First used at Auburn prison in New York State in the 1820s, the system spread widely and quickly throughout the North, the Midwest, and later the West. It developed alongside state-run prison workshops that produced goods for the public sector and sometimes the open market.
A few Southern states also used it. Prisoners there, as elsewhere, however, were mainly white men, since slave masters, with a free hand to deal with the "infractions" of their chattel, had little need for prison. The Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery would, in fact, make an exception for penal servitude precisely because it had become the dominant form of punishment throughout the free states.
Nor were those sentenced to "confinement at hard labor" restricted to digging ditches or other unskilled work; nor were they only men. Prisoners were employed at an enormous range of tasks from rope- and wagon-making to carpet, hat, and clothing manufacturing (where women prisoners were sometimes put to work), as well coal mining, carpentry, barrel-making, shoe production, house-building, and even the manufacture of rifles. The range of petty and larger workshops into which the felons were integrated made up the heart of the new American economy.
Observing a free-labor textile mill and a convict-labor one on a visit to the United States, novelist Charles Dickens couldn't tell the difference. State governments used the rental revenue garnered from their prisoners to meet budget needs, while entrepreneurs made outsized profits either by working the prisoners themselves or subleasing them to other businessmen.
Convict Labor in the "New South'
After the Civil War, the convict-lease system metamorphosed. In the South, it became ubiquitous, one of several grim methods -- including the black codes, debt peonage, the crop-lien system, lifetime labor contracts, and vigilante terror -- used to control and fix in place the newly emancipated slave. Those "freedmen" were eager to pursue their new liberty either by setting up as small farmers or by exercising the right to move out of the region at will or from job to job as "free wage labor" was supposed to be able to do.
If you assumed, however, that the convict-lease system was solely the brainchild of the apartheid all-white "Redeemer" governments that overthrew the Radical Republican regimes (which first ran the defeated Confederacy during Reconstruction) and used their power to introduce Jim Crow to Dixie, you would be wrong again. In Georgia, for instance, the Radical Republican state government took the initiative soon after the war ended. And this was because the convict-lease system was tied to the modernizing sectors of the post-war economy, no matter where in Dixie it was introduced or by whom.
So convicts were leased to coal-mining, iron-forging, steel-making, and railroad companies, including Tennessee Coal and Iron (TC&I), a major producer across the South, especially in the booming region around Birmingham, Alabama. More than a quarter of the coal coming out of Birmingham's pits was then mined by prisoners. By the turn of the century, TC&I had been folded into J.P. Morgan's United States Steel complex, which also relied heavily on prison laborers.
All the main extractive industries of the South were, in fact, wedded to the system. Turpentine and lumber camps deep in the fetid swamps and forest vastnesses of Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana commonly worked their convicts until they dropped dead from overwork or disease. The region's plantation monocultures in cotton and sugar made regular use of imprisoned former slaves, including women. Among the leading families of Atlanta, Birmingham, and other "New South" metropolises were businessmen whose fortunes originated in the dank coal pits, malarial marshes, isolated forests, and squalid barracks in which their unfree peons worked, lived, and died.
Because it tended to grant absolute authority to private commercial interests and because its racial make-up in the post-slavery era was overwhelmingly African-American, the South's convict-lease system was distinctive. Its caste nature is not only impossible to forget, but should remind us of the unbalanced racial profile of America's bloated prison population today.
Moreover, this totalitarian-style control invited appalling brutalities in response to any sign of resistance: whippings, water torture, isolation in "dark cells," dehydration, starvation, ice-baths, shackling with metal spurs riveted to the feet, and "tricing" (an excruciatingly painful process in which recalcitrant prisoners were strung up by the thumbs with fishing line attached to overhead pulleys). Even women in a hosiery mill in Tennessee were flogged, hung by the wrists, and placed in solitary confinement.
Living quarters for prisoner-workers were usually rat-infested and disease-ridden. Work lasted at least from sunup to sundown and well past the point of exhaustion. Death came often enough and bodies were cast off in unmarked graves by the side of the road or by incineration in coke ovens. Injury rates averaged one per worker per month, including respiratory failure, burnings, disfigurement, and the loss of limbs. Prison mines were called "nurseries of death." Among Southern convict laborers, the mortality rate (not even including high levels of suicides) was eight times that among similar workers in the North -- and it was extraordinarily high there.
The Southern system also stood out for the intimate collusion among industrial, commercial, and agricultural enterprises and every level of Southern law enforcement as well as the judicial system. Sheriffs, local justices of the peace, state police, judges, and state governments conspired to keep the convict-lease business humming. Indeed, local law officers depended on the leasing system for a substantial part of their income. (They pocketed the fines and fees associated with the "convictions," a repayable sum that would be added on to the amount of time at "hard labor" demanded of the prisoner.)
The arrest cycle was synchronized with the business cycle, timed to the rise and fall of the demand for fresh labor. County and state treasuries similarly counted on such revenues, since the post-war South was so capital-starved that only renting out convicts assured that prisons could be built and maintained.
There was, then, every incentive to concoct charges or send people to jail for the most trivial offenses: vagrancy, gambling, drinking, partying, hopping a freight car, tarrying too long in town. A "pig law" in Mississippi assured you of five years as a prison laborer if you stole a farm animal worth more than $10. Theft of a fence rail could result in the same.
Penal Servitude in the Gilded Age North