Convict leasing

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Prisoners who were leased out as lumberjacks in Florida around 1915.

Convict lease , also convict lease system called (translated: leasing of prisoners ) was a form of prison labor , in the southern states of the United States by the end of the Civil War was practiced and was widely used in the 1880s especially. Alabama was the last American state to officially abolish this form of punishment in 1928. However, Convict Leasing continued to exist in various forms until the beginning of World War II .

Convict Leasing supplied plantation owners and companies from the timber industry as well as railway companies and steel and mining companies with comparatively cheap labor. The tenants were responsible for providing the prisoners with food, housing, guarding, medical supplies and clothing. Convict leasing also occurred occasionally in the northern states. However, historian Alex Lichtenstein notes that

"... only in the south [of the USA] the state completely ceded supervision to the tenant and only in the south the term" prison "became almost synonymous with various private companies in which convicts worked."

Unlike slave owners, prisoners' tenants had little incentive to invest in maintaining their labor. Corruption, a lack of responsibility and uncontrolled and often racially motivated violence resulted in one of the toughest and most exploitative forms of work in US history. African-Americans made up the vast majority of those forced into slave labor in this way because of the discriminatory use of laws.

The writer Douglas A. Blackmon describes the system as a continuation of slavery, after the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution formally abolished it in 1865:

“It was a form of serfdom that differed significantly from that which had prevailed in the pre-war South, that for most of the men and the relatively few women who were subjected to it, this slavery did not last a lifetime, nor did it did not automatically continue from one generation to the next. But it was slavery nonetheless - a system by which hosts of free men who were not guilty of breaking the law and who were legally entitled to liberty, were forced to do unpaid work, repeatedly bought and sold, and ordered by white masters have been subjected to severe corporal punishment on a regular basis. "


Prisoners Working at Mississippi State Penitentiary , Parchman in 1911. After the Mississippi prison lease practice ended in 1906, all prisoners were transferred to this detention center.

Convict Leasing began to play an essential role in criminal law in the United States during the so-called Reconstruction after the end of the American Civil War. After the abolition of slavery in 1865, farmers and businesses were forced to find replacements for the previously enslaved workforce. A number of southern states issued so-called black codes during this time . These laws were aimed at the former slaves by subjecting them to regulations and restrictions again after their liberation from slavery and denying them basic rights. These varied from state to state, but black codes basically meant restrictions in the freedom of choice of profession, choice of place or choice of spouse and the prohibition of testimony or the limitation of the ability to give evidence in court. An example of a Black Code introduced in the southern states after the civil war was lost is the one passed in Alabama in 1865. Black codes, which forbade or made it difficult to “vagabond” and change jobs, almost completely restricted the mobility of black workers and ensured that the plantation owners and other companies in the southern states had a pool of labor available that was not available in was able to push through higher wages.

The Black Codes also provided the pretext for sentencing black people to several months' imprisonment on the basis of banal and regularly even fabricated allegations. They were then rented to plantations, sawmills and mines for forced labor. There they were exposed to largely unprotected living conditions that were harsher than those that enslaved people experienced before 1860. While slave owners had an economic interest in maintaining the labor of their slaves, this incentive did not exist for the slave laborers. Insufficiently supplied with food and clothing, chained and regularly subjected to corporal punishment, the death rate of the leased inmates was extremely high. One case cited by Douglas A. Blackmon is that of John Clarke, who was fined April 11, 1903 by a Jefferson County court for gambling. Unable to pay the fine, he was rented to the Sloss Sheffield mine, where he would have served his sentence after ten days of work. Additional charges imposed on him in the trial for paying for the work of the sheriff and his aides and witnesses in court added 104 days to his forced labor. The Sloss Sheffield Mine paid $ 9 a month for the Jefferson County labor. However, John Clarke did not see the end of his forced labor: He was killed after a month and three days by falling rocks. Blackmon names numerous other cases in which prisoners who had finished their term were sentenced to further forced labor on trumped-up charges. Justices of the peace, sheriffs and employees of the counties benefited personally financially from providing those interested with such forced laborers. Under constitutional law, this was not in conflict with the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution. Although this generally abolished slavery, forced labor was allowed as a punishment. The criminologist Thorsten Sellin argues in his book Slavery and the Penal System in 1976 that the sole purpose of leasing the prisoners was the financial gain of the tenants who exploited their labor and the respective governments who financed themselves through this system. In Alabama, where convict leasing existed as early as 1846, income from leasing prisoners in 1883 represented around 10% of the state budget. In 1898, they made up 73% of the state budget in this state. The lucrative incentive of convict leasing resulted in states and counties primarily condemning African Americans. Tennessee provides exemplary data for this: African-Americans made up around 33% of convicts in 1865, 64% in 1867 and 67% between 1877 and 1879. Frederick Douglass , one of the most influential African-Americans towards the end of the 19th century, described convict leasing and lynching as the two main tools of oppression against people of color.

