Barbarism and Progress: The Story of Convict Labor

Sweatshop labor is back with a vengeance. It ranges across broad stretches of the American economy and around the world. Penitentiaries have become a niche market for such work. Prison privatizers—the Corrections Corporation of America, the GEO Group, and G4S Secure Solutions (formerly Wackenhut)—sell inmate labor at subminimum wages to Fortune 500 corporations like Chevron, Bank of America, AT&T, and IBM. These companies can, in most states, lease factories in prisons or lease prisoners to work on the outside. Incarcerated men and women make office furniture; work in call centers; fabricate body armor; take hotel reservations; manufacture textiles, shoes, clothing, dental aides, and metal equipment; and work in slaughter houses, getting paid somewhere between ninety-three cents and $4.73 per day.

Rarely could you find workers so pliable, easy to control, stripped of political rights, subject to martial discipline . . . unless you traveled back in time to the nineteenth century, when convict labor was commonplace throughout the nation. Indeed, a sentence of “confinement at hard labor” comprised the core of the penal system.

Penal servitude may strike us as a barbaric throwback to pre-modern medievalism. But on the contrary, from its first appearance in this country, and still today, it has been associated with modern capitalist industry and large-scale agriculture. And that is only one of several misconceptions about this peculiar institution. Infamous for the brutality with which prison laborers were once treated, indelibly inscribed in popular memory with images of the black chain gang in the South, most assume it was a Southern inspiration. But penal servitude—the leasing out of prisoners, in effect the sale of their labor power by government to private enterprise, either within prison walls or in outside workshops, factories, and fields—was originally known as a “Yankee invention.” First installed at Auburn prison in New York in the 1820s, the system spread widely and quickly throughout the North, the Midwest, and later the West. It developed alongside state-run prison workshops which produced goods for the public sector and sometimes the open market. A few Southern states also used it. Prisoners there, as elsewhere, were mainly white men since the slave masters had a free hand to deal with the “infractions” of their chattel. The reason the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery, made an exception for penal servitude is precisely because it had long since become the dominant form of punishment throughout the free states. First installed at Auburn prison in New York in the 1820s, [penal servitude] spread widely and quickly throughout the North, the Midwest, and the West.

Before the Civil War, prisoners were employed at an enormous range of tasks, from rope- and wagon-making to carpet, hat, and clothing manufacturing (where female prisoners were sometimes put to work), as well as coal mining, carpentry, barrel-making, shoe production, and house-building; even rifles were made by felons. After the war, the convict-lease system metamorphosed. In the South, it became ubiquitous, one of several methods—including the black codes, debt peonage, the crop-lien system, lifetime labor contracts, and vigilante terror—used to control and fix in place the newly emancipated slave. It might be assumed that the convict-lease system was the brainchild of the “Redeemer” governments that overthrew the Radical Republican regimes that ran the defeated Confederacy during Reconstruction. That was sometimes, but not always, the case. In Georgia, for instance, the Radical Republican state government took the initiative soon after the war ended. And this was because the convict-lease system, no matter where in Dixie it was introduced and by whom, was tied to the modernizing sectors of the post-bellum economy.

So convicts were leased to major coal mining, iron forging, steel-making and railroad companies, including Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company (TCI), a major producer all over the South. More than a quarter of the coal coming out of the rich fields outside Birmingham, Alabama was mined by prisoners. By the turn of the century, many major national coal and iron corporations relied heavily on prison laborers. So, too, did all the main extractive industries of the South. Turpentine and lumber camps deep in the fetid swamps and forest vastness of Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana worked their convicts till they dropped dead of overwork or disease or both. The region’s plantation monocultures in cotton and sugar made regular use of imprisoned former slaves, including women.

Because it tended to grant absolute authority to private commercial interests and because its racial make-up in the post-slavery era was overwhelmingly African-American, the South’s convict-lease system was distinctive. Its caste nature is not only impossible to forget, but should remind us of the unbalanced racial profile of America’s bloated prison population today. Moreover, this totalitarian control invited appalling brutalities: whippings, water torture, isolation in “dark cells,” dehydration, starvation, ice baths, shackling with metal spurs riveted to the feet, and “tricing” (stringing up refractory prisoners by the thumbs with fish line attached to overhead pulleys lifting the toes off the ground, thereby inflicting excruciating pain) for any sign of resistance. Work lasted at  least from sunup to sundown past the point of exhaustion. Death came often enough in unmarked graves by the side of the road or by incineration in coke ovens.

The Southern system also stood out because of the degree of intimate collusion between industrial, commercial, and agricultural enterprises and the law enforcement system. Sheriffs, local justices of the peace, state police, judges, and state governments conspired to keep the convict lease business humming. Indeed, local law officers depended on the leasing system for a substantial part of their income (they pocketed the fines and fees associated with these “convictions”). The region was so capital-starved that renting out convicts became a chief way to fund prison building and maintenance. So there was every incentive to concoct charges or send people to jail for trivial offenses.

