Us prison history work chain gang

Prior to the Civil War, prisons all over the country had experimented with strategies to profit off of the labor of incarcerated people, with most adopting factory-style contract work in which incarcerated people were used to perform work for outside companies at the prison. During the earliest period of convict leasing, most contracting companies were headquartered in Northern states and were actually compensated by the Southern states for taking the supervision of those in state criminal custody off their hands.

Only in the s and s, after Southern-based companies and individuals retook control of state governments, did the arrangements reverse: companies began to compensate states for leasing convict labor. Under convict leasing schemes, state prison systems in the South often did not know where those who were leased out were housed or whether they were living or dead. The chain gang continued into the s.

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Those sentenced to serve on chain gangs were predominantly black. Although economic, political, and industrial changes in the United States contributed to the end of private convict leasing in practice by , other forms of slavery-like labor practices emerged.


  • Rooted in Slavery: Prison Labor Exploitation.
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Matthew J. State prison authorities introduced the chain gang, a brutal form of forced labor in which incarcerated people toiled on public works, such as building roads or clearing land. Chain gangs existed into the s. And, as with convict leasing before it, those sentenced to serve on chain gangs were predominantly black. Prison farms also continued to dominate the Southern landscape during this period.

In , Texas was operating 12 state prison farms and nearly percent of the workers on them were black. The concept had first entered federal law in Northwest Ordinance of , which governed territories that later became the states of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. These states subsequently incorporated this aspect of the Northwest Ordinance into their state constitutions.

Many other states followed suit. Maine entered the union as a free state in Furthering control over black bodies was the continued use of extralegal punishment following emancipation, including brutal lynchings that were widely supported by state and local leaders and witnessed by large celebratory crowds. At least 4, such extra-judicial killings occurred between and in 20 states. Very few white men and women were ever sent to work under these arrangements.

By assigning black people to work in the fields and on government works, the state-sanctioned punishment of black people was visible to the public, while white punishment was obscured behind prison walls. By many accounts, conditions under the convict leasing system were harsher than they had been under slavery, as these private companies no longer had an ownership interest in the longevity of their laborers, who could be easily replaced at low cost by the state. Although the incarcerated people subjected to this treatment sought redress from the courts, they found little relief.

He is for the time being the slave of the state.

NCJRS Abstract

Commonwealth , 62 Va. The first half of the 20 th century saw an expansion of prison populations in the Northern states, which coincided with shifting ideas about race and ethnicity, an influx of black Americans to urban regions in the North, and increased competition over limited jobs in Northern cities between newly arrived black Americans and European immigrants. As a backdrop to these changing demographics, public anxiety about crime flourished.

As crime was on the decline, the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover, began to characterize those who committed violent robberies as public enemies.

The growing fear of crime—often directed at black Americans—intensified policing practices across the country and inspired the passage of a spate of mandatory sentencing policies, both of which contributed to a surge in incarceration. Policies establishing mandatory life sentences triggered by conviction of a fourth felony were passed first in New York in and, soon thereafter, in California, Kansas, Michigan, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, and Vermont. Between and , state prison populations across the country increased by 67 percent.

The arrest rate among white people for robbery declined by 42 percent, while it increased by 23 percent among black people. For homicide, arrests declined by 8 percent for white people, but rose by 25 percent for black people. Between and , over six million black Americans migrated from the South to Northern urban centers.

Known as the Great Migration, this movement of people dramatically transformed the makeup of both the South and the North: in , 90 percent of black Americans lived in the South but, by , that number had dropped to 53 percent. These migrants—typically more financially stable black Americans—were fleeing racial terror and economic exclusion.

The new chain gang: Corrections in the next century | SpringerLink

This social, political, and economic exclusion extended to second-generation immigrants as well. The Great Migration of more economically successful Southern black Americans into Northern cities inspired anxiety among European immigrant groups, who perceived migrants as threats to their access to jobs. This influx of people overlapped with the waves of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe who continued to disembark and settle across the country throughout the first half of the 20 th century.

