The Convict Leasing System, The Start Of Mass Incarceration In American

Written by Rewindingblack

While most believe that the 13th Amendment abolished 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. According to the 13th Amendment, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, nor any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Convict leasing began in Alabama in 1846 and lasted until July 1, 1928, when Herbert Hoover was vying for the White House. In 1883, about 10 percent of Alabama’s total revenue was derived from convict leasing. In 1898, nearly 73 percent of total revenue came from this same source. Death rates among leased convicts were approximately 10 times higher than the death rates of prisoners in non-lease states. In 1873, for example, 25 percent of all leased convicts died. Possibly, the greatest impetus to the continued use of convict labor in Alabama was the attempt to depress the union movement.

Convicts were invariably leased to prominent and wealthy Georgian families who worked them on railroads and in coal mining. Arkansas actually paid companies to work their prisoners for much of the time the system was in place. 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.

Nine-tenths of the prisoners were black and plantation owners held many of the private contracts. There were no rules in place for treatment of the prisoners and ultimately, the convict lease system gave birth to the chain gang.

The Southern states were generally broke and could not afford either the cost of building or maintaining prisons. The economic but morally weak and incorrect solution was to use convicts as a source of revenue, at least, to prevent them from draining the fragile financial positions of the states. The abolition of the system was also motivated mostly by economic realities. While reformers brought the shocking truths and abuses of this notorious system before the eyes of the world, the real truth was far different.

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