All of this was peculiar to the convict-lease system in the South and made it easy to see it as uniquely antediluvian. However, it was really only different in degree from prevailing practice everywhere. Up North and throughout the rest of the country, the essentials were the same: the sale of prison labor power to private interests, corporal punishment, and the absence of all rights including civil liberties, the suffrage, and the right to protest and organize.

In the North, where 80 percent of the nation’s prison laborers were located, accounting for over $35 billion (in current dollars) of output, during the “long Depression” (lasting from the mid-1870s through the mid-1890s) the system was reconfigured to meet the needs of modern industry and internecine competition to depress labor costs. Convict labor was increasingly leased out only to a handful of major manufacturers in each state—textile mills, oven manufacturers, mining operations, hat and shoe factories—which installed the kind of mass production methods then becoming the standard in much of American industry. Lessees of convicts enjoyed authority to dispose of their rented labor power as they saw fit. Workers were compelled to labor in total silence; even hand gestures or eye contact were prohibited. Outside the South, supervision of prison labor was ostensibly a shared task between employers and prison authorities, but as a matter of practice the private enterprise foremen called the shots.

The use of penal institutions as an auxiliary arm of capitalist industry and commerce sparked sharp opposition. Protests against convict labor began in the antebellum years when mechanics societies, labor-oriented political parties, journeymen unions, and other groups considered the system an insult to the moral codes of egalitarian republicanism nurtured by the American Revolution. It was bad enough for self-reliant craftsmen to see their own livelihoods and standards of living put in jeopardy by the advent of “free” wage labor. It was worse to watch the use of unfree, miserably paid prison labor aggravate that dilemma. It was worse still to see employers resort to that captive population to combat attempts by aggrieved workers to

organize and defend themselves. On the eve of the Civil War, for example, a Bronx iron-molding contractor locked out his unionized workers and then moved his operation to Sing Sing penitentiary, where a laborer cost forty cents, $2.60 less than the going day rate. Worst of all was to perceive in this debased form of work a premonition of a more universal proletarian future of degradation and helplessness. The workingman’s movement of the Jacksonian era was deeply alarmed by the prospect of “wage slavery,” a condition inimical to their sense of themselves as citizens in a republic of independent producers. Prison labor was a sub-species of that dreaded “slavery,” a caricature of it perhaps, but nonetheless intolerable to a movement as much about emancipation as unionization.

Convict labor served as a target for emancipatory desires all the way through the Gilded Age. Above and below the Mason Dixon line protest rallies, petition campaigns, legislative investigations, Greenback-Labor and Populist political platforms, union strikes and boycotts by farm organizations like the Farmers’ Alliance and the Grange movement cried out for the abolition of the convict-lease system or at least for its rigorous regulation. During the Coal Creek Wars in eastern Tennessee in the early 1890s, TCI tried using prisoners to break a miners’ strike. Strikers and their allies launched guerilla attacks on the prisoner stockade, shipped the convicts back to Knoxville and when the governor shipped them back to Bricerville, the workers released them into the surrounding hills and countryside. Gun battles followed. The newly created American Federation of Labor denounced convict leasing as “contract slavery.” In Chicago the construction unions refused to work with materials made by prisoners. In addition, prisoners’ rebellions became ever more common, in the North particularly, where many prisoners turned out to be Civil War veterans and dispossessed working people who already knew something about fighting for freedom and fighting back. Major penitentiaries like Sing Sing in New York became sites of repeated riots and strikes.

The movement to abolish convict leasing embraced not only workers’ organizations, sympathetic rural insurgents, and prisoners, but also widening circles of middle-class reformers. By the latter part of the nineteenth century, penal servitude was on its way to extinction in state after state. New York, where it was born and where the “industry” was the largest, killed it by the late 1880s. Private leasing continued elsewhere in the North but under increasingly restrictive conditions. By World War II it was virtually extinct (although government-run prison workshops continued as they always had).

Even in the South it was at least officially over by the turn of the century in Tennessee, Louisiana, Georgia, and Mississippi. Higher political calculations were at work in these states. Established elites there sought successfully to break the interracial alliances that had formed over abolishing convict leasing (and briefly within the Southern Populist movement generally), by abolishing the hated system themselves. Often enough, however, it came to end in name only.

What replaced it in the South was the state-run chain gang (although some Southern states continued private leasing well into the 1920s). It performed a collateral purpose so far as the economic modernization of the region was concerned. Inmates were set to work building roads and on other infrastructural projects vital to the exfoliation of a mature market economy and so to the continuing process of capital accumulation. In the North the system of “hard labor” was replaced by the system of “hard time,” that numbing, brutalizing idleness where masses of people extruded from the mainstream economy pooled in mass penal colonies. The historic link between labor, punishment, and economic development was severed . . . until now.