee was responsible for feeding, clothing and housing the prisoners, but the lease would still stand when the lessee chose not to provide these basic needs to the newly enslaved. While northern states sometimes also contracted for prison slaves, 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 the white supremacy brutality resulted in “one of the harshest and most exploitative labor systems known in American history.” Newly enslaved Africans and African Americans, due to “vigorous and selective enforcement of laws and discriminatory sentencing”, made up the whole of the convicts leased.
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, railroad, mining, and logging operations throughout the South.
The system in various states
In Georgia convict leasing officially began on April 1868, when the 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 did not officially abolish the convict lease system until 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 end of convict leasing did not mean the end of convict labor.
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.
“ 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
The Florida governor Cary A. Hardee ended convict leasing in 1923 after national attention was brought to the case of Martin Talbert, a young man from North Dakota. Arrested for riding a freight train in Tallahassee, Talbert was convicted and fined. Although his parents sent the $25, the money disappeared in the prison. Talbert was leased to the Putnam Lumber Company in Clara, Florida. 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.
Alabama began convict leasing in 1846 and the practice lasted until 1928. This lucrative practice created incentives for states and counties to convict African Americans, with the result that prison populations in the South became predominately African-American following the Civil War. Data for Tennessee prisons demonstrates this change. 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.
Alabama was the last to officially end the practice of official convict leasing in 1928. But, North Carolina, while without a system comparable to the other states, did not prohibit the practice until 1933.
End of the system?
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.
At the same time, and persisting for decades beyond convict leasing, sharecropping and peonage was a problem for poor African Americans and whites in the South, who became entrapped by systems of low pay and debts purportedly owed to company or plantation stores. Instances of peonage were found on cotton plantations, as well as in mines and logging. In 1921, John S. Williams and his whipping boss, Clyde Manning, were convicted of murder; Williams, who owned a farm, had ordered the killings of nine to 18 of his black workers (some of whom he killed directly) to avoid being investigated for peonage.
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 famous “chain gang”.