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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.

Convict Leasing in 1920s Georgia

by Audrey Vila

Source: “Papers of the NAACP: Prisoner leasing to states and federal prisoner treatment legislation” [0]

Published as an NAACP subject file, the source is a collection of newspaper articles about an alleged instance of convict leasing in Georgia in 1929. Almost 100 Black prisoners were leased from the Atlanta Federal Prison to a county prison outside Savannah, GA, and forced to work on roads. The articles express public outrage at the use of a practice that was abolished 20 years earlier by the General Assembly of the State of Georgia.[1] It seems the intention is to both reflect and provoke the public response to the practice with one journalist stating, “the lease system has been outlawed in the South as the most crude and inhuman method of handling prisoners.” [2] After immense pressure from the public and the US Senate, the lease is ultimately revoked. As a result, however, millions of dollars are given to the federal prison system to expand.

With a wide range of articles, a reader of this collection can gather a full picture of the situation. The newspapers all express outrage at the use of convict leasing. However, the Attorney General of Georgia states the lease as a necessary decision to address the overcrowding and deplorable conditions of the federal prisons, and that the convict labor was not planned, but merely another result of the transfer. The Attorney General then used this spectacle to advocate for $7 million in funding for three new prison facilities. In examining history, these diversion tactics aren’t new. The rise of convict labor was justified on claims that the post-war south did not have places to house the high number of prisoners.[3] The inability to deprive someone of their rights in one way does not garner justification for denying rights in another. As another argument, New York Republican Representative, Fiorello La Guardia, known for his progressive stances, asked: “if it would not be better to repeal some of the laws instead of building more prisons.” The question was only shown in one article of the collection and was quickly dismissed as irrelevant by the attorney general. Naomi Murakawa describes a similar trend a few decades later in the mid-1900s that advocated for the expansion of the law and order systems. During times of unrest and a rising civil rights movement, race liberals supported expanding prisons, which were seen as an effective rehabilitation and safety for society.[4] These sentiments were present long before and long after these articles. Prison expansion is often an argument for progress despite the widely recognized, detrimental effects on individuals and communities. The above image shows that ultimately the federal system was given millions of dollars to enlarge the prison system due to the convict leasing exposure. At this time, for many, it seemed like the right decision. Many prisoners wanted to stay in the new county prison instead of returning to the overcrowded Atlanta federal prison. However, the reasons for prison expansion throughout history are very relevant as we assess mass incarceration today. In this time, prisons were expanding with prohibition laws, but as stated by La Guardia, taking a look at these laws would have been a smart idea to address the overcrowding and may have impacted the makeup of our prison system today.

Next, throughout the articles, journalists point out the discrepancies of race. The 100 Black prisoners were not the only ones transferred, but the groups were divided and moved based on race. White prisoners were moved to a similar facility as the Atlanta Federal prison while the Black prisoners were moved to a county that put them in cages and forced them to work. These distinctions make it seem directly an extension of slavery. If not based on racist ideas, why were the majority of prisoners who are white kept from laboring? Secondly, in almost every article, the word “idleness” describes the state of Black prisoners in the Atlanta prison to justify their transfer. Racist sentiments include the idea that working-class Black people were lazy or “idle” and needed to be put to work. [5] Therefore, convict labor seemed a rational reform for the Black prisoner in the minds of many. At another point, an article mentions that the prisons’ superintendent believed that “the average negro is suited only today labor.” This is in contrast to the white prisoners who have not been contracted or assigned labor because it must be suited to them. Even as legislators and media pointed out unequal treatment, they continued to perpetuate racist ideas.

These racist sentiments become apparent when the media in these newspapers actively condemned the practice of convict leasing without addressing the continued existence of chain gangs and the assumption of labor as punishment. Chain gangs existed in Georgia for another 20 years after this incident and were only distinguished from convict leasing by the labor’s benefactor. Convict leasing could be used by anyone, while chain gains were constrained to only state entities, usually involving public infrastructure. So, it begs the question of how the media and the general public distinguish between the two practices? Both practices of convict labor uphold the notion, through the 13th amendment, that those who commit crime deserve to be punished through unpaid labor.[6] One distinction referenced in the articles is the benefit convicts can have for society. If they are sitting in prison, they do not contribute, but the labor allows them to function. Another distinction, articulated by Whitehouse, is that as subjects of the state, they can benefit the nation.[7]

When looking at newspaper articles, different from textbooks or theory, the general public’s sentiments and narratives can be understood. At this time, significantly more than even 40 years before, people opposed the practice, and the words mark that change. Therefore in 20 more years, with the end of chain gangs, media would show a similar shift, and history would continue.


