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One Dies, Get Another: Convict Leasing in the American South, 1866-1928

Author(s):Mancini, Matthew J.
Reviewer(s):Brinkley, Garland

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

fewer hours

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

non-lease states.

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

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.

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