Convict Labor in America

Against the Current, No. 72, January/February 1998

Paul Ortiz

Alex Lichtenstein, Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South (London and New York: Verso, 1996).

Matthew J. Mancini, One Dies, Get Another: Convict Leasing in the American South, 1866-1928 (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1996).

David M. Oshinsky ‘Worse than Slavery’: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice (New York: The Free Press, 1996).

W.E.B. DU BOIS said, in 1935: “The lawlessness in the South since the Civil War, has varied in its phases. First, it was that kind of disregard for law which follows all war. Then, it became a labor war, an attempt on the part of impoverished capitalists and landholders to force laborers to work on the capitalists’ own terms.”(1) The convict labor system was a brutal theater of this labor war; a system that arose, in part, from the three-way struggle between northern capitalists, southern employers, and African American workers over the fruits of emancipation.

Looking back on some seventy years of forced labor that survived the reputed end of slavery in America, Du Bois ruefully noted that “The whole criminal system came to be used as a method of keeping Negroes at work and intimidating them…Above all, crime was used in the South as a source of income for the state.”

In Twice the Work of Free Labor, Alex Lichtenstein quotes one critic of Georgia’s penal system in 1904 who noted that “‘there is such a demand down in South Georgia for turpentine hands and sawmill hands’ that blacks ‘are given the full extent of the law on weakest evidence,’ so that turpentine operators could ‘buy them for their labor’ in court.”

The new slavery, driven by the need to generate private profits and state revenue, produced barbaric working conditions. Torture was widespread. Convict’s live bodies were used for grisly medical experiments while their corpses became fair game for medical students eager to gain experience in the fine arts of dissection.

Nor was the convict lease or its successor, the state-controlled chain gang, merely a southern phenomenon. No: Convict labor, like antebellum slavery, was an American way of life, a cultural practice that tied northern capitalists, plantation owners, university-trained social reformers, federal officials and advocates of “good roads” together in a powerful alliance, whose vampire-like existence was sketched out by Du Bois in Black Reconstruction and C. Vann Woodward in Origins of the New South.

“From its beginnings in Mississippi in the late 1860s until its abolition in Alabama in the late 1920s,” notes David Oshinsky in Worse than Slavery, “convict leasing would serve to undermine legal equality, harden racial stereotypes, spur industrial development, intimidate free workers, and breed open contempt for the law. It would turn a few men into millionaires and crush ordinary lives.”

These books are part of an exciting renaissance of convict labor studies that comes at an enormously critical moment in the history of prison “reform.”(2) Internationally, the growth of prison labor is gaining momentum and support daily. It is claimed for example, that China, aided by direct foreign investment, employs between ten to twenty million prisoners in its enormously profitable commercial export enterprises.(3)

The United States, in the throes of a vicious social war against the poor, is poised on the brink of dismantling New Deal legislative prohibitions–such as the Ashurst-Sumnor Act–which made the interstate transport of prison-made goods a felony offense. Today’s convict laborers package items like Microsoft Windows 95 and Starbucks Coffee. They build cars, make waterbeds, assemble circuit boards for nuclear power plants and are deployed to help break strikes.(4)

In fact, labor journals are reporting that employers in Wisconsin and Texas are beginning to close factories that employ free labor only to reopen with convict workforces shortly thereafter.(5) Convict labor has again become an issue that we on the left must energetically address.

The image of “convicted criminals” working for little or no wages satisfies the public’s lust for revenge and the private sector’s desire to get something for nothing. “Chain gangs are a useful prison management tool,” noted Florida State Senator Charlie Crist in 1996. “Inmates work all day, so they are tired at the end of the day. This eliminates the need for recreation as a management tool during the day.”(6) “No insurance premiums to pay, no employee taxes or medical benefits for inmate workers. And few marketing expenses,” raves Forbes.(7)

Today’s new convict labor movement is poised to replace genuine educational and vocational rehabilitation programs that actually do benefit inmates and reduce crime in society.(8) Former Alabama State Prison Commissioner Ron Jones stated that “It became real humane on my part to put these inmates out there in leg irons because they have virtually no chance of escaping. Therefore, they’re not going to get shot.”(9)

Alex Lichtenstein’s Twice the Work of Free Labor seeks to place the institution of convict labor at the intersection of post-Civil War class relations, industrial capitalism, and the U.S. South’s road to modernization. Lichtenstein argues that the traditional image of the chain gang at work on the prison plantation must be broadened to encompass the role that predominantly African American convict laborers played in building the South’s industrial infrastructure.

