The other day I recommended David Oshinsky’s book Worse Than Slavery to a friend; he’s finding it painful to read. I’ve read it more than once, and read a chunk of it again after recommending it. It’s a horrific and brutal story – and one that every American should know inside out.
From a review at H-net by Robert M. Goldman (Virginia Union University):
The Parchman Farm story begins with the Reconstruction era. Determined to overthrow Republican regimes, Mississipians devised what would become the model for Democratic redemption elsewhere, the so-called “Mississippi Plan.” It elements were straightforward enough. Use whatever means necessary, from fraud to murderous violence, to regain political control. It worked, and by 1875 Democratic legislatures were back in control and immediately set out to resolve what they considered to be two key problems: a shortage of labor, and the need to restore white supremacy. Criminal statutes were enacted such as the “Pig Law” in which theft of a farm animal worth more than ten dollars was punishable by up to five years in prison. Along with laws such as these, which were almost always aimed at the thousands of poor freedmen, was the “Leasing Act.” This statute allowed convicts to be leased out if their sentences were less than ten years. Since whites were usually only charged and convicted for the most serious of crimes, their sentences entitled them to the relative safety of the state penitentiary at Jackson.
As it developed in Mississippi, convict leasing successfully replaced racial bondage with a system of racial castes while at the same time fueling the economic development of the late 19th century “New South.” The use of convicts for everything from raising cotton, to building railroads, to extracting turpentine gum spread rapidly. It solved the problem of high fixed labor costs, since minimal expenses for food, clothing, and shelter were necessary. Moreover, there was always a ready supply of replacement labor, so incentives against the mistreatment of convict workers were non-existent. Olshinsky catalogs the horrors that awaited a leasee–from ubiquitous lash to the use of metal spurs riveted to the feet to prevent escape. The mortality rate was high, and the system encompassed all ages. The state penal code made no distinction between juvenile and adult offenders, so that by 1880 “at least one convict in four was an adolescent” (pp. 46-47).
Goldman puts that rather mildly, but what Oshinsky details is a horror of overwork in terrible conditions, with torture for anyone who fell behind or screwed up in any way. It was worse than slavery because there was no incentive to keep the prisoners alive. It was profitable, and there was no dainty reluctance to arrest black people for the most ludicrous of reasons.
From a review by Ken Wytsma:
Convict leasing, something I knew little about, was a way of exploiting and profiting off of black powerlessness in Jim Crow South. For two generations, convicts would be leased out, worked harder and treated worse than slaves had been prior to the Civil War. These black convicts (the few white male prisoners, usually in jail for heinous crimes such as murder, were kept behind prison walls instead of being placed in convict leasing work details) would die at the mind numbing rate of 15-40% per year.
There was a time in America when convicts – held for such things as petty crimes, stealing food or not being able to pay court fees – were being worked to death at 15-40% per year!
Additionally, when new contracts came up, young black men would be rounded up and incarcerated on trumped up charges (loitering, disrespect, gambling, ‘insinuation’ etc.) simply to fill work ranks. These young men, victims of racial and criminal injustice, would then die at the rate of 15-40% per year. Can you imagine?
The criminal justice system under Jim Crow also began the disturbing trend of large scale African American male incarceration that continues till today.
We Americans live in a country with a hideous history…more hideous than the Nazi interlude in many ways, since it went on for so much longer.