One Dies, Get Another: Convict Leasing in the American South, 1866-1928.
As public officials in America rush to "reinvent government" from the local to the federal level, they might pause to consider early efforts to job-out governmental duties and to make them pay. Recent pilot projects in several states to hire private contractors to run prisons have attracted much attention at a time when the costs of prison construction and incarceration threaten to bust budgets. What Matthew Mancini shows in his careful and insightful book on convict leasing is that the idea of contracting out prison labor is not new. Nor is it humane. And it has not always paid.
Mancini provides a detailed description and analysis of the circumstances, conditions, and character of convict leasing in the American South, from its inception after the Civil War to its demise in the early twentieth century. In doing so, he also offers a lens through which to view southern racial attitudes, economic change, and "modern" sensibilities. By his account, states in the South resorted to convict leasing for reasons of racial control, labor management, and shortages of capital, but, most of all, they did so because of the almost complete lack of prisons. Where prisons existed, convict leasing did not count for much. Everywhere else, it became the principal means whereby states could meet the private labor needs of sugar and cotton plantations, coal and phosphate mines, turpentine farms, sawmills, and a host of other businesses that were hungry for cheap labor. The distinguishing feature of the southern convict-lease system was that convicts, mostly black, were leased directly to planters, mine owners, and other businessmen and corporations, with almost no public oversight of the convicts' health and welfare. The system was akin to the darkest days of colonial indentured servitude in which the planter, or whoever, as owner or lessee, sought to extract as much labor as possible from the bound worker while he had him. One planter's observation, "One dies, get another," summed up a pervasive attitude toward the convicts. Only cost mattered. This approach to labor, Mancini might have noted, was shared by many of the so-called robber barons of industrializing America. Various reformers, from New South advocates, embarrassed by the bad image that leasing gave the region, to civil rights advocates, angry at the system's abuses and especially over the high death rates of leased convicts, wanted the system ended. But, argues Mancini, it was cost and not conscience that ended convict leasing. As the region's economy changed and costs of renting convicts for year-long contracts rose, fewer lessees stepped forward. The southern states built prisons and work farms and assumed control of the convicts' labor. The chain gang did not disappear; only the owner of the convicts' labor did. The state, rather than a private contractor, drove the gangs.
Mancini dissects the various definitions of leasing and compares practices across the South, showing how local permutations in law, economy, and personality affected the controls over convict leasing and the harshness of the practice. Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi had the meanest and longest-lasting convict-lease systems, which found support among many whites who saw a "return to the natural order" in the "long rows of stooped black bodies working in gangs" under overseers (150-51). Tennessee had the shortest-lasting convict-lease policy, due to a strong local union presence that fought the danger that cheap convict labor posed to its own interest. In the end, though, Mancini finds more similarities than differences among the states. Race ruled along with cost in deciding the fate of convicts.
Although Mancini abjures presentism, he cannot hide his own outrage at a system whereby the state abdicated its crucial role as guarantor of not only public safety but also of justice. He also cannot resist his urge to tilt ideological lances with such theorists on penology as Michel Foucalt who give humanitarian forces greater credit in shaping penal policy than does Mancini. That criticism aside, this book demands attention. Mancini does not extend his arguments to present concerns, except by implication, but his book signals an urgency to look at the historical facts of convict leasing--as, indeed, the history of any policy--before placing a public trust in private hands. In that regard, his sobering analysis stands as a powerful case study as to why history matters.
Randall M. Miller
Saint Joseph's University
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|Author:||Miller, Randall M.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1999|
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