While Twice the Work focuses on Georgia, Lichtenstein’s concern with the role that bound workers played in the development of the southern Appalachian mineral range in Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee gives his work wider significance.

Each of these states leased their convicts to private companies trying to establish extractive industry in the South. In turn, these companies used convicts’ labor to develop vertically-integrated operations that produced fuel to power blast furnaces and rolling mills, while simultaneously crushing the region’s nascent labor movement.

Alex Lichtenstein firmly rejects the idea that “racialist” institutions such as segregation or convict labor were the embodiment of an anti-modern South. “Far from representing a lag in southern modernity,” writes Lichtenstein, “convict labor was a central component in the region’s modernization.” He notes that while “Over four hundred convicts perished during the first twelve years of leasing in Georgia,” these workers made bricks, mined coal, graded railroads and later built the highways that made possible Georgia’s recovery from the devastation of the Civil War.

Lichtenstein observes that the New South’s amazingly successful “good roads” program that reconnected agricultural hinterlands with commercial trading centers, a kind of vast public works program, was based on the chain gang and the whip. “Thus, the most ambitious pre-New Deal effort to nationalize and modernize the isolated rural South,” notes the author in a previous piece, “depended on one of the region’s most viciously racist local institutions.”(10)

What accounts for the emergence of convict labor in the late 19th century New South?  Lichtenstein argues that would-be boosters trying to develop the region’s resources, transportation networks and internal markets faced an insurmountable barrier that blocked their schemes of economic development: the southern working class.

African Americans defined the meaning of freedom in terms of self-sufficiency and independence from white managerial control along with the positive ethic of family farm ownership. For Black workers–and for most of their white counterparts as well–wage work was a temporary expedient that supplemented self-sufficiency.

Yet even for those who could not afford a homestead, labor mobility was still treasured as a linchpin of democracy: “For ex-slaves and their children,” Lichtenstein notes, “the right to leave on employer for another was second only to the desire to work for one’s self as freedom’s most precious gift.”

Southern industrialists chafed at the tendencies of freedpeople as well as white workers to combine wage labor with subsistence farming. Railroad bosses, trying to build regional rail networks, went haywire when road crews downed their tools and went “back to the farm” when construction crossed over into the next county. “In harmony with the planters,” Lichtenstein notes, “the single most common complaint voiced by southern industrialists was their inability to command a reliable, predictable labor force.”

Negotiation was out of the question: Industrialists as well as plantation owners bitterly opposed the idea of collective bargaining with workers. “‘You take the average built free man and put him on the public roads and work him hard ten hours a day, and he will strike for higher wages,’ claimed William L. Spoon, a road engineer. ‘The convict,’ on the other hand, ‘is forced to do regular work, and that regular work results in the upbuilding of the convict, the upbuilding of the public roads, and the upbuilding of the state.'”

Convict labor had much to offer both “Bourbon” planters as well as the rising industrial bourgeoisie of the New South. “For planters denied recourse to the slave whip,” observes Lichtenstein, “the chain gang served as an important element of rural labor discipline with which to control ‘their’ sharecroppers.”

State-supported bound labor also delivered a “flexible” labor force to plantation owners or mine magnates during harvest seasons or periods of labor shortages. Birmingham, Alabama coal executives cried: “how [is] the operator and producer(going to know how much coal or coke he is going to produce in the year or in the month if some of the miners work 10 days, some 15, some 12, and some 20 days in the month?” Thanks to the new slave labor, employers could count on relatively fixed labor costs, longer hours, and more days of toil from their charges.

Lichtenstein notes that in most years, convict miners in Georgia worked an average of fifty to sixty days longer per year than their free counterparts in West Virginia. During labor conflicts, this gap widened. “Thus,” Lichtenstein asserts, “the convict lease was a method of labor ‘recruitment’ and control ideally suited to the ‘Bourbon’ political coalition forged by planters and New South industrialists in post-Reconstruction Georgia.”

