Before the Civil War (1861-65), the South’s economy relied on the labor of enslaved people. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in the United States and outlawed forced labor except for use as punishment for a crime. Georgia, along with other southern states, exploited this legal loophole to solve the labor shortage that plagued the region in the post-war period. In 1866 the Georgia General Assembly legalized the leasing of prisoners to private individuals and companies, creating a new system that retained the exploitation and brutality of slavery: convict leasing.

During the Progressive Era, activists exposed the abuse and racism of the convict lease system. State and federal investigations revealed appalling living conditions, malnutrition, and widespread physical and sexual violence in Georgia’s prison camps. Under mounting pressure for reform, the state abolished the convict lease system in 1908 and ended the involvement of private companies. The state-run chain gang then took the system's place, becoming a common site along roadsides statewide.

Chain gangs were outlawed in Georgia in 1943, but public works camps and prison farms continued. In recent decades, the contours of the convict lease system have returned in the form of privatized prisons.

Exhibit by Sidonia Serafini. Fact checking by John Prechtel and Diane Trap.