End of convict leasing

State attorneys such as Warren S. Reese attempted to end the practice of leasing prisoners using federal law as early as the early 1900s, but received no regional or national support in these efforts. It played a role that neither the extent nor the devastating living conditions of the tenants were known to a wider public. African Americans, who suffered most from this practice, were unable to be heard due to discriminatory laws in the southern states. Warren Reese, for example, struggled to find witnesses to the brutality and injustice of this system because they feared for their lives or the lives of their loved ones. At the same time, there was little will at the federal level to enter into an open conflict with the states.

A drawing from Harper's Weekly showing miners shooting at the Fort Anderson prison camp in 1892.

The individual states began to abolish it from 1904. It is a matter of dispute among historians which reasons were the decisive factors for all states to abolish convict leasing by 1928. One reason for this may have been that the financial incentives led to a high level of corruption at state and district level. Leased prisoners were also used to break down strikes. For example, there was armed conflict during the Coal Creek Wars of 1891 when mine owners tried to replace freelance miners with prisoners. These disputes lasted for over a year and resulted in, among other things, that Governor John Price Buchanan had to resign. Comparable disputes between freelancers and their employers' attempts to replace them with prisoners existed on a smaller scale in other states until the system was abolished. All of these disputes contributed to making the convict leasing system known to a wider audience, which began to question it to a greater extent because of its cruelty.

The death of a leased white prisoner in 1922 made the cruelty of this system so clear to a very broad public that this practice was finally discontinued in the years that followed. In the winter of 1921, Martin Tabert, a 22-year-old white man from a middle-class farming family in North Dakota, decided to travel to the United States. He traveled the West and Midwest by train, working in between to finance his trip. In December 1921 he had arrived in the southern states and, running out of funds, he jumped on a freight train with a group of other hobo men. You were picked up by the local sheriff in Leon County, Florida . Tabert was fined $ 25 for vagrancy and then leased for three months to the Putnam Lumber Company, which was producing turpentine from wood in labor camps. Tabert's family had sent enough money to redeem their son within days, but Tabert had already gone missing in the Putnam Lumber Company labor camps. He did not endure the brutal labor conditions in the labor camp for long. In January 1922, camp manager Walter Higginbotham accused Tabert, who fell ill, of work shyness. He was forced to lie on the floor in front of the assembled 85 other convicts to receive 35 lashes on his bare back with a leather thong. When Tabert was unable to get up afterward, he received an additional 40 blows and an additional 24 blows for moving too slowly to his bed. Tabert died the next night. A few days later, a senior executive at the Putnam Tumber Company wrote to Tabert's family that their son had died of malaria. The family initiated a prosecutor's investigation into the incident and journalists investigated, which ultimately resulted in a Pulitzer Prize- winning article in New York World . Higginbotham was convicted of manslaughter, but his conviction was later overturned by a Florida court. The death, which made it clear that the excesses of criminal prosecution practiced in the southern states could extend to whites from respected families, was widely discussed in the US public. He immediately ensured that the use of the whip against prisoners was prohibited in Florida.