During this time period, the dominant white class connected criminality to three distinct groups: lower-class whites, immigrants, and black Americans. However, while white and immigrant criminality was believed by social reformers to arise from social conditions that could be ameliorated through civic institutions, such as schools and prisons, black criminality was given a different explanation.

All black Americans were fully counted in the census for the first time and the publication of the data was eagerly anticipated by many.

Chain Gangs

By the census, census methodology had been improved and a new focus on race and crime began to emerge as an important indicator to the status of black Americans after emancipation. Debates arose whether higher crime rates among black people in the urban North were biologically determined, culturally determined, or environmentally and economically determined.

White crime was typically discussed as environmentally and economically driven at the time. Other popular theories included phrenology, or the measurement of head size as a determinant of cognitive ability, and some applications of evolutionary theories that hypothesized that black people were at an earlier stage of evolution than whites. This group of theories, especially eugenic theories, were publicly touted by social reformers and prominent members of the social and political elite, including Theodore Roosevelt and Margaret Sanger. The racial category of Caucasian was first proposed during this period to encompass all people of European descent.

The ratios jumped from 2. These beliefs also impacted the conditions that black and white people experienced once behind bars.


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The use of chain gangs for prison labor was the preferred method of punishment in some southern states like Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama. Chain gangs experienced a resurgence when Alabama began to use them again in Several jurisdictions in the United States have re-introduced prison labor. In Sheriff Joe Arpaio reintroduced chain gangs in Arizona. A year after reintroducing the chain gang in , Alabama was forced to again abandon the practice pending a lawsuit from, among other organizations, the Southern Poverty Law Center.

However, as late as , Alabama Prison Commissioner Ron Jones has again proposed reintroducing the chain gang. The reintroduction has been called "commercial slavery" by some.

Tim Hudak , former leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario in Canada , campaigned on introducing penal labor in the province, referred to by many as chain gangs. The women are chained together at the ankles and carry out tasks such as weeding at the sides of highways and burying unclaimed bodies at a cemetery. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. For other uses, see Chain gang disambiguation. Retrieved Credo Reference. Retrieved 3 October Prisons and prison systems.

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The Private and the Public in Penal History: A Commentary on Zimring and Tonry

Greenwood Publishing Group. October 23, The system provided revenue for the state and profits for plantation owners. In , Georgia leased out 1, prisoners, and all but were African American. Much like the system of slavery from which it emerged, convict leasing was a violent and abusive system.

The death rate of prisoners leased to railroad companies between and was 16 percent in Mississippi, 25 percent in Arkansas, and 45 percent in South Carolina. By the s, every state had abolished convict leasing. As the southern states began to phase out convict leasing, prisoners were increasingly made to work in the most brutal form of forced labor, the chain gang.

The chain gangs originated as a part of a massive road development project in the s. Georgia was the first state to begin using chain gangs to work male felony convicts outside of the prison walls. Chains were wrapped around the ankles of prisoners, shackling five together while they worked, ate, and slept. For over 30 years, African-American prisoners and some white prisoners in the chain gangs were worked at gunpoint under whips and chains in a public spectacle of chattel slavery and torture. Eventually, the brutality and violence associated with chain gang labor in the United States gained worldwide attention.

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The chain gang was abolished in every state by the ls, almost years after the end of the Civil War. Just a few decades later, we are witnessing the return of all of these systems of prison labor exploitation. Private corporations are able to lease factories in prisons, as well as lease prisoners out to their factories. Private corporations are running prisons-for-profit. Government-run prison factories operate as multibillion dollar industries in every state, and throughout the federal prison system. In the most punitive and racist prison systems, we are even witnessing the return of the chain gang.

Shifts in the United States economy and growing crises of underemployment and poverty in communities of color have created the conditions for the current wave of mass incarceration and the boom in prison labor exploitation.