May 11, 1868: The state of Georgia implemented its first convict leasing contract to Georgia & Alabama Railroad Company. The contract authorized one hundred state prisoners be “leased” to the company for a period of one year at a cost of $2,500. Charged with the prisoners’ care and custody, and the motto, “one dies, get another,” sixteen prisoners died inside of the contract’s first year.
On the heels of a Civil War loss and centuries of enslaved free labor, the economy of the southern states was reeling from severe labor shortages and a crumpled economy. The passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution established that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction”. The Black Codes codified, targeted, and criminalized Black folk with charges of vagrancy, loitering, and trespassing simply for standing or walking in the street or doing nothing. The 13th Amendment combined with the Black Codes grew an industry of Convict leasing.
Convict leasing aided in the development of this nation’s Industrial Age and its demand for cheap labor. The formerly enslaved population was transformed into a new slave labor pool for the recovering nation’s railway expansion, the coal, mining, and rock quarry industries.
Like plantations, “leasers” maintained absolute control over the lives and work of abused, neglected, severely overworked and starving prisoners. Efforts to curtail or reform Convict leasing were unsuccessful until 1908 when the Georgia legislation outlawed and replaced them with “chain gangs” who worked on Georgia roadways, farms, etc. It was not until 1945 that Georgia outlawed chain gangs.
Today, one-hundred and fifty-nine years after the abolition of slave labor, privately-run prisons like CoreCivic and GEO Group benefit and profit from the exploitation of free (cheap) labor of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people. And the 13th Amendment continues to condone and allow a capitalist economy to perpetuate the genocide of slavery by another name.