How Convict Leasing Worked

The convict leasing system had adapted itself the a new social order after the civil war.  States used the exception within the 13th amendment-that outlawed slavery- to imprison and hire out convicts to individuals and companies that desperately needed to rebuild a southern economy devastated by the war.  Whether by gang labor or individual task, the work was brutally hard and the punishment, for not achieving quotas, swift.

Laws defined as “negro crimes” were designed to maintain a steady resource of labor.  Laws for vagrancy, impudent behavior, not being under a labor contract to a white man by a certain date, were all used to entrap blacks into servitude.  Making turpentine, clearing land, brick making, farming sugar cane and cotton and mining coal were some of the jobs performed by leased convicts.  And working conditions were nothing less than barbaric.  Coal mines saw frequent explosions, workers often worked in darkness and in knee deep water infested with vermin.  And the death of a convict didn’t occasion a work stoppage as the dead body could be thrown into a coal fired oven or buried in a shallow grave near where he worked.  Death rates were generally 20% to 30 % of the work force due to accidents or untreated disease.

Although states established regulations to monitor the working conditions and the health of the convicts, this did nothing to improve the conditions suffered by the workers and they feared harsh reprisals if they dared to tell the truth of their experiences.  Bound in stress positions for extended periods, being water boarded or receiving 50 lashes were common forms of punishment meted out to rule infractions.  The experience of black women convicts is a little known story that I will present in the next edition.  Thank you