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Convict Leasing and Racial Capitalism

by Genoveva Ntirugelegwa

Juvenile convicts at work in the fields[1]


While we have dissected prison in many different time periods and forms throughout this course, convict leasing is a part of prison history that I have become increasingly interested in. Convict leasing developed throughout the South immediately after the Civil War. In Sarah Haley’s No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity, Haley describes convict leasing as a system that emerged in the U.S. South to fill the labor void caused by emancipation. Convict leasing is a process that forces inmates to perform manual labor and sell this labor to private companies. Post-emancipation, imprisonment became a method of extracting the cheap labor needed for the southern plantation economy. I am most interested in analyzing convict leasing as principal example of racial capitalism, a phenomenon that has underlined incarceration in the United States since the nation’s inception.

I found my primary source while searching through the Library of Congress for images depicting convict leasing. The photograph I selected is titled Juvenile convicts at work in the fields. This image was created in 1903, but the original photographer is unknown. From my own research and knowledge of convict leasing, I would reason that the original photographer was likely a member of an organization that was leasing agricultural labor from the prison where these children were being held. What is so striking about this image is the mere existence of child convicts, accompanied by the fact that they were being forced to do hard labor. The word “child” and “criminal” seem to be mutually exclusive in my own mind, but in the U.S. South in the 20th century, this idea was not an anomaly.

I presume the intended audience for this image could have been the photographer’s superiors, as evidence of the work being done. I think the purpose of this photo could be, as previously mentioned, evidence that these children were, in fact, working, or possibly to serve as a historical record of events. I would find it odd to photograph something as bizarre as child prisoners, but convict leasing was prominent in the southern United States at the time, so the sight of child prisoners performing manual labor was likely a normal aspect of life for the photographer.

the year 1903, when this image was created, is in the heart of the convict leasing system. Before the Civil War, prisons were made up of mostly white men – considering the fact that nearly all black people were considered property. In his article Freedom and Convict Leasing in the Postbellum South, Christopher Muller states: “Just 15 years after the Civil War, African-Americans were imprisoned at a rate more than 12 times that of whites. Racial disparity in imprisonment in postbellum Georgia was twice as large as it is in the United States today” [2]. Emancipation posed both immense social and economic shifts in the U.S. South, and this resulted in a great shift in Southern inmate populations, including Georgia. Southerners could not conceive interacting with their former slaves as freedmen. Imprisonment served as a way to relegate former slaves to second-class citizenship and continue to exploit their labor through the prison system.

Convict leasing is often talked about as slavery by another name, but I would argue that it is yet another manifestation of racial capitalism. Muller provides the following argument: “In postbellum Georgia, the relationship between slavery and imprisonment was characterized by contention more than by functional succession. It was in the counties where African-Americans evaded plantations or established their own farms—not in the cotton belt—that black men were most likely to be imprisoned in the convict lease system”[3].

It is here that the intrinsic entanglement between capitalism and race are made clear. Convict leasing and slavery exist as both racial and economic systems. Race in society creates a hierarchy between those who own the means of production, and those who must sell their labor to the elite class. The U.S. South depended on racial hierarchy to justify the means in which they exploited workers, creating a large pool of cheap labor for the Southern economy. Muller found that convict leasing was more prominent in Georgia counties where black people worked to become the owners of their labor (counties where black people their own farms or did not work on plantations). Convict leasing then served as punishment for African Americans that refused to fill their designated role in the capitalist economy.

Racism and capitalism work together in particularly appalling ways justify the incarceration of children, as depicted in Juvenile convicts at work in the fields. The racialization of black women as detailed by Sarah Haley led to the idea that “that the black female body reproduced criminality and, by extension, a class of subjects that could be made captive and work mercilessly”[4]. Just as racialization has stripped black women of vulnerability and protections associated with white women, it also stripped black children of their childhood. Women could be incarcerated for failures as a parent, and their children could be incarcerated for nothing more than losing their parents.

The idea that convict leasing was slavery by another name fails to consider the larger systemic issue – racial capitalism. Capitalism creates an economic system where inequality is imperative, and racism ensures that a hierarchy is created and sustained. Racialization, with the purpose of creating a class of cheap, exploitable laborers, is the process with justifies stripping vulnerable populations of their perceived vulnerability and is ultimately the reason an image like Juvenile convicts at work in the fields exists.









[1] Juvenile convicts at work in the fields, 1903. Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/item/2016818521/


[2] Christopher Muller, “Freedom and Convict Leasing in the Postbellum South,” American Journal of Sociology 124, no. 2 (September 2018): 368.


[3] Christopher Muller, “Freedom and Convict Leasing in the Postbellum South,” American Journal of Sociology 124, no. 2 (September 2018): 371.


[4] Sarah Haley. No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity (United States: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 7.

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