A cruel chapter in Southern criminal justice
In his seminal study of convict leasing in the post-Civil War South, Matthew J. Mancini chronicles an institution of unrelieved brutality. Devastated by war, bewildered by peace, and unprepared to confron the problems of prison management, Southern states sought to alleviate the need for cheap labor, a perceived rise in criminal behavior, and the bankruptcy of their state treasuries. Mancini describes the leasing of convicts to corporations and individuals as a policy that, in addition to reducing prison populations and generating revenues, offered a means of racial subordination and labor discipline. He identifies commanlities that, despite the seemingly uneven enforcement of convict leasing across state lines, bound the South together in reliance on one of the harshest, most exploitative labor systems in American history.
Examining the practice from both regionwide and state-by-state perspectives, Mancini explores convict leasing in Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Virginia. He describes prisoners' daily existence, profiles the individuals who leased the convicts, and reveals both the inhumanity of the leasing laws and the centrality of race relations in the establishment and perpetuation of convict leasing. He takes issue with the widespread notion that convict leasing was an aberration in a generally progressive history of criminal justice and offers a convincing explanation for the institution's dramatic demise.
Matthew J. Mancini is chair of the Department of History at Southwest Missouri State University. While a visiting professor at Mercer University in Atlanta, he cofounded and directed a program of college education for prisoners.