Convict leasing was a system of penal labour instituted in the American South after the emancipation of slaves by the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1865. Convict leasing involved leasing out prisoners to private companies that paid the state a fee. The convicts worked for the companies during the day (convicts were usually not paid) outside the prison and returned to their cells at night. Criminologist Thorsten Sellin, in his book Slavery and the Penal System, says that the sole aim of convict leasing “was financial profit to the lessees who exploited the labor of the prisoners to the fullest, and to the government which sold the convicts to the lessees.”
Use of the Convict Leasing System in the United States can be traced to the Reconstruction Period (1865–1876), after the end of the Civil War. Farmers and businessmen needed to find replacements for the labor force once their slaves had been freed. On May 11, 1868, Thomas Rugor, Georgia's provisional governor, issued a convict lease for 100 African American prisoners to William Fort for work on the Georgia and Alabama Railroad as a solution to the labor shortage problem.
The Convict Lease System quickly became widespread and was used to supply labor in railroad, mining, farming, and logging operations. Offenders who were leased out to private enterprises often suffered neglect, abuse, and brutality. Convict leasing began in Texas by 1883 and was abolished in 1910.
Although opposition to the system was growing, state politicians resisted calls for its elimination. In states where the convict lease system was used, revenues from the program contributed to 372% of the costs of prison administration. The practice was extremely profitable for the government, not to mention those business-owners who utilized convict labor. However, there were other built-in problems with convict leasing and over all employers became more aware of the disadvantages.
|“||The Convict Lease System and Lynch Law are twin infamies which flourish hand in hand in many of the United States. They are the two great outgrowths and results of the class legislation under which our people suffer to-day.||”|
One result of this practice was the shift in prison populations to predominately African-American following the war. Data for Tennessee prisons demonstrates this change. African-Americans represented only 33 percent of the population at the main prison in Nashville as of October 1, 1865, but by November 29, 1867, the percentage had increased to 58.3. By 1869 it had increased to 64 percent and it reached an all-time high of 67 percent between 1877 and 1879. Prison populations also increased. In Georgia there was a tenfold increase in prison populations during a four-decade period (1868–1908); in North Carolina the prison population increased from 121 in 1870 to 1,302 in 1890; in Florida the population went from 125 in 1881 to 1,071 in 1904; in Mississippi the population quadrupled between 1871 and 1879; in Alabama it went from 374 in 1869 to 1,878 in 1903 and to 2,453 in 1919.
The convict lease system was slowly phased out in the early 20th century, with Alabama being the last state to outlaw the practice in 1928. While some believe the demise of the system can be attributed to exposure of the inhumane treatment afforded the convicts, others point towards causes ranging from comprehensive legislative reform packages to political retribution or payback.Though, the convict lease system, as such, disappeared, yet other forms of convict labor continued (and still exist today) in various forms. These other systems included plantations, industrial prisons, and the famous “chain gang.”