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Brinkley on Mancini, _One Dies, Get Another_

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    Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!--aj wright ... H-NET BOOK REVIEW Published by EH.NET (October, 1999) Matthew J. Mancini. _One Dies, Get Another: Convict Leasing
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 23, 1999
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      Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!--aj wright

      ----------------------------Original message----------------------------
      H-NET BOOK REVIEW
      Published by EH.NET (October, 1999)

      Matthew J. Mancini. _One Dies, Get Another: Convict Leasing in the
      American South, 1866-1928_. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press,
      1996. xi + 283 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN: 1-57003-083-9.

      Reviewed for EH.NET by Garland Brinkley <garland@...>, Department of
      Economics, School of Public Health, University of California-Berkeley

      Several economic historians have asserted that African-Americans
      were better off in the aftermath of the Civil War. Ransom and
      Sutch's (1977) classic leisure for labor trade-off, for example,
      suggests that freedmen worked fewer hours and fewer days and that
      fewer members of the family spent time in the fields after the Civil
      War with the resultant higher utility (but lower income). What are
      noticeably absent from previous histories of the South, was the
      continuation of slavery under the even more brutal conditions driven
      by economic incentives. While most believe that the thirteenth
      Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, a loophole
      was opened that resulted in the widespread continuation of slavery
      in the Southern states of America -- slavery as punishment for a
      crime. According to the thirteenth amendment, "Neither slavery nor
      involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the
      party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United
      States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." Matthew Mancini
      documents the widespread nature of post-civil war slavery in every
      state that composed the Confederacy except Virginia. His book is
      divided into three parts: part one addresses the convergence of
      forces (economic, racial, and political) that began the convict
      labor system and perpetuated the convict labor system; part two
      details the particular manifestation of the convict labor system in
      each southern state; and, part three explains the demise of the
      system that maintained African-Americans in slavery for a half
      century after the surrender by Lee at Appomattox.

      This book details the darker side of our discipline when economic
      incentives prevail over simple humanity. Economically, when an asset
      is replaceable at no cost, money spent upon maintenance costs will
      lower profits. When the assets are human beings, duly convicted of
      (in many cases) racially motivated trumped up charges and obtained
      at low cost and through political machinations, the incentive is to
      work them as hard as possible and to spend little on food, shelter,
      clothing, medical care, etc., in order to maximize profits.

      Georgia practiced the most undiluted and typical form of convict
      leasing of any of the southern states. However, political favoritism
      determined the issuance and bid price of convict leasing contracts
      and political pressures ensured no interference in the working and
      living conditions of the convicts. Average prison sentences
      lengthened dramatically during this period. Convicts were invariably
      leased to prominent and wealthy Georgian families who worked them on
      railroads and in coal mining. Even though reformers exposed the
      brutalities of the system in Georgia, the demise of convict labor in
      Georgia came about due to political reform and market forces when
      the bids that contractors had to pay for convict labor finally
      became equal to free wage rates.

      Alabama used the convict labor system as an enormously successful
      revenue generating mechanism. Not only did convict leasing last
      longer in Alabama than in any other southern state, but it was also
      notable due to the extreme quantity of convicts in the system.
      Convict leasing began in Alabama in 1846 and lasted until July 1,
      1928 when Herbert Hoover was vying for the White House. In 1883, 10
      percent of Alabama's total revenue was derived form convict leasing
      while in 1898, 73 percent of total revenue came from this same
      source. Death rates among leased convicts were approximately ten
      times 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 continuance of convict labor in Alabama was
      to depress the union movement.

      Arkansas was notorious for the brutality of its convict leasing
      system resulting from the lack of official monitoring of convict
      laborers. Economically different from other southern states,
      Arkansas actually paid companies to work their prisoners for much of
      the time the system was in place. Arkansas' system of convict
      leasing was also quite political in terms of issuance of contracts
      and oversight or lack of oversight of convicts. No state official
      was empowered to oversee the plight of the prisoners and businesses
      had complete autonomy in the disposition and working conditions of
      convict laborers. Mines and plantations that used convict laborers
      commonly had secret graveyards containing the bodies of prisoners
      who had been beaten and/or tortured to death. Convicts would be made
      to fight each other, sometimes to the death, for the amusement of
      the guards and wardens.

