State-Imposed Forced Labor: History of Prison Labor in the U.S.

February 08, 2016 Cazzie Reyes Opinion 
Forced Labor

The current structure of the criminal justice system and state-imposed forced labor in the United States are deeply rooted in the legacies of slavery and the aftermath of the Civil War. The timeline below details pivotal policies and milestones since the war that have shaped the way this country thinks about and deals with crime, prisoners and labor.


1865: The 13th Amendment abolishes slavery but permits the use of convicts for labor. Reconstruction begins as the federal government creates laws to stabilize the South’s economy, society and government.

1865-1866: White politicians enact Black Codes to grant African Americans certain rights but, also, to restrict their freedom. Black Codes mandate that everyone sign yearly labor contracts or face the possibility of arrest. Those arrested could be hired out to white landowners. In addition, judges could forcibly assign African American children to work for their former masters. Furthermore, vagrancy laws give local authorities the ability to arrest freedmen for minor infractions and commit them to involuntary labor.

1866-1869: Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and Florida begin leasing out convicts.

1868: Ratification of the 14th amendment

1870: Ratification of the 15th amendment

1871: Tennessee begins leasing convicts.

1872: South Carolina begins leasing convicts.

1873: The Panic of 1873 triggers an economic crisis that increases unemployment and decreases wages.

1876: Mississippi enacts a "pig law" defining the theft of a farm animal or any property valued at $10 or more as grand larceny, and those found guilty could be incarcerated for up to five years. The convict population quadruples overnight.

“Slaves had at least possessed the protection of their value as property; the lives of black convicts had no value in the eyes of whites. Mortality rates in convict camps rose to shocking levels.” - James M. McPherson

1877: Reconstruction ends. Southern states enact laws that penalize people who leave their jobs before working off an advance. Vagrancy statutes make it a crime to be unemployed. Harsh sentences and fines penalize those committing minor misdemeanors and trivial offenses.

1880s: American industry, economy, population and territory expands in the Gilded Age as business leaders Rockefeller, Mellon, Carnegie, Hill, Flagler, Morgan, Vanderbilt and Astor create and invest in transportation and other sectors.

1890-1965: Jim Crow laws enforce racial segregation in the South.

1892: Plessy v. Ferguson legitimizes segregation as “separate but equal.”

1896: Tennessee stops leasing convicts.

1897: South Carolina stops leasing convicts. Note that at the same time that states stop leasing out their inmates, convicts are transferred to prison-run chain gangs, a practice where prisoners are chained together and forced to perform menial or physically exhausting work.

1898: 73% of Alabama’s annual state revenue is reported to come from convict leasing.


1901: Louisiana stops leasing convicts. Originally intended for male black convicts, construction of the Mississippi State Penitentiary (Parchman Farm) begins.

1905: In its first year of operations, the state of Mississippi earns $185,000 (equivalent to $4.9 million in 2015) from Parchman Farm’s operations and the prisoners’ labor.

1907: Mississippi stops leasing convicts.

1908: Georgia stops leasing convicts.

1919: Florida stops leasing convicts.

1920: Free laborers in Alabama go on strike to protest wage decreases and the use of convict laborers in the Pratt Mine. In response, Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company hires convict laborers to fill open positions.

1923: Alabama creates an office of prison inspector and discovers the vile conditions convict laborers work in. A reform for the convict leasing system in Alabama is underway.

1928: Alabama becomes the last state to outlaw convict leasing.

1929: The stock market crashes, leading to the Great Depression. The Hawes-Cooper Act makes interstate trading of prison-made goods illegal. Note that manufacturers, employers and labor leaders who felt that they could not compete with the prisons – which had a free labor force that could not strike – pushed for this legislation.

1930s: Chain gangs almost entirely replace convict leasing in the South.

1933: Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) takes office and promotes federal prosecution of peonage.

1934: FDR passes an Executive Order establishing the Federal Prison Industries (FPI and now known as UNICOR). UNICOR uses prison labor from the Federal Bureau of Prisons to produce goods and services. 

1935: On January 1, 1935, FPI starts functioning as a wholly-owned corporation of the U.S. government. The Ashurst-Sumner Act makes interstate trading of domestic and foreign prison-made goods illegal. Again, the impetus for this law is to stop inmate-made goods from flooding the market and undermining free labor. Furthermore, exceptions still allowed goods made by convicts or prisoners on parole, supervised release or probation, or in any penal or reformatory institution.

1941: Circular 3591 abolishes convict leasing amidst concern that racial inequalities would be used in anti-U.S. propaganda during World War II.

1947: Laws forbidding forced labor such as the peonage statute, the slave-kidnapping law and the involuntary servitude law are strengthened.

1954: George Wackenhut and three former FBI agents found The Wackenhut Corporation, a security services company that would later become the second-largest in the industry.

1979: The Prison Industries Enhancement (PIE) program is established and is exempted from the provisions in the Ashurst-Sumner Act. The Justice System Improvement Act allows for the privatization of prisons and for the transport of prison-made goods across state boundaries. Profits jump from $392 million to $1.31 billion between 1980 and 1994.

1983: Thomas W. Beasley, a politician in the Republican Party, American businessman Doctor Robert Crants and T. Don Hutto found Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private corrections company in the U.S. 

An excerpt from the CCA's business strategy.

1994: Oregon passes a constitutional amendment that requires 100% of all state-held inmates to work for pay during incarceration through the Inmate Work Act.

2012: CCA's revenue tops $1.7 billion.

The timeline above does not cover all prison labor-related laws and practices. For instance, there's no mention of rising incarceration rates resulting from the war on drugs, the crackdown on illegal immigration or the school to prison pipeline in the 20th and 21st centuries.  However, the selected policies and milestones above still highlight a clear trend of pushback against former slaves in the post-war period and the profit-motivated actions that led to the development of the U.S. state-imposed forced labor system today.

Part 3 will cover arguments for and against prison labor in the U.S.

Topics: Forced Labor

About the Author

Cazzie Reyes

Cazzie Reyes graduated from Bradley University with a Bachelor's degree in International Studies and a minor in Women's Studies.