In Worse than Slavery, David Oshinsky writes about a world of forced toil with which we are more familiar: the great agricultural slave labor camp of Parchman Farm in the Mississippi Delta. Actually, Oshinsky’s canvass is much wider than Parchman itself. Indeed, he seeks to provide the reader with a historical explanation for the rise of convict labor that stretches back into the social history of antebellum Mississippi.

The imposition of white supremacy and the end of Reconstruction in 1876 ushered in the convict labor system in Mississippi. “Redeemer” legislators–the new fiscally-conservative lords of a one-party state–were not particularly interested in reforming prisoners. Oshinsky notes that “They knew that white taxpayers would never fund an expensive penitentiary whatever their worries about crime.”

Like their counterparts in Georgia, “They believed that convicts could provide at least a partial solution to the needs of Mississippi’s labor-starved employers. And they assumed that the profits generated by leasing would quiet any moral rumblings about the treatment of black criminals, who were, after all, the dregs of an ‘inferior’ race.”

First came the infamous “Pig Law,” which made the theft of any farm animal or commodity worth more than ten dollars a “grand larceny” offense punishable by up to five years of prison. Incarceration rates skyrocketed. Next came the Leasing Act which, Oshinsky notes, was aimed directly against African Americans. Thanks to the injustices of segregation and a white-controlled justice system, white Mississippians rarely toiled as convict laborers. Instead, in the era before Parchman was built, they were safely segregated into the state penitentiary at Jackson.

White supremacy in Mississippi meant all-white juries. Furthermore, “Blacks were rarely represented by counsel, and their testimony was often restricted to cases in which whites were not directly involved.” Court fees were exorbitant and non-payment–guilty or not–meant a prison term. Oshinsky thus makes clear the connections between political disenfranchisement, the onset of segregation, and the system of criminal “justice” for African Americans.

David Oshinsky reminds us, to a much greater extent than Lichtenstein or Mancini, that the victims of the lease and the slave labor camps of Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida and elsewhere had their own cultural traditions manifested in part by the rich array of work songs, poems and ballads that were occasionally recorded by observers.

Inmates like Hudie Ledbetter, “Bukka” White and Eddie “Son” House wrote towering blues ballads and uniquely American songs like “Take This Hammer,” “Midnight Special,” and “Parchman Blues.” Just as importantly, Oshinsky chronicles the prison work songs and poems that Parchman’s female African American prisoners sang in order to get themselves and each other through the day.

In One Dies, Get Another, Matthew J. Mancini provides a comparative analysis of the rise and fall of convict leasing in the South. Of the three books, his provides the best overall description of the actual camp conditions that convicts endured.

It is easy to forget that convict labor camps in the late 19th century were extremely mobile. “Sometimes these camps were picked up and moved several times a year,” remarks the author. “A few literally moved on wheels(Their chief function was to house a labor force at the margins of the state’s populated areas, but at important points of its economy–its forests, farms, and nascent railroad lines.”

This remarkable mobility was accomplished at the cost of the convict’s health and well being. Mancini quotes one particularly chilling contemporary account of the caged cattle cars that housed slave laborers: “‘These crowded cages, constructed with two layers of bunks so that it was impossible to stand erect in them, and provided with only one night-bucket, were filthy enough for sleeping purposes, but as living quarters from Saturday noon until Monday morning they were unspeakably vile.'”

The authority of the camp boss was supreme and unquestioned. Guards were  “young, inexperienced, poorly paid, and incompetent” to such an extent that it became a standard practice to employ convicts themselves–known as trustees–to guard fellow prisoners.

Mancini reminds us that from its very inception, the system of convict labor was built on corruption; its existence invited graft and entire southern states fell prey to powerful “Penitentiary Rings.” Large employers gave under-the-table payments to state officials to ensure that they received their slaves at low contract prices.

Sheriffs in states like Alabama and Florida were paid fees for capturing supposedly “idle” black workers under vagrancy laws. Law-enforcement officials became notoriously venal entrepreneurs more concerned with earning a “cut” of the convict labor racket than with any other part of their responsibilities.

The system of forced labor became so corrupt that it increasingly failed to deliver on two of its main promises: revenue generation for the state, and the maintenance of cheap labor for employers. Mancini quotes one Georgia social reformer, Rebecca Latimer Felton, who noted that the state’s potential profit from convict leasing was obliterated due to “a gang of supernumerary officials, who are generally ‘go-betweens,’ [who] are paid nearly half [the contract amount].”

