The South didn’t just lose houses, cities, & other infrastructure during the Civil War, many prisons were destroyed as well. After the war, the former Confederate states struggled to rebuild, and quickly found a way to make crime pay – for state government and business. Now referred to as “slavery by another name,” the system of leasing convicts began before the war. However, after the war, leasing became far more widespread, as did the corruption associated with it.
Need to catch up? Read Part 1 of the series – an introduction to the prison system problems in Alabama. Part 3 is “Who Profits from Privatization?”
Alabama Was the First State to Lease Convicts
Many people associate the concept of making money from prison labor with the South, but it other states experimented with it as well. In the 1820s, New York State set up in-house prison workshops where prisoners made goods for state government and the private market. Prior to the Civil War, prison labor projects were less widespread in the Southern states. After all, they already had plenty of “real” slave labor, so the economics of prison labor were less attractive.
That changed after the war, when Southern states desperately needed to rebuild.
If there’s a bad public policy idea floating around, history suggests that Alabama will be an early adopter. Convict leasing began here in 1845, expanded enormously after the war, and lasted until 1928. It was a good financial deal for the state – but not for the prisoners:
In 1883, about 10 percent of Alabama’s total revenue was derived from convict leasing. In 1898, nearly 73 percent of total revenue came from this same source. Death rates among leased convicts were approximately 10 times higher than the death rates of prisoners in non-lease states. In 1873, for example, 25 percent of all black leased convicts died. Possibly, the greatest impetus to the continued use of convict labor in Alabama was the attempt to depress the union movement.
Surprisingly, expansion of the convict leasing system after the war was pushed by the “Republican Reform” governments. Convict labor was in use in the North and was seen as a modern way to run prisons & benefit industry.
Lower Production Costs = Bigger Profits
While working conditions for prison laborers in other parts of the country were no picnic, they were abysmal for prisoners in the South, but great for business owners:
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.
Under this system, there was little or no oversight of contractors. The state had its money and the businesses had cheap labor it could work to death:
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.
Labor To The Rescue
The convict leasing & prison labor systems had a lot of stakeholders: states, businesses, local law enforcement, the judiciary – all had a financial interest in the system. One important group on the outside though, was workers. Prison labor depressed wages in the larger economy and made good jobs harder to get.
The appeal of prison labor is clear: low wages, no benefits, and insolent workers quickly get punished or removed, courtesy of the government. Employers preferred this compliant work force & many skilled workers were replaced by prison labor.
In 1917, the Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology, Volume 7, wrote about organized labor’s opposition to prison labor. The Molder’s Union protested against the low wages paid to inmates, the low prices paid by contractors, and “all the advantages given prison firms which have enabled them to undersell the employers of free men.” (pp 129-130)
This fight led to the addition of “the union label” to manufactured goods. It was a way to distinguish prison-made good from those made by “free men.”
As in the North, Southern union supporters fought the convict leasing system because it was used as a strikebreaking tactic. For example, in 1891, the Tennessee Coal Company attempted to replace union workers with convict labor. The resulting armed battles were dubbed the “Coal Creek War.”
Over a period of just over a year, the free miners continuously attacked and burned prison stockades and company buildings, hundreds of convicts were freed, and dozens of miners and militiamen were killed or wounded in small-arms skirmishes. One historian describes the conflict as “one of the most dramatic and significant episodes in all American labor history.”
The Coal Creek War was part of a greater struggle across Tennessee against the state’s controversial convict-leasing system, which allowed the state to lease its convicts to mining companies to compete with free labor. The outbreak of the conflict touched off a partisan media firestorm between the miners’ supporters and detractors, and brought the issue of convict leasing to the public eye.
Labor won the fight against convict leasing and for-profit prison labor – temporarily. A 2006 Mother Jones article lists some common brands that utilize prison labor: from Starbucks to MicroSoft to Wal-Mart.
Prison Labor: Everyone Wants a Piece of the PIE
Using prison labor for private industry remained illegal until 1979, when Congress passed the “Private Sector/Prison Industry Enhancement Program (PIE). It allowed states to sell prison-made goods across state lines for profit. The goal of the program was to give inmates real-world job skills (not just license-plate production) that would help them succeed after release. A 2010 study from Duke University (PDF) concluded that the program was at least partially successful in reducing recidivism and that former inmates who participate earned higher wages after release than other inmates. This study looked at PIE programs in 5 states between 1996 and 2001.
Although the bill didn’t specifically legalize private prisons, it did open the door to private businesses operating and coordinating prison programs. It wasn’t long before states made the jump from having some prison operations privatized to having private, for-profit prisons operate entire facilities.
Private, For-Profit Prisons: Huge Growth Since 1987
Texas was the first state to authorize private prisons. A 1987 bill required the private facility to operate at a 10% savings per inmate over public prisons.
This represented a huge change in the prison “business model.” During the 19th century, the prisons contracted with private businesses to provide prison labor. With the PIE legislation, prisons again began to invite private businesses into facilities as part of a job-training & rehabilitation initiative. But Texas took it to a whole new level when it authorized for-profit, private prisons independent of the state corrections system.
Since then, the number of private prisons has grown. In at least 38 states, private prisons house over 130,000 federal and state inmates (that’s a 2010 total). California had just one private prison in in the 1980s: by 2005, that total had grown to 22 private prisons.
The total prison population grew 16% between 2001 and 2011, but the inmate population in private prisons grew by 106% during that same period. Private prison companies and states say that privatization offers better, cheaper facilities and are a good deal for taxpayers.
In Part 3, we’ll take a look at that cost-saving claim and in Part 4, we’ll discuss how private prison companies have managed to gain so much control & influence in state & federal prisons.
Read the entire series:
- Part 1: Profit & Politics in Alabama Prison Reform
- Part 2: History of Prison Privatization – Making Crime Pay
- Part 3: Who Profits from Prison Privatization?”
- Part 4: Private Prisons & Government – A Revolving Door of Influence & Insiders
- Part 5: Sweetheart Contracts Fill Beds & Pad Profits
- Part 6: Prison Shouldn’t Be A Picnic, But Also Shouldn’t Be A “Hell on Earth.”