|Author(s):||Mancini, Matthew J.|
Published by EH.NET (October 1999)
Matthew J. Mancini, One Dies, Get Another: Convict Leasing in the American
South, 1866-1928. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996. xi
+283 pp. $34.95, (hardbound). ISBN: 1-57003-083-9.
Reviewed for EH.NET by Garland Brinkley, Department of Economics, School of
Public Health, University of California-Berkeley.
Several economic historians have asserted that African-Americans were better
off in the aftermath of the Civil War. Ransom and Sutch’s (1977)
classic leisure for labor trade-off, for example, suggests that freedmen worked
and fewer days and that fewer members of the family spent time in the fields
after the Civil War with the resultant higher utility (but lower income). What
are noticeably absent from previous histories of the South, was the
continuation of slavery under
the even more brutal conditions driven by economic incentives. While most
believe that the thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery 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 thirteenth 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, or
any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Matthew Mancini documents the
widespread nature of post-civil war slavery in every state that composed the
Confederacy except Virginia. His book is divided into three parts: part 1
addresses the convergence of
forces (economic, racial, and political) that began the convict labor system
and perpetuated the convict labor system; part 2 details the particular
manifestation of the convict labor system in each southern state; and, part 3
explains the demise of the
system that maintained African-Americans in slavery for a half century after
the surrender by Lee at Appomattox.
This book details the darker side of our discipline when economic
incentives prevail over simple humanity. Economically, when an asset is
replaceable at no cost, money spent upon maintenance costs will lower profits.
When the assets are human beings, duly convicted of (in many cases) racially
motivated trumped up charges and obtained at low cost and through political
machinations, the incentive
is to work them as hard as possible and to spend little on food, shelter,
clothing, medical care,
etc., in order to maximize profits.
Georgia practiced the most undiluted and typical form of convict leasing of any
of the southern states. However,
political favoritism determined the issuance and bid price of convict leasing
contracts and political pressures ensured no interference in the working and
living conditions of the convicts. Average prison sentences lengthened
dramatically during this period.
Convicts were invariably leased to prominent and wealthy Georgian families who
worked them on railroads and in coal mining. Even though reformers exposed the
brutalities of the system in Georgia, the demise of convict labor in Georgia
came about due to
political reform and market forces when the bids that contractors had to pay
for convict labor finally became equal to free wage rates.
Alabama used the convict labor system as an enormously successful revenue
generating mechanism. Not only did convict leasing
last longer in Alabama than in any other southern state, but it was also
notable due to the extreme quantity of convicts in the system. Convict leasing
began in Alabama in 1846 and lasted until July 1, 1928 when Herbert Hoover was
vying for the White
House. In 1883, 10 percent of Alabama’s total revenue was derived form convict
leasing while in 1898, 73 percent of total revenue came from this same source.
Death rates among leased convicts were approximately ten times the death rates
of prisoners in
In 1873, for example, 25 percent of all black leased convicts died.
Possibly the greatest impetus to the continuance of convict labor in Alabama
was to depress the union movement.
Arkansas was notorious for the brutality of its convict leasing system
resulting from the lack of official monitoring of convict laborers.
Economically different from other southern states, Arkansas actually paid
companies to work their prisoners for much of the time the system was in place.
Arkansas’ system of
convict leasing was also quite political in terms of issuance of contracts and
oversight or lack of oversight of convicts. No state official was empowered to
oversee the plight of the prisoners and businesses had complete autonomy in the
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.
Both Mississippi and Louisiana are extremely similar in terms of lack of
oversight of their convict leasing population, almost exclusive use of convict
leasing on agricultural plantations, and
failure of the state to recoup any revenue from the system. Mississippi was
noted as having epidemic death rates without an epidemic. Louisiana
institutions seemed to be unable to distinguish between the terms ‘slave,’
‘Negro,’ ‘convict,’ and
‘farm work’. The lessees generally did not pay the full amount of the contract
price to the state and usually paid nothing. Convicts were generally among the
black population. For example, in Louisiana, a black social group consisting of
thirty-eight members were convicted
in a mock trial and sent to prison for contract labor.
Tennessee convict leasing lasted from 1871 to 1896 and was bitterly opposed by
free miners from the beginning. The conflict between the huge Tennessee Coal,
Iron, and Railway Company (TCI) and
mining population was characterized by violence. This conflict resulted from
the wage rate of the miners falling from $1.25 per ton of coal before convict
leasing to just
$0.50 wherever convict leasing was implemented. TCI admitted that the main
reason it used
convict labor was to break strikes and undermine union formation.
Texas, Florida, and the Carolinas each had their own unique features and
economic issues with contract leasing of convicts. However, all were
economically motivated and all were brutal,
life shortening, and profitable for the lessees. Rarely did the state actually
receive revenue but generally they did not experience a drain on the treasury.
Texas convicts were concentrated mostly in sugar plantations, Florida’s and the
convicts were almost exclusively involved in railway building. Later in the
century, the Carolinas shifted into state farms and county roads and out of
railway building. Unlike the other southern states, only half of Texas inmates
were black. However, the
African-American convicts went to the sugar plantations while the white and
Latino population were sent to less harsh and hazardous work.
The convict labor leasing system came about mostly after the Civil War and in
earnest after reconstruction due to the
economic realities. 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
or, 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 is far different. In every state, the evils of convict labor and
abuses were in newspapers and journals within two years of implementation and
were generally repeated during every election cycle. Mostly due to political
reform, the process
whereby convicts were obtained became market oriented.
As a result, the costs to businesses rose until convict labor was comparable to
free labor. Monopoly profits derived from rent
seeking behavior no longer accrued to private firms ending the economic
incentives of maintaining convict leasing. The convict leasing system was not
abolished but merely transformed. Prisoners who labored for private companies
and businesses increasing their profits now labored for the public sector. The
chain gang replaced
plantation labor. There was in truth little change in the lives of convicts
themselves since life was still short and brutal but rather change occurred in
the flow and distribution of
money that spelled an end to the forced labor of postbellum “slaves.”
This book is necessary for any serious student of the history of the postbellum
South or any advocate of unfettered capitalism. The lessons to be drawn from
this study can be applied to many of the policies proposed by the IMF or the
World Bank fostered upon
third world nations. While the circumstances surrounding the convict labor
system in the aftermath of the Civil War can be considered unique, economic
incentives and economic realities are unchanging and repeats of convict labor
leasing are widespread today.
Garland Brinkley is the author of “The Decline in Southern Agricultural Output,
1860-1880″ Journal of Economic History, Vol. 57, No. 1 (Mar.
|Subject(s):||Labor and Employment History|
|Geographic Area(s):||North America|
|Time Period(s):||20th Century: Pre WWII|