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Convict Leasing


Convict leasing refers to a form of punishment in the southern states of the USA, where the convicted could be leased to companies and the other homeowners for work. The most prevalent were the iron and coal companies like the Tennessee Coal and Iron Corporation. The system started in the state of Louisiana and spread across the South. One of the catalyzing factors to this approach of punishment was the end of slave labor after the American Civil War. The land owners, who relied on slaves too much, had no option but to seek the aid of the convicts. This paper analyzes the origins and the state of Georgia`s record of convict leasing and discusses the reasons why the convict leasing started.

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Origins of the Convict Leasing System in the Southern States of the USA

Convict leasing in America started between 1865 and 1977. That period marked the end of the American Civil War (Douglas). Many companies and home owners were on the losing side, because they relied on slavery labor too much; one of the war results was the emancipation of slaves. Therefore, such a consequence became unpleasant for corporation owners, since they had to put more effort to look for an alternative means of labor. The system arose at the time when many black Americans in the South ruled the legislatures (Douglas). They devised codes which they referred to as the black codes to restrict the free movement of blacks. The blacks demanded that there was need for them to work together with the whites and not being treated as slaves. As a result of the codes, the black people who engaged in criminal activities were to be arrested and imprisoned. The states then used the imprisoned people to lease them to farms, plantations, and corporations for their benefits (Douglas).

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Convict leasing is treated as another form of slavery perpetrated against the imprisoned people. One unfortunate move is that the idea behind convict leasing was collaboration of both the black and the white legislatures for the benefit of states as well as private planters’ and companies. The move amounted to the torture from prisoners` points of view was that the state authorities sought minor mistakes to arrest the black people, incarcerate them, and earn money from their labor. It is also unfortunate that even after the American Civil War, the drafters of the constitution of America had to look for a tricky way of making the blacks become slaves again. Under the Thirteenth Amendment of the 1865 American Constitution, slavery was banned but, at the same time, convict leasing was still allowed.

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The main reason why the use of the convict leasing system of punishing criminals became so widespread is due to the fact that the states were interested in enriching themselves out of the prisoners by exploiting them through making leases with the private business owners and the private land owners. The system gained momentum due to the reduction in the number of slave laborers brought about by the American Civil war. The majority of corporations, which were very much enticed by the business, were the ones involved in iron and coal mining as well as in the railway construction.

Affected People and the Abuses of the System

As a result of the system, the most affected people were the native black people who were initially targeted. The state authorities used all means to ensure that the prisons were flooded with the black people, because they thought that the blacks were more energetic in performing manual labor (Mendieta). The black people had already suffered the evils of slavery; however, its end ushered in another era of suffering through convict leasing. One of the abuses of the system was that the prisoners were never given any pay as all the money was channeled to the state. The system created a very critical public image that led to its abolishment in the 20th century. Moreover, using prisoners as slaves on private people's farms with the consent of the state amounts to torture and inhuman treatment, which is against the principles of the United Nations.

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The case of Martin Tabert in general highlights the abuses that the black people had to undergo to benefit their states. Tabbert had been found on a train without a ticket, and when the police arrested him, they charged him with vagrancy. He was later found guilty and ordered to pay a fine of twenty-five dollars. Tabert, a very young man, who did not have the ability to pay, had to seek the assistance of his parents in paying the fine. The parents eventually sent the twenty-five dollars and another extra twenty-five dollars to have the boy return home. However, Tabert never saw that money as it was taken by the authorities who denied receipt. As a result of the incident, Tarbert was deemed not to have paid the fine and was therefore sent to a company known as the Putnam Lumber to serve his convict leasing term. During that period, the whipping master flogged him until the poor boy died (Mendieta). The story appeared all over the USA, for instance, the New York Times published the story in 1924.

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One of the most traumatizing issues was the fact that the black convicts were taken to work on the farms without food and water. If these necessities of life were provided, then the supply was in really small quantities. The clothing was also improper, because they wore only small pieces of clothes that hung on their backs. The environment around the prisoners, who were forced to work, seemed so oppressive that their life became very unbearable. The harshness of the swampy environment where they worked, the mountains they had to dig for the railway to pass and the harsh cotton environment, really made the work an abuse on the prisoners (Mendieta). The prisoners always spent much of their time on the chain where their hands got tied to their fellow prisoners. After work, the convict leases were escorted to their small cages without good ventilation where they spent their nights with very minimal amount of food (Mendieta).

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Due to the poor working condition of the farms, the convicts never took more than four years before dying. They contracted numerous diseases in the course of their work with very minimal attention from their authorities. The slaves were denied their right to medical health care; instead, they were tortured while still being forced to work. One worst experience was the fact that, despite the hard labor that the convicts had to undergo, there was a whipping master who ensured that the convicts on the farm were well flogged (Mendieta). The torture led to health deterioration of the prisoners, thus leading to their deaths.

The History of the Convict Leasing System in the State of Alabama

The state of Alabama was the first state in America to introduce the convict lease system. The system became so widespread in Alabama as from 1875 and 1928. The period represented the time in which the Civil War took place in America (Curtin). The State of Alabama developed this program to earn money for itself. Just like many other states from the South, Alabama was financially poor, and it wanted to look for an activity that could become very beneficial. In 1898, for example, convict leasing comprised 73 percent of the total revenue of the State (Curtin). Through the system, the companies could pay a fee to the State of Alabama in exchange for labor from the convicts. Most of the companies that approached the State of Alabama were those dealing with the coal mines. Upon the commencement of the prisoners’ sentences, they were ferried to the respective company sites where they had to stay until the end of the sentence. For those who due to various reasons were unable to work, they were taken to a place known as Wetumpka in the County of Elmore (Curtin). Women were part of the convicts taken to Wetumpka site too where there were relatively few people.

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In Alabama, before the Civil War began, prisoners were kept in custody under a prison warden. The convict leasing program started as a result of the change in the socio-economic and political status of the State of Alabama (Mendieta). The state had, therefore, to put prisoners to good use in order to gain revenue. It introduced a convict leasing program where those who committed misdemeanors were taken to work in factories, while those who committed felonies worked on the railway lines, which led to the death of prisoners (Curtin). At that point, the companies were never charged anything until a financial crisis hit the State of Alabama in 1875. John Bass devised a policy of leasing out prisoners at a cost. He created several classes of prisoners according to their ability with whom the companies paid according to the classes (Curtin).

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In conclusion, the convict leasing system adopted in the southern states of the USA served as another form of slavery after its eradication in 1877 immediately after the end of the American Civil War. The system targeted the black Americans who underwent torture from the authorities. The first state to introduce the system was the state of Alabama, and the practice later circulated to the other states in the USA.

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