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Prison Industry History (3)…

This article is third in a series.  The previous two were the 20th and 21st of October, 2010…

In the immediate period of the South after the Civil War (1865), there was a severe shortage of white males and a surplus of newly freed blacks.  In the competition between them, whites had the decided advantage of greater political and social resources.

Private Prison Industry…

For several years, the Union Army and the Freedman’s Bureau enforced emancipation, but by 1877 the Republican Party surrendered the South in return for the election.  The stage was set for Jim Crow and mass black criminalization. 

Labor-intensive industries, such as cotton, lent themselves to plantation organization.  Within short order, a number of Black Codes were specifically created to provide the law and sanctions to maintain this labor.  These included the Vagrancy Act, which provided that all blacks over the age of 18 must provide proof of a job at the beginning of every year.

Failure to do so could result in a conviction and fine.  Without the ability to pay, often the case, they found themselves on the sheriff’s auction block to local white farmers.  White farmers could also charge certain fees and costs, along with the maintenance of the worker.

An ex-slave in these conditions, facing a $50 fine, could easily find himself performing involuntary servitude for up to a year or more.  Any attempt or enticement to seek better employment, and often to even leave the area, was also enacted as a crime under the Black Codes.  Most former slaves in the South stayed on as tenants and field hands at whatever compensation they could manage.

In addition to Colonel “Ned” Richardson in Mississippi parlaying an agreement with the feds and the state into a vast fortune by lawfully enslaving black convicts, and other entrepreneurs throughout the South following in his example, there were any variety of other industries that soon found profit in the enterprise.

These included construction, mines, railroads, and different forms of forestry.  In Florida, which had no state prison, convicts were leased to a single bidder at an annual rate of $200 each, who re-leased them out to others at double his cost.

Joined by many thousands of lesser “criminals” from various counties (where sheriff’s received a bounty for convictions), these convict lessees labored under the most brutal conditions.  One example of especially deadly and barbaric work were in the forests of long-leaf pine.  In addition to having to also scrounge for their own food and shelter, they suffered malaria and other ailments…few survived for long.  Their task was to secure resin and turpentine for naval stores.

This industry remained prevalent to one degree or another up until World War II.  In fact, the US Navy still depends upon the federal Bureau of Prisons employing private contractors to supply federal inmate labor for base maintenance and other operations.

Even to this day, several state jurisdictions, such as Georgia, use inmate labor to build local gov’t facilities, and to clean up foreclosed houses for resale by banks.

Convict leasing on any number of railroad constructions, especially in Georgia and Florida, was also a brutal and deadly enterprise.  Henry Flagler and his partner, John D. Rockefeller completed their railroad from Jacksonville to Key West, Florida, employing many thousands of enslaved convicts in 1912.

I got a taste of this in the form of “debtors prison” process myself while I was engaged in civil rights activities in the South as recently as the 1960s, fully a hundred years after the Civil War.  Originally sentenced to a trumped-up misdemeanor at 4 months and costs at hard labor, I ended up serving well over a year before my eventual release (Tennessee, 1963-65).  I served much of that time on a particularly brutal rock-quarry, chain-gang.

               Dr. Publico

Category: BlackCodes, JimCrow
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