Debt bondage is not a convict leasing in the strict sense, as the state did not lease its prisoners directly. However, this form of forced labor has several characteristics that make it comparable. It also existed for several decades after Convict Leasing had already been terminated.

Once again, the Black Codes provided the pretext to pick up people of color and to sentence them to fines that they could not usually pay. Plantation owners or companies showed themselves willing to pay the fine for the convicts, provided that a debt bondage contract was signed at the same time, which forced the convicted person to settle the payment through labor. Douglas A. Blackmon used numerous examples in his Pulitzer Prize- winning book Slavery by Another Name to show how corrupt justices of the peace, sheriffs and entrepreneurs or plantation owners created a system of supplying cheap labor. Bondage, similar to convict leasing, was banned early on, but compliance with this ban was less verifiable. In 1921, the plantation owner John S. Williams and his overseer Clyde Manning reportedly murdered at least 11 black workers who were under bonded labor contracts. Williams feared prosecution for debt bondage after being visited by FBI agents, but described bondage as a common practice in the area when he first spoke to the agents. Presumably, the FBI agent's visit would have been of no consequence to Williams if the decaying bodies of the murdered had not appeared in the waters of Jasper County, Georgia weeks later . Debt bondage can be proven up to 1941. On October 13, 1941, Charles E. Bledsoe pleaded guilty in federal court in Mobile, Alabama, to having held a black man named Martin Thompson against his will on the basis of a bonded bond. Bledsoe was fined $ 100 and sentenced to six months probation.


Single receipts

  1. Alex Lichtenstein: Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South. Verso Press, London 1996, ISBN 1-85984-086-8 , p. 3. In the original the quote is … 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.
  2. ^ Matthew J. Mancini, One Dies, Get Another: Convict Leasing in the American South, 1866-1928. Univ. of South Carolina Press, Columbia, SC 1996, ISBN 1-57003-083-9 , p. 1.
  3. ^ Leon F. Litwack: Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow. Knopf, New York a. a. 1998, ISBN 0-394-52778-X , p. 271.
  4. ^ Douglas A. Blackmon: Slavery by Another Name. 2012, p. 4. The original quote is: "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.
  5. Daren Acemoglu, James A. Robinson: Why Nations Fail - The origins of power, prosperity, and poverty. Crown Publishers, New York 2012, ISBN 978-0-307-71923-2 , p. 355.
  6. Blackmon: Slavery by Another Name. 2012, p. 112.
  7. ^ World Digital Library , accessed December 28, 2013.
  8. ^ A b Slavery in the third millenium - Prisons and Convict Leasing help perpetuate Slavery. accessed on December 29, 2013.
  9. Blackmon: Slavery by Another Name. 2012, p. 93.
  10. ^ Robert Perkinson: Texas Tough: The Rise of America's Prison Empire. Metropolitan Books, 2010, ISBN 978-1-4299-5277-4 , p. 105.
  11. ^ Frederick Douglass : The Convict Lease System. In: The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition. 1893. (Reprint: Univ. Of Illinois Press, Urbana 1999, ISBN 0-252-06784-3 , pp. 23-28)
  12. Blackmon: Slavery by Another Name. 2012, p. 377 and p. 378.
  13. Perry Cotham: Toil, Turmoil & Triumph: A Portrait of the Tennessee Labor Movement . Hillsboro Press, Franklin, Tennessee 1995, ISBN 1-881576-64-7 , pp. 56-80.
  14. Blackmon: Slavery by Another Name. 2012, p. 366.
  15. Blackmon: Slavery by Another Name. 2012, p. 367.
  16. ^ A b Blackmon: Slavery by Another Name. 2012, pp. 363-367.
  17. Blackmon: Slavery by Another Name. 2012, p. 363.