      Both Mississippi and Louisiana are extremely similar in terms of
      lack of oversight of their convict leasing population, almost
      exclusive use of convict leasing on agricultural plantations, and
      failure of the state to recoup any revenue from the system.
      Mississippi was noted as having epidemic death rates without an
      epidemic. Louisiana institutions seemed to be unable to distinguish
      between the terms 'slave,' 'Negro,' 'convict,' and 'farm work'. The
      lessees generally did not pay the full amount of the contract price
      to the state and usually paid nothing. Convicts were generally among
      the black population. For example, in Louisiana, a black social
      group consisting of thirty-eight members were convicted in a mock
      trial and sent to prison for contract labor.

      Tennessee convict leasing lasted from 1871 to 1896 and was bitterly
      opposed by free miners from the beginning. The conflict between the
      huge Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railway Company (TCI) and mining
      population was characterized by violence. This conflict resulted
      from the wage rate of the miners falling from $1.25 per ton of coal
      before convict leasing to just $0.50 wherever convict leasing was
      implemented. TCI admitted that the main reason it used convict labor
      was to break strikes and undermine union formation.

      Texas, Florida, and the Carolinas each had their own unique features
      and economic issues with contract leasing of convicts. However, all
      were economically motivated and all were brutal, life shortening,
      and profitable for the lessees. Rarely did the state actually
      receive revenue but generally they did not experience a drain on the
      treasury. Texas convicts were concentrated mostly in sugar
      plantations, Florida's and the Carolinas' convicts were almost
      exclusively involved in railway building. Later in the century, the
      Carolinas shifted into state farms and county roads and out of
      railway building. Unlike the other southern states, only half of
      Texas inmates were black. However, the African-American convicts
      went to the sugar plantations while the white and Latino population
      were sent to less harsh and hazardous work.

      The convict labor leasing system came about mostly after the Civil
      War and in earnest after reconstruction due to the economic
      realities. The Southern States were generally broke and could not
      afford either the cost of building or maintaining prisons. The
      economic but morally weak and incorrect solution was to use convicts
      as a source of revenue or, at least, to prevent them from draining
      the fragile financial positions of the states. The abolition of the
      system was also motivated mostly by economic realities. While
      reformers brought the shocking truths and abuses of this notorious
      system before the eyes of the world, the real truth is far
      different. In every state, the evils of convict labor and abuses
      were in newspapers and journals within two years of implementation
      and were generally repeated during every election cycle. Mostly due
      to political reform, the process whereby convicts were obtained
      became market oriented. As a result, the costs to businesses rose
      until convict labor was comparable to free labor. Monopoly profits
      derived from rent seeking behavior no longer accrued to private
      firms ending the economic incentives of maintaining convict leasing.
      The convict leasing system was not abolished but merely transformed.
      Prisoners who labored for private companies and businesses
      increasing their profits now labored for the public sector. The
      chain gang replaced plantation labor. There was in truth little
      change in the lives of convicts themselves since life was still
      short and brutal but rather change occurred in the flow and
      distribution of money that spelled an end to the forced labor of
      postbellum "slaves."

      This book is necessary for any serious student of the history of the
      postbellum South or any advocate of unfettered capitalism. The
      lessons to be drawn from this study can be applied to many of the
      policies proposed by the IMF or the World Bank fostered upon third
      world nations. While the circumstances surrounding the convict labor
      system in the aftermath of the Civil War can be considered unique,
      economic incentives and economic realities are unchanging and
      repeats of convict labor leasing are widespread today.

      Garland Brinkley is the author of "The Decline in Southern
      Agricultural Output, 1860-1880" _Journal of Economic History_, Vol.
      57, No. 1 (Mar. 1997).


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