What Was Convict Leasing?

And Was it Just Legalized Slavery?

Five black convicts work on chain gang
Roadside Chain Gang. Susan Wood/Getty Images

Convict leasing was a system of prison labor used mainly in the Southern United States from 1884 until 1928. In convict leasing, state-run prisons profited from contracting with private parties from plantations to corporations to provide them with convict labor. During the term of the contracts, the lessees—rather than the prisons—bore all cost and responsibility for overseeing, housing, feeding, and clothing the prisoners.

Key Takeaways: Convict Leasing

  • Convict leasing was an early system of prison labor that existed from
  • Convict leasing existed mainly in the Southern United States from 1884 until 1928.
  • Convicts were typically leased to operators of plantations, railroads, and coal mines.
  • The lessees assumed all costs of housing, feeding, and overseeing the convicts.
  • The states profited greatly from convict leasing.
  • Most leased convicts were recently-freed African American slaves.
  • Many leased convicts suffered inhumane treatment.
  • Public opinion, economic factors, and politics led to the abolishment of convict leasing.
  • Convict leasing was justified by a loophole in the 13th Amendment.
  • Most historians consider convict leasing to have been a form of state-sanctioned slavery.

While it was first used by Louisiana as early as 1844, contract leasing spread quickly after the emancipation of slaves during the period of American Reconstruction following the end of the Civil War in 1865.

As an example of how the states profited from the process, the percentage of Alabama’s total annual revenue generated from convict leasing increased from 10 percent in 1846 to nearly 73 percent by 1889.

As a result of aggressive and discriminatory enforcement of the numerous “Black Codes” laws passed in the South after the abolishment of slavery, the majority of prisoners leased out by the prisons were black.

The practice of convict leasing extracted a substantial human cost, with death rates among leased convicts running about 10 times higher than death rates among prisoners in non-leasing states. During 1873, for example, 25 percent of all black leased convicts died while serving their sentences.

Despite its profitability to the states, convict leasing was slowly phased out during the late 19th and early 20th centuries largely due to negative public opinion and opposition from the growing labor union movement. While Alabama became the last state to end the official practice of convict leasing in 1928, several of its aspects remain as part of today’s growing prison industrial complex.

The Evolution of Convict Leasing

On top of its human toll, the Civil War left the South’s economy, government, and society in a shambles. Getting little sympathy or aid from the U.S. Congress, the Southern states struggled to raise money to repair or replace damaged infrastructure—including prisons—most of which had been destroyed during the war.

Before the Civil War, the punishment of slaves had been the responsibility of their owners. However, with a general increase in both black and white lawlessness during post-emancipation reconstruction, the lack of available prison space became a significant and costly problem.

Having elevated many petty misdemeanors to felonies requiring jail time, enforcement of the former-slave-targeted Black Code laws greatly increased the number of prisoners needing housing.

As they struggled to build new prisons, some states tried paying private contractors to confine and feed convicts. Soon, however, the states realized that by leasing them out to plantation owners and industrialists, they could turn their prison population from a costly liability into a ready source of revenue. Markets for imprisoned workers soon evolved as private entrepreneurs bought and sold convict labor leases.

The Ills of Convict Leasing Revealed 

Having only a small capital investment in convict workers, employers had little reason to treat them well compared to their regular employees. While they were aware that convict laborers were often subjected to inhumane living and working conditions, the states found convict leasing so profitable that they were hesitant to abandon the practice.

In his book, “Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South,” historian Alex Lichtenstein noted that while some northern states used convict leasing, only in the South was complete control of prisoners turned over to the contractors, and only in the South did the places where convict laborers worked become known as “penitentiaries.”

State officials neither had nor wanted any authority to oversee the treatment of leased prisoners, choosing instead to give the employers complete control over their working and living conditions.

Coal mines and plantations were widely reported to have hidden burial grounds for the bodies of leased prisoners, many of whom had been beaten to death or left to die from work-related injuries. Witnesses told of organized gladiator-style fights to the death between convicts staged for the amusement of their overseers.

In many cases, the court records of convict workers were lost or destroyed, leaving them unable to prove that they had served their sentences or repaid their debts. 

The Abolition of Convict Leasing

While reports of the evils and abuses of convict leasing in newspapers and journals brought increasing public opposition to the system at the start of the 20th century, state politicians fought to maintain it. Unpopular or not, the practice proved extremely profitable for the state governments and the businesses that used convict labor.

Slowly, however, employers began to recognize the business-related disadvantages of forced convict labor, such as minimal productivity and lower quality of work.

While public exposure of the inhumane treatment and suffering of convicts surely played a part, opposition from organized labor, legislative reform, political pressure, and economic realities ultimately spelled the end of convict leasing.

After reaching its peak around 1880, Alabama became the last state to formally abolish state-sponsored convict leasing in 1928.

In reality, however, convict labor had been more transformed than abolished. Still faced with the costs of housing prisoners, the states turned to alternative forms of convict labor, such as the infamous “chain gangs,” groups of convicts forced to work on public sector tasks such as road construction, ditch digging, or farming while chained together.

Practices like chain gangs persisted until December 1941, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Attorney General Francis Biddle’s “” directive clarified federal regulations for handling cases relating to involuntary servitude, slavery and peonage.

Was Convict Leasing Just Slavery?

Many historians and civil rights advocates contended that state officials had exploited a loophole in the to allow convict leasing as a method of continuing slavery in the post-Civil war South.

The , ratified on December 6, 1865, states: “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, nor any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

In establishing convict leasing, however, the southern states applied the Amendment’s qualifying phrase “except as punishment for crime” in the infamous Black Codes laws to allow lengthy prison terms as punishment for a wide variety of minor crimes from vagrancy to simple indebtedness.

Left without the food and housing provided by their former owners, and largely unable to find jobs due to post-war racial discrimination, many newly-freed African-American slaves fell victim to selective enforcement of the Black Codes laws.

In his book, “Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II,” writer Douglas A. Blackmon contends that while it differed in ways from pre-emancipation slavery, convict leasing “was nonetheless slavery” calling it “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.”

During its heyday, defenders of convict leasing contended that its Black convict laborers were actually “better off” than they had been as slaves. They claimed that by being forced to conform to rigid discipline, observe regular working hours, and acquire new skills, the former slaves would lose their “old habits” and finish their prison term better equipped to assimilate into society as freemen.

Sources

  • Alex Lichtenstein, Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South, Verso Press, 1996
  • Mancini, Matthew J. (1996). One Dies, Get Another: Convict Leasing in the American South, 1866-1928. Columbia, SC: Universiry of South Carolina Press
  • Blackmon, Douglas A., Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, (2008) ISBN 978-0-385-50625-0
  • Litwack, Leon F., Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow, (1998) ISBN 0-394-52778-X