The Truth About Chain Gangs And Convict Labor

The Truth About Chain Gangs and Convict Labor Jeremy A. Greenfield English 101 Iowa Western Community College 11/16/98 Outline Thesis: From the early chain gangs to the prison industries of today, prisoners have been used as labor in the United States. I. Definition A. Definition of convict labor B.

Definition of chain gangs and prison industries II. Chain Gangs A. Early history B. Mid-history C. Decline D.

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Present E. Curtis Brown III. Convict Labor A. Statistics B. Reasons for C.

Reasons against D. Other benefits E. Types of jobs IV. Main Points Restated A. Best arguments for convict labor B.

Best arguments against convict labor page 2 page 3 Prisons have been used as the way of punishment in the United States since its beginning. Throughout the history of prisons, convicts have been used as labor. The methods of labor, the number of laborers, and the arguments for or against has constantly been changing. From the early chain gangs to the prison industries of today, prisoners have been used as labor in the United States. When people think of chain gangs, they usually think of people in white and black stripes, being forced to work in a harsh environment.

This was often true. Employees, also called “leasees”, were in charge of the inmates. They often treated the inmates brutally. The name “chain gang” probably comes from the fact that the inmates were chained together at the legs to reduce the chance of escape. (Reynolds 181) Inmates were often controlled by whips and other harsh disciplines and punishments. People argued that the treatment was just because of the increased chance of escape in chain gangs. (Reynolds 182) People also thought that the chain gangs would deter crime, but studies show that they failed to deter.

(Brownstein 179) The living conditions were often unsanitary, crowded, and poorly constructed. (Reynolds 182) These bad conditions of the past have given the chain gang an extremely bad rap. The way people view chain gangs has changed several times throughout their history in the United States. The earliest history of chain gangs holds the cause for the bad views of them. The public sees chain gangs as a racist part of the old South.

The first chain gangs began in England and the northern part of the United States during the eighteenth century. (Reynolds 180) Even though chain gangs were legal in almost every state, the South seemed to be the only region using them. Some reasons for this include the bad climate of the North and the publics thoughts against chain gangs. (Reynolds 183) Another reason why we see the South as the source of chain gangs is because it was the region that needed them the most. The South used chain gangs because after the Civil War there was a labor shortage.

The labor shortage and an escalation in crime caused the South to begin leasing out convict labor. (Reynolds 180) It did not take long for convict leasing to spread. After the Civil War the South had to rebuild. That is why most of the states in the South had convict labor by 1875. The most common workers of the chain gang were county inmates who worked on the roads.

A large amount of repairs was needed to mend the roads that were destroyed during the war. Many convicts were also leased out to farms in the South to replace the slaves who were freed because of the Civil War. (Reynolds 180) The South was still a farming region with many large plantations that needed workers. Southerners were accustomed to having cheap labor so convict labor was thought as a good solution. There seemed to be no concern for welfare of the convicts or the jobs of others. Nobody cared that chain gangs were humiliating and degrading to inmates, which was against the eighth amendment, preventing cruel and unusual punishment. (Brownstein 179) Early chain gangs were used only for economic gain.

Convicts made money page 4 which helped to support themselves and were used as cheap labor. Rehabilitation was not a concern back then. (Reynolds 181) Some people did worry about the bad treatment of the convicts. Other people worried that convict labor took jobs from average citizens. During the twenties workers in many jobs had decided to form unions to protect their jobs from bad conditions. The unions that formed in the early twentieth century also opposed the labor of chain gangs.

The unions concerns and the inhumane treatment caused the downfall of the convict lease system in the South by 1920. (Reynolds 181) Private owners would no longer be able to lease prisoners. During this time period cars and better transportation was becoming important. The old lease system was replaced by the commonly known public works system. The atmosphere of the country during the “Roaring Twenties” caused chain gangs to be used on roads very often.

(Reynolds 181) This revival would soon fall to another problem. During the mid-1930s the United States went into a severe depression. When the Great Depression occurred many states passed laws to stop convict labor because it took jobs from the public. (“Let the Prisoners Work” 14) Jobs were scarce and nobody wanted a convict to take a job. The percent of convicts working dropped dramatically in only four decades.

An escaped convict who wrote a book about the chain gang helped show everyone the brutality of the chain gang. This, along with new food-making technology helped cause another demise of the chain gang in the 1940s. (Reynolds 183) With pressure from labor and business interests, Congress had passed laws which dropped convict labor from eighty-five percent in 1900 to forty-four percent in 1940. (Ingley 28) Those numbers are still remarkably higher than the percentage of today. From the 1940s to today the percent of prisoners working steadily dropped.

The number of prisoners working has dropped from seventy-five percent in 1885 to almost eight percent in 1995. (“Let the Prisoners Work” 14) The nineties brought about a new type of thinking over crime and how to punish perpetrators. The public seems to be fed up with crime. Many Americans now believe that prisons are not harsh enough to deter crime. (Reynolds 183) Some people think that chain gangs will deter crime, but studies show that they fail to deter.

With longer sentences and more parole restrictions, people are staying in prison longer, causing the population of prisons to quickly grow. (Brownstein 179) Some people may argue though that no matter how harsh prisons become, they will not be able to deter crime. The United States is now trying to bring back chain gangs. (Reynolds 183) There are many reasons why people in the United States want convicts to work. America is tired of paying for prisons and the number of prisoners is growing so much that inmates are having to pay for their prison stays. That is why “Prisons extract money from their inmates by charging for court costs, imposing medical co-payments, seizing prisoners assets, garnishing prisoners wages, and pursuing former prisoners for the cost of their incarceration.” (Paventi 26) Prison officials were surveyed and were found to believe that inmate work programs should be increased by 166 percent and that inmates should pay at least three times more for their stay. (Ingley 28) It costs a page 5 large amount of money to build more room for the increasing number of prisoners and the staff needed to watch them.

Statistics show that the prison population is growing faster than ever. The population in prisons today is three-hundred percent more than it was in the seventies. (Selke 1) Another statistic shows that the rate of increase is going to continue to grow. “By the year 2002 the inmate population is expected to increase by another 43 percent.” (M. O.

Reynolds 58) Just the last eight years has shown that the prison population is growing even when crime is going down. The prison population has almost doubled to 1.2 million since 1990. (“Let the Prisoners Work” 14) The result is an increasing percentage of taxpayers money going to cover the rising population. Prisons cost America twenty-five billion dollars a year which is about two hundred and fifty dollars a year per family. (M. O.

Reynolds 58) To some people this proves the need for convict labor and chain gangs, but there are still many reasons against them. Often chain gangs were so unbearable that inmates tried to escape. A Virginia man who escaped from a chain gang in 1956 was caught by bounty hunters. Curtis Brown had served two of his ten year burglary sentence when he escaped on June 5, 1956. Brown could not withstand the cruelty he went through in the chain gang.

After the escape he tried to live a normal life. The man had changed his name and began raising a family with three children. When the bounty hunters caught him, Brown had already been caught the prior year but had escaped. He seemed to have a bad habit of trying to escape his punishment. He was caught last …


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