[0] Papers of the NAACP, Part 11: Special Subject Files, 1912-1939, Series A: Africa through Garvey, Marcus. “Prisoner leasing to states and federal prisoner treatment legislation“. Library of Congress. Accessed July 27, 2020.

[1] Taylor, A. Elizabeth. “THE ABOLITION OF THE CONVICT LEASE SYSTEM IN GEORGIA.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 26, no. 3/4 (1942): 273-87. Accessed July 30, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/40576850.

[2] Papers of the NAACP, Part 11: Special Subject Files, 1912-1939, Series A: Africa through Garvey, Marcus. “Prisoner leasing to states and federal prisoner treatment legislation“. Library of Congress. Accessed July 27, 2020., 5

[3] Whitehouse, Mary Rose. “MODERN PRISON LABOR: A REEMERGENCE OF CONVICT LEASING UNDER THE GUISE OF REHABILITATION AND PRIVATE ENTERPRISES.” Loyola Journal of Public Interest Law 18, no. 1 (2017): 89+. Gale Academic OneFile (accessed July 30, 2020). https://link-gale-com.proxy.lib.duke.edu/apps/doc/A565297327/AONE?u=duke_perkins&sid=AONE&xid=e8a15b62.

[4] Murakawa, Naomi. The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America. New York;Oxford;: Oxford University Press, 2014., 56.

[5] Kelley, Robin D. G. “”we are Not what we seem”: Rethinking Black Working-Class Opposition in the Jim Crow South.” The Journal of American History 80, no. 1 (06, 1993): 75. https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy.lib.duke.edu/docview/224917635?accountid=10598.


[7] Ibid.


$50 reward for the capture of Henry Williams!

by Xitlali Ramirez

Image: “$50 reward for the capture of Henry Williams!”[1]


The image shown above was created by P. J. Rogger under the Tennessee Coal, Iron, & Rail Road Company (TCI) in the 1880s.[2]  The source claims that a convict named Henry Williams escaped from the Pratt Mines prison. TCI purchased Pratt Mines from the Pratt Coal and Iron Company in 1886,[3] leading me to the conclusion that the wanted poster was made between 1886 and 1889. The poster mentions that Williams has a wife in Hale county, Alabama and that he was convicted in Tuscaloosa, Alabama the previous October. The Pratt Mines are located in Birmingham, Alabama. The poster was therefore directed toward the people of Hale county, Tuscaloosa, and Birmingham because those are the locations that Williams was most likely to be found.


The purpose of the wanted poster was to offer a $50 reward for anyone who was able to find Williams and return him to the Pratt Mines prison.  Pratt Mines had “the richest and most extensive seam of quality coking coal in the entire region,”[4] thereby making it extremely profitable for the city of Birmingham. This, coupled with coal mining’s crucial role in Birmingham’s booming industrial development in the 1880s,[5] surely garnered dependence on and respect for the Pratt Mines. I believe this would have made the people in the area more likely to turn in an escaped convict that worked the mines.


A $50 reward for an escaped convict tells us that there is value associated with the convict. The poster says nothing about the crimes Williams was convicted for, only divulging his physical features and the mine that he escaped from. One could argue that this is because Williams’ value as a convict is only associated with the work that he provides in the mines. More broadly, Williams’ value is associated with Alabama’s convict leasing system.


Pratt Mine’s crucial role in the industrial development of Alabama was not the only instance of mineral exploitation that benefited the state. In fact, postbellum Alabama’s economy experienced a shift away from agricultural toward nonagricultural occupations in the 1880s.[6] Mineral exploitation–such as the coal harvesting that took place in Pratt Mines– increasingly pulled free and convict labor into the mines. Convict labor was the most powerful and dependable labor found in mines. Convicts produced cheap coal, worked regular hours, and their presence prevented labor strikes from gaining traction.[7] Convict’s involuntary role as strikebreakers was extremely important to the coal monopolies of Birmingham, of which TCI was included in. Free coal laborers called for “union recognition and the right to collective bargaining”[8] during critical coal strikes in 1894 and 1908, however the reliable presence of convict laborers who had no choice but to continue to produce coal crushed the efforts of the protestors. Convict labor was therefore positioned as crucial for the powerful companies that ran Birmingham’s mining industry.[9]


