Convict Labor in the New South

Guest Post by Karin Shapiro

“The convict lease – a system of prison administration whereby a state leased its prisoners to a private individual or company for a number of specified years – was not a postbellum or a southern invention.  But it was during that time and in that place that the practice acquired its notorious reputation.  The postbellum South is partly defined by images of felons dressed in striped prison garb, laboring on penal farms (a uniquely southern institution) and in dangerous, hot, and unhealthy conditions, whether in southern turpentine, phosphate, or coal mines…”

“The fees the companies paid to the state, together with the costs of taking care of the prisoners, ranged from 60 cents to one dollar per prisoner per day – one quarter to one half of the daily earnings of fee laborers.  Moreover, the presence of convicts kept the earnings of free miners static in real terms over the two decades from 1870 to 1890.  Wages earned by miners in Tennessee, for example, dropped from about four dollars a day to under two dollars a day, paralleling a general decline in nineteenth century prices.  Convict lessees also repeatedly found that the presence of unfree miners constrained the ability of free miners to bargain for higher wages or better working conditions…”

To read the full article, click here.

“Convict Labor in the New South” by Karin Shapiro. Copyright (2007) from Encyclopedia of US Labor and Working-Class History, edited by Eric Arnesen (pp. 317-21). Reproduced by permission of Taylor and Francis Group, LLC, a division of Informa plc.

Karin Shapiro is Associate Professor of the Practice, African and African American Studies, Duke University.  She is the author of A New South Rebellion: The Battle Against Convict Labor in the Tennessee Coalfields, 1871-1896 (University of North Carolina Press, 1998).


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