In addition, regions and industries that relied on convict labor often had difficulty recruiting free workers, who feared getting snared by money-hungry sheriffs and their man-catching vagrancy dragnets.

All three authors note that Progressive Era reformers envisioned the state-controlled chain gang, as a “reform” over the older private-run convict lease system. As the new system of prison labor control began to unfold in the late 1910s, however, it became painfully obvious that brutality remained the common denominator of the state’s regulation of convicts’ labor power.

One common shortcoming that these texts share is a surprising lack of insight into the mentalites of the convicts themselves. In fact, the authors at times outdo themselves in insisting that there could have been no viable culture among inmates. Lichtenstein asserts that “The sad truth, however, is that more often than not to tell the story from ‘below’ is to recount horrific tales of racial brutality and torture.”

This is an odd rationale for not telling the entire story to an audience familiar with the narratives of atrocity and genocide that characterize our century. More importantly, by refusing to write history “from below” these authors leave many intriguing questions unasked, and hence unanswered.

For example, what accounts for the immense escape rates from these supposedly isolated convict labor camps?  To what extent did communities adjacent to the camps participate in escapes or the many instances of sabotage chronicled in contemporary newspaper accounts? Mancini clouds this picture further by conflating escapes with prison death rates, and Oshinsky too often accepts the views of contemporary middle-class reformers about the supposed character of the convicts themselves.

My point is not to lionize every convict laborer. Some of them were presumably guilty of brutal crimes, though this group was (and remains today) greatly outnumbered by non-violent offenders. Yet Lichtenstein so carefully avoids any hints of worker agency in the Georgia convict labor system that he fails to mention that the Chatahoochee Brick Company, a major employer of convict labor, was burned down by an interracial group of female inmates in 1900!

While Oshinsky deals more expansively with African American and southern culture in Worse than Slavery, he is sometimes hampered by an uncritical reading of his sources as well as a failure to carefully gauge change over time in the Mississippi Delta. For example, he seems to be wedded to the notion of Mississippi as a perpetually violent state with violent citizens and a violent history that stretches back to the antebellum era of dueling, lynching, and frontier justice.

Oshinsky’s account essentially ignores more nuanced interpretations of the region by Edward Ayers and Sydney Nathans.(11) Likewise, his description of African American society during the long era of segregation in Mississippi depicts Black communities as hotbeds of self-hatred and lawlessness with scenes of “black-on-black crime of enormous scope and brutality, which served to confirm white attitudes about the ‘savage’ Negro race.”

Missing in Oshinsky’s analysis is an understanding that the era that witnessed the rise of the convict labor system in Mississippi–the late 19th century–was also a time of great promise in the Delta when a large number of African Americans migrated to the region because they saw the possibilities of making a go of it in a relatively unsettled place. One Delta observer in the 1880s noted that “the gin crews and engineers [there] are practically all negroes, and there are negro foremen, agents and sub-managers. There are many constables, and there is in my county a negro justice of the peace.”(12)

This would change, of course, as political disenfranchisement and white supremacy advanced. My point here is two-fold. First, African American rural communities in the Mississippi Delta were not the blighted-lands-that-time-forgot as contemporary social scientists so often claimed. Second, convict labor in the Delta region was not a kind of fait accompli that fell upon a terrorized, morally backwards people. Rather, it was a tool deployed to crush a very militant sector of farm workers, some of whom were active participants in the Colored Farmers’ Alliance, the left-wing of the Populist movement.(13)

Today, the pushers of the new convict labor ideal, such as Morgan O. Reynolds, an economics professor at Texas A&M, claim that private and public sector “prison work” programs reform prisoners while providing relief to the nation’s grotesquely overcrowded jails and prisons. In a presentation before the Congressional Subcommittee on Crime last September, Reynolds nostalgically invoked the convict-lease era of the 1880s as a time when prison labor was wildly profitable.

Reynolds also dismissed claims that prison-made goods undercut jobs and wages for “free” workers. Indeed, Reynolds argues that “Prison idleness, not activity, has silently eradicated demand for the outputs of freeworld workers.” (!) Finally, Reynolds claims that “The proper way to mimic the free world of work as closely as possible is to encourage profit and loss employment of prison labor by private enterprise.”(14) Reynolds seductively offers everybody–from small entrepreneurs to tax payers–a share of the take.

