Convict Leasing:

De Facto Slavery


According to the first section of the Thirteenth Amendment, passed on 31 January 1865, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude” should exist within the United States, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” During Reconstruction, the 12 years following the Civil War, southern industrialists instituted a system of convict leasing, in which prisoners were leased out to private businesses—from plantations to corporations—to fill shortages in the labor supply and to reinstitute control over newly freed Black southerners and reestablish political control over the region. State-run prisons profited enormously by providing private parties with cheap labor.

The penal system of the South followed a slavery model for the purpose of rebuilding the war-ravaged economy and infrastructure (e.g., railroads); this penal system encouraged convict leasing. Under this system, prisoners, 90 percent of whom were newly freed Blacks who had been arrested for minor offenses defined as “vagrancy,” were leased to private companies. These companies, in turn, paid the state a sum of money for the cheap labor. For example, in Georgia, 1,100 prisoners were leased to three companies on 20-year contracts for the sum of 25 thousand dollars. [McKelvey, B. American Prisons, 1936, as cited in Blomberg and Lucken, 2000] In 1867, Mississippi operated its penal system under a similar arrangement, as did Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Florida.

With convict leasing, corruption in the penal system flourished. Companies often lagged behind in their payments to states. As states sought to maximize their gain through the best possible bargains, inmates were shuffled from one company to the next without permanent quarters. They lived in camplike facilities, and there was little in the way of order, rules, or surveillance. Consequently, states often lost track of how many offenders were under supervision. They resided in quarters where there was barely running water and no heat during the winter. Their clothes were typically tattered, and shoes were considered a privilege. To prevent escapes, shackles were used, as were the ball and chain. [McKelvey, B. American Prisons, 1936, as cited in Blomberg and Lucken, 2000] They labored under sweltering conditions where they often “died like flies” [Friedman, L., 1993. Crime and punishment in American history]. Leased prisoners were subjected to physical abuses and strenuous labor, and the overwhelming majority died within seven years from disease and malnutrition.

Black codes were laws passed by states to restrict the mobility of the newly freed African Americans and helped to guarantee a steady supply of prisoners. The Civil Rights Act of 1871 was passed by Congress to protect African Americans and provide remedies for them to sue the state for civil rights violations, yet it had little to no impact on prisoners’ rights. The system of convict leasing – de facto slavery – continued until the end of World War II.

The last state to end convict leasing was Alabama. The United States Supreme Court struck down one of these practices in 1911 in the case of Bailey v. Alabama, 219 US 219 (1911). Sadly, the illegal slavery schemes persisted, finally triggering a directive from Attorney General Francis Biddle to all United States attorneys concerning the procedure for handling cases relating to involuntary servitude, slavery, and peonage. Attorney General Biddle opted to refocus the efforts of the Department of Justice on the broader issue of slavery, directing the department’s prosecutors to attack the practice by name and use a wider array of criminal statutes to convict both slave-holding employers and the local officials who abetted them. He announced the new policy in Circular No. 3591.

Passed in December of 1941, Circular No. 3591 was an incredibly noble effort with some razor-sharp legal teeth, leaving no doubt about the intent of the law toward such practices in this country. Incredibly, it wasn’t enough to dissuade wealthy private industrialists whose very livelihood and greed had come to depend on this new form of slave labor.


Paul Finkelman, Encyclopedia of African American History 1896 to the Present: From The Age Of Segregation To The Twenty-First Century Volume 4 O-T 127. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)

Thomas G. Blomberg and Karol Lucken, American Penology: A History of Control, 2nd Edition 59-60 (New York: Aldine De Gruyter, 2000)

Lawrence M. Friedman, Crime and Punishment in American history (BasicBooks, 1993)

WikiSource – Circular No. 3591