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Sunday, April 11, 2021

Convict leasing, a precursor to private prisons

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I worked 31 years in the state correctional system, and the last 16 years of that time I served as a prison superintendent over three different correctional facilities in Indiana. During that time I dealt with a wide variety of correctional issues, departmental politics and social problems. One of the most controversial issues that emerged shortly before I decided to retire was the proposition of private companies being contracted to run some of our state prisons in Indiana. Indeed, this presented itself as a controversial matter to me because I firmly understood what private companies’ motivations were, in many respects, for contracting with various states to run their prisons. It was all about the profit motive. This age-old concept is the same incentive that brought about state convict leasing during the reconstruction period following the Civil War.

State convict leasing began to flourish in the Southern states during the Reconstruction Period (1865-1877) because they were cash strapped after the Civil War. The South’s financial coffers were depleted, and it needed a cheap form of labor help rebuild its economy.  So, what did the South do? It capitalized on another form of slave labor state prison labor. State convicts serving prison sentences who had no say in the matter and were captives in an ill-conceived strategy to replenish profits for the Southern states such as Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida and Texas. Convict leasing was practicing slavery under the color of law, and the vast majority of the prison labor was comprised of African American inmates.   

Here is how convict leasing worked in practice: A variety of businesses such as farming, railroads, mining operations and logging operations in need of finances and free manpower worked out agreements with the local prison wardens and jailers for inmate slave labor. As most political schemes work, the prisons also benefitted from the kickbacks they received from the recipient businesses. These agreements worked out quite well for the South, as it emerged from its stark economic despair into brighter times. African American inmates got caught up in the Southern prison systems in vast numbers primarily because of the Jim Crow laws, which were also referred to as the Black Codes. Minor law infractions such as vagrancy, loitering, public drunkenness or being disorderly are some examples of these particular laws.

These minor law infractions were a set of discriminatory laws specifically designed to incarcerate large numbers of Black citizens in southern prisons for slave labor, who were given hefty fines and lengthy prison sentences by Southern judges. All of this as part of a grand scheme to not only enrich the South, but in large measure to keep Black citizens oppressed. It was institutional racism at its best. This practice became known as debt in servitude, or better known as peonage. These hefty fines Black inmates were sentenced to by Southern judges were quite harsh because they knew that Back inmates were incapable of paying them. So, what was the remedy to this cruel problem for hundreds of Black prisoners: they had to work off their hefty fines while incarcerated (also viewed as personal debt to the state) in order to complete their sentences. And what made matters even worse, the Black prisoners had to work long, hard hours under poor working conditions.

Now fast forward to today’s dilemma with states like Indiana contracting with private companies to run some of their prison facilities. The initial belief revolved around these companies making state owned prisons run more efficiently with less correctional personnel and supposedly saving state governments money. Contrary to this belief, private companies’ motives are to make profits for themselves, cut corners by using less staff, cutting conventional costs wherever they can and actually underserving their respective inmate populations with less rehab programs for inmates. I know this because I’ve seen it firsthand. More importantly, however, is that similar to convict leasing, African American inmates disproportionately out number white inmates throughout the American penal system. And there is a reason for that.

Since private prisons have been around the numbers of African American inmates have steadily increased. Not only have the Southern states’ numbers of Black inmates increased, but in other regions of the country as well. Inmates are utilized in prisons as a source of nominal labor for other businesses and industries throughout the country. Obviously, this is good from the standpoint of training inmates for jobs and keeping them busy, but the partnering businesses benefit greatly from basically free labor.   

Much of this free labor is comprised of African American inmates convicted of low-level crimes such as drug addiction (marijuana usage, crack cocaine, etc.), or low street level drug dealing.  Obviously, these crimes must be addressed, but more appropriately through job training and treatment programs. Instead, vast numbers of these types of inmates have been given lengthy sentences because of how these laws were designed. Thank goodness, though, former President Obama was successful in getting some sentencing reform done while he was in office, but much more change in this area has to take place. In the meantime, nevertheless, the private prisons companies still capitalize on this dilemma in the states’ prison systems.

Conventional wisdom has changed recently on the utilization of private companies contracting with states to run their prison facilities. President Biden just recently wrote an executive order to discontinue the usage of private companies operating state prison operations. This  is a major step in the right direction.

Ron Rice is a retired criminal justice professional, local author and motivational speaker. He can be reached at rice.ronald@sbcglobal.net.   

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