The history of convict labor in America, brought to life by the books under review, essentially warns us that if Professor Reynold’s suggestions were ever implemented on a wide scale, the results would be catastrophic. It was indeed the profit motive in the convict lease system that made the institution so brutal and appalling in the first place.

David Oshinsky quotes a Mississippi prison official’s lament in 1925 that “If Mississippi is to take rank with many of the more progressive states in caring for her prisoners, she must get away from the idea that Parchman is alone a profit making machine…and realize her obligation to society and to those who are making this profit for the State.”

The first era of profit-driven convict labor in America made the South’s justice system the subject of international mockery. As prison labor began to turn profits, incarceration rates skyrocketed, and the relationship between crime and punishment took second place to the state’s desire to generate revenues.

To reiterate: Corruption and/or destructive monopolistic practices have always characterized the convict labor system in America. This is just as true in the 1990s as it was in the 1890s. For example, today’s California’s Prison Industry Authority has actually displaced some “freeworld” businesses in the state. Nina Munk notes that “Under California law, state agencies are required to give the corrections department first crack at supplying goods, regardless of price or quality.”(15)

In Hawaii, “By law, state agencies must have their printing done by Correctional Industries unless they seek and receive approval to use a private sector printer.”1 The point enshrined in Lynn McAuley’s 1994 article that “Correctional Industries Helps Solve Hawaii’s Labor Shortage” proves that convict labor still has less to do with crime, punishment, and rehabilitation and more to do with maintaining a cheap and flexible work force in America.(16)


  1. W.E. Burghardt Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880 (1935; reprint New York: Meridian Books, 1965), 670.
    back to text
  2. Another important work in this field, which was not published in time for this review, is Mary Ellen Curtin’s “Enclosed in a Shell of Self-Importance”: Black Prisoners in the New South, 1870-1900 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, forthcoming).
    back to text
  3. Hans Vriens, “Inside China’s Bamboo Gulags,” World Press Review, (July 1994), 13-15.
    back to text
  4. For the use of prison labor to break strikes see Christian Parenti, “Making Prison Pay: Business Finds the Cheapest Labor of All,” The Nation,  262 (January 29, 1996), 11-14.
    back to text
  5. For Texas see Peter Gilmore, “Made in the U.S.A(.By Convicts,” Labor Party Press 2, No. 4, (July 1997), 5. For Wisconsin see “Newswatch” Labor Notes #220 (July 1997), 4.
    back to text
  6. Charlie Crist, “Chain Gangs are Right For Florida,” Corrections Today, 58 (April 1996), 178.
    back to text
  7. Nina Munk, “Captive Labor, Captive Markets,” Forbes, 154  (August 29, 1994), 82-83.
    back to text
  8. For a cursory summary of Rand’s recent report that argues that punitive measures do little to reduce crime see “Rand Study Advocates Prevention, Not Longer Sentences,” U.S. News World Report, 121 (July 1, 1996), 10.
    back to text
  9. John Leland, “Back on the Chain Gang,” Newsweek, 125 (May 15, 1995), 58.
    back to text
  10. Alex Lichtenstein, “Good Roads and Chain Gangs in the Progressive South: ‘The Negro Convict is a Slave,” The Journal of Southern History, LIX, No. 1, (February 1993), 93.
    back to text
  11. Edward Ayers, The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992); Sydney Nathans, “‘Gotta Mind to Move, a Mind to Settle Down’: Afro-Americans and the Plantation Frontier,” in William Cooper, Michael F. Holt, and John McCardell, eds., A Master’s Due: Essays in Honor of David Herbert Donald, (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1985).
    back to text
  12. Ayers, op. cit., 195.
    back to text
  13. For a more balanced appraisal of the Mississippi Delta, one that acknowledges both the endurance of a militant African American tradition of struggle alongside of  an ethos of repression, see Charles M. Payne’s I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995).
    back to text
  14. This ominous testimony appeared in an article titled “The Economics of Prison Industries: The Products of Our Prison,” Vital Speeches, 63 (November 1 1996), 58-61.
    back to text
  15. Munk, op. cit., 82.
    back to text
  16. Lynn McAuley, “Correctional Industries helps solve Hawaii’s Labor Shortage,” Corrections Today, 56 (October 1994), 84-86.
    back to text

ATC 72, January-February 1998

1 comment

Comments are closed.