What is convict leasing?

Man on mule in a sugar cane field, Convict Leasing Photograph 14

Man on a mule in a sugar cane field.

Prisoners on a construction site, Convict Leasing Photograph 13

Prisoners on a construction site.

Unloading sugar cane, Convict Leasing Photograph 12

Unloading sugar cane.

After the Civil War, Southern plantation owners and businessmen lost the low-cost labor force of slaves, around which they had built an economy. The Emancipation Proclamation eliminated the federal government’s tolerance of slavery and forced former slaveholders to look elsewhere for solutions. Businessmen and state governments in Southern states soon realized that these protections did not apply to African Americans who had been convicted of crimes and could subsequently receive a prison sentence. A system was developed in which an individual, usually an African American male, would be convicted of a crime and sentenced to labor. A business owner would then lease the labor of the convict from the state and regain access to the low-cost, unregulated labor market once provided by slavery. Demand for convict lessees quickly exceeded the supply of lawbreakers. To meet the demand for labor, African Americans were arrested for minor crimes such as vagrancy or walking alongside railroad tracks, but given felony-level sentences. The laws used for these purposes became known as the Pig Laws (named after the felony of stealing a farm animal). They were the precursor to the Jim Crow laws that would dominate the Southern legal system until the middle of the 20th century.

Labor conditions for convict lessees were often similar to those faced by slaves. The state took a negligent role in ensuring that convicts were treated appropriately and numerous African Americans died due to inhumane working and health conditions. The system was very profitable for both the government and the businesses that employed convicts, as the government could avoid most of the costs of maintaining a prisoner and the business could hire labor at a fraction of the appropriate cost. Eventually as the 20th Century progressed, negative publicity about the treatment of convicts became more prevalent. Texas officially abolished its convict leasing system in 1910, though convict labor has continued in some form up to the present day. Alabama, the last state to abolish its convict leasing program, did so in 1928.

What is convict leasing?