Morbid Fact Du Jour for January 13, 2018

Today’s Abusive Yet Truly Morbid Fact!

After the American Civil War, the ingrained slave-owner’s racist mentality in the Southern states led to brilliant abuse of the convict lease system: de facto slavery. Some historians and apologists use the devastating effect of the Civil War on the economy of the Southern states as an excuse for the criminal treatment of its incarcerated civilians. One major aspect is overlooked however; prior to the Civil War, the North and Midwest built large, castle-type prisons such as Auburn in New York and Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, while in the Southern states only Virginia had a penitentiary and it did not participate in the convict lease system in any significant manner. Prior to the Civil War, and for the following half-century, no other Southern state built a penitentiary. Enlightened Northern liberal penalogists struggled with various philosophies of proper prisoner treatment, constantly developing new concepts. Slave labor camps were the Southern philosophy – and only changed in the 20th century by dramatic federal intervention.

Those convicted of crimes were exploited by the Southern convict labor system. The inmates were leased out to owners of cotton and sugar plantations, coal and phosphorous mines, railroads, turpentine forests, and all sorts of other hard labor industries and were used by the states to build canals, dams, and roads. The reality was that the Southern mentality was that of slaveholders and that people convicted of crimes before and after the war were treated as slaves. This was far different from criminal justice systems in the rest of the country, which labored under the simple philosophy that prisoners had to pay for their upkeep (food, lodging, clothes, medical care) and not be a burden on the taxpayer. In the early 19th century two competing criminal justice systems were in vogue in the North: the Auburn, or New York, system in which prisoners labored in groups in varying industrial projects; and the Quaker, or Philadelphia, system where solitude, quiet, and individual labor, such as shoemaking, was the objective. Eventually the Auburn system prevailed as officials found that the inmates became bored or depressed if allowed too much idleness or solitude.

Several authors writing about particular states had addressed the metamorphosis from slavery into the convict labor system. Matthew J. Mancini in his seminal portrayal of the Southern convict leasing system clearly defines and exposes the practice. It was worse than slavery and resulted in the death of thousands. Mancini takes the title of his book, One Dies, Get Another, from a comment of a Southern penal expert at the National Prison Association’s 1883 meeting: “Before the war, we owned the negroes… If a man had a good negro, he could afford to keep him… But these convicts, we don’t own ’em. One dies, get another.” Costs for the care of convicts were much lower than for slaves. There was no initial purchase price, and since one didn’t care if they lived, medical care and food were minimal. Few countries, not even the Soviet Union, had such an abusive system.

Culled from: Deadly Intent: Crime and and Punishment


  1. In “Gone With the Wind” (the novel) Scarlett wants to use convict labor to help run her … sawmill? I don’t remember. Her foreman, an old double-murderer named Archie, tells her he will quit if she does, since he knows firsthand how convict laborers are treated. Eventually she does resort to it, and Archie is true to his word and quits.
    However, Scarlett finds out her convicts are not being fed properly because their new foreman is keeping the best of their rations fo himself. So she sets him straight and makes sure he doesn’t skim.

    1. I was about to comment on the same thing. In particular, there is the argument with The Divine Ashley Wilkes, in which he insists on using “free darkies” in his lumber mill, rather than convicts, because he refuses to profit from other people’s misery. Scarlett points out, intelligently, that he owned slaves. He replies “Yes, but they weren’t miserable.” (Sure they weren’t, Ashley. Sure they weren’t. Ashley’s godlike father, you may remember, was named John Wilkes. Get it? Get it?)

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