While Williams’ role in the convict lease system undoubtedly formed a great part of his convict value, this analysis would be incomplete without considering the aspect of social control that incarceration supports. Foucauldian theory tells us that bodies become useful only if they are both “productive” and “subjected” bodies.[10] Of course, the convict lease system produced immense labor value for Birmingham, but it also worked to keep Black people in their “place”. The poster alludes to Williams’ race by using “complexion black” to describe him. The convict lease system reinstated America’s social hierarchy by targeting former slaves to brutally control and exploit them for the advancement of the country.[11] America’s white supremacist social structure would have made it so that the poster’s audience would want to catch and return Williams to the coal mines: not only because of his economic value to the state, but also because of his “lesser” social position.


As I have shown, the poster puts dual value on Williams incarceration as essential labor and as a mechanism of social control. This source highlights the importance of convict leasing to the southern economy and as a form of social control, thereby demonstrating that the history of American incarceration is likewise a history of producing “productive” and “subjected” bodies.


The poster describes Williams not only as a man with black complexion, but it also claims that he is baldheaded, grey-haired, and “looks to be an old man.”[12] These descriptors are interesting because the poster also claims that Williams is only 35 years old. Williams’ old appearance at such a young age brings us to the story of Bankhead, an escaped convict who was captured by Pratt Coal and Iron Company–the company that preceded TCI’s ownership of the Pratt Mines–in 1883.[13] Bankhead labored at the Pratt Mines and died soon after his release from laboring at the mines, having worked only for a year and a month. The mines “literally worked Bankhead to death.”[14] This comes to no surprise considering the poor conditions of all mining prisons. In a span of 9 months in 1883, 71 percent of Jefferson County convicts died as a result of mistreatment, neglect, or injury.[15] The death rate at one Georgia and Pacific Railroad camp was as high as 40 percent.[16] The extremely poor conditions in Alabama convict camps could explain Williams’ aging appearance. The poster states that Williams was convicted in October and that he escaped on April 18th, meaning that he only worked at the mines for 6 months yet he aged considerably due to terrible working conditions. The source also reads that WIlliams has five or six scars on his back, most probably due to flogging.


This wanted poster is more than just a wanted poster. It is a declaration of TCI’s widespread economic power. It is a demonstration of Alabama’s economic and industrial dependency on convict laborers. It is a facilitation of social control, one that declares black complexion as inferior and deserving of torturous labor. The poster says none of these things, but these truths become apparent upon close inspection.


[1] “$50 Reward for the capture of Henry Williams!,” Duke University Libraries Repository Collections & Archives, accessed on August 5, 2020,  https://repository.duke.edu/dc/broadsides/bdsal10004

[2] Ibid

[3]Robert Louis Cvornyek, Convict Labor in the Alabama Coal Mines, 1874-1928. (Ann Arbor: Columbia University, 1993), 110, https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy.lib.duke.edu/docview/304060337?accountid=10598

[4] Cvornyek, Convict Labor in the Alabama Coal Mines, 109

[5] Cvornyek, Convict Labor in the Alabama Coal Mines, 104

[6] Cvornyek, Convict Labor in the Alabama Coal Mines, 102

[7] Cvornyek, Convict Labor in the Alabama Coal Mines, 113

[8] Cvornyek, Convict Labor in the Alabama Coal Mines, 115

[9] Cvornyek, Convict Labor in the Alabama Coal Mines, 113

[10] Michel Foucault, “The Body of the Condemned,” in Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, ed. Alan Sheridan (New York: Random House, Inc., 1995), 26.

[11] Cvornyek, Convict Labor in the Alabama Coal Mines, 53

[12] “$50 Reward for the capture of Henry Williams!,” Duke University Libraries Repository Collections & Archives, accessed on August 5, 2020,  https://repository.duke.edu/dc/broadsides/bdsal10004

[13] Cvornyek, Convict Labor in the Alabama Coal Mines, 51

[14] Cvornyek, Convict Labor in the Alabama Coal Mines, 51

[15] Cvornyek, Convict Labor in the Alabama Coal Mines, 52

[16] Cvornyek, Convict Labor in the Alabama Coal Mines, 52