Georgia Prison Labor

A look into the past, present, and future facets of convict leasing

By Anoushka Gandotra and Yutao Mao

An inmate canning potatoes at Rogers State Prison // Still from Video by the Georgia Department of Corrections
An inmate canning potatoes at Rogers State Prison // Still from Video by the Georgia Department of Corrections

The 13th amendment, ratified in 1865 after the Civil War, abolished slavery and involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” The amendment laid out a loophole to continue Southern economies after the war: convict Black ex-slaves (“duly” or not) and have them work in the same industries they worked in as slaves.

Vagrancy laws were Southern legislators’ first step towards establishing the system of convict leasing through the mass incarceration of African Americans. These laws, established all over the southern United States, legally justified incarcerating men by defining vagrants as anyone unemployed and without a permanent residence. After slavery was abolished, this applied to nearly all ex-slaves. They were imprisoned and then leased to businesses under full autonomy to oversee the unpaid prison laborers.

Convict leasing, as a political tool, enabled the continuation of racism in the South. Since no government committee was put in place to supervise the treatment of the prisoners, they were treated in the same way slaves were. According to investigative reports done in Augusta and Macon by the 18th infantry captain John Christopher, convicts were overworked, whipped, and even killed.

Media and public outcry against convict leasing eventually grew to a level the government considered worth attention. The Atlanta race riot of 1906 was a major event sparked in part by job competition between Black convicts and white lower-class workers. The newspaper “The Atlanta Georgian” began attacking convict leasing to a great extent. Publicity like this led to research into convict leasing like Christopher’s, which uncovered numerous violations of leases and general human rights.

The depression of 1907 led to lower wages and increased unemployment of non-convicts. The cost to house convicts increased, and while it was once extremely profitable (Georgia made $35,000 from convicts in 1872-73), these profits began to greatly reduce. It was only a matter of time until the government felt that the profits from convict leasing were not worth the social outcry, and the Georgia General Assembly began holding hearings on the practice in 1908.

Industrialization, Jim Crow laws, and chain gangs also came into play the years prior to 1908. Industrialization led to a decrease in labor needed in certain industries that convict leasing once thrived in, and the Jim Crow laws led to the establishment of a new legalized system to maintain the social dynamic of racism. Additionally, chain gangs — prisoners chained together and forced to work under the prisons themselves — were already taking over the leasing system. Therefore, both socially and economically, the convict leasing system became relatively useless.

For years, both the public and government knew about the conditions leased convicts faced; it was only when these convicts became a large enough burden for white workers that governmental actions began. The economic conditions paired with public interest eventually led the Georgia General Assembly and Governor Hoke Smith to abolish convict leasing in 1908.

Georgia convicts working on a road in Oglethorpe County, 1941 // Photo by Jack Delano
Georgia convicts working on a road in Oglethorpe County, 1941 // Photo by Jack Delano

After convict leasing was legally abolished in Georgia, the state shifted its attention to the growing chain gangs. The state supported this system, in which prisoners worked primarily in public construction, because of the cheap labor convicts provided and because the prisons did not have to guard these prisoners as strictly. Many of the prisoners who worked on public construction projects were seriously injured or even died as a result of the labor they were forced to do. This ultimately reduced prison costs, so while it was beneficial economically for both the government and the prisons, the prisoners themselves faced conditions similar to what they experienced under the convict leasing system.

Douglas A. Blackmon, a journalist, teacher, and author of Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Slavery by Another Name,” said, “there was never any statute to make it a crime to enslave [a convict]…all the way until [the] 1940s.”

When chain gangs started getting large media attention, Georgia Governor E.D. Rivers informally banned the use of the phrase “chain gangs” and instead urged for the use of “public works camps” in reference to laborers working on public projects. Rivers also implemented the anti-chain policy, so prisoners could not be chained together. However, it was Governor Ellis Arnall who legally abolished the convict camps which supported inhumane public convict labor with a prison reform act in 1943. Just as in the case of convict leasing, brutal convict labor conditions still illegally ran across Georgia, ranging from work in rock quarries to public roads. It wasn’t until the 1960s that this new form of convict leasing was actually ended in practice.

“There is a tendency to say, ‘Oh, well, isn’t the same thing going on today, or is it the same thing as private prisons today,’” said Blackmon. The core difference between the contemporary system and the one that existed in the 1900s, explained Blackmon, is the level of brutality and mortality. While it is true that private businesses like Walmart hire inmate labor, today’s conditions do not compare to the racism, injuries, and deaths that occurred in the past.

According to Blackmon, another important difference between then and now is that a “substantial number of people… of those people who were forced into forced labor through the criminal justice system in that period of time… had not committed a crime of any consequence whatsoever.” In the past it was not only inhumane, but these prisoners were often innocent too.

Social justice work and prison reforms throughout the past century have tremendously improved the system. Prisoners working on public projects today can, for the most part, be trusted of truly being “duly convicted.” However, modern convict laborers in Georgia remain largely unpaid.

Today, private prisons exist because of the profitable effects of lowering prisoners’ standards of living. The government agrees to delegate imprisonment to private enterprises if they save on costs. In other words, if the cost per prisoner in a public prison is higher than the same cost in a private person, the public prisons will give convicts to private prisons in order to reduce their own costs. This gives private prisons the motive to provide prisoners with unhealthy, and sometimes inhumane, living conditions.

Incarcerated individuals still cannot refuse to work. A survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that more than 76% of incarcerated workers are required to work or face additional punishment in prisons. According to research by the American Civil Liberties Union and the University of Chicago Global Human Rights Clinic, incarcerated workers produce more than $2 billion of goods and $9 billion per year in services per year. This economic benefit is something that all of the parties in power — the government, the prisons, and private businesses — want to keep. While prisoners’ working conditions have come a long way from the days of convict leasing, there is still a long way to go in terms of ideal equality within the system and within private businesses that the public prisons and governments interact with.

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