Hazardous Work and Physical Violence

Newspapers across the U.S. reported on the physical abuse that was endemic to Georgia’s convict camps. Whippings, floggings, sweatboxes, and malnutrition left prisoners’ bodies maimed and scarred, and often resulted in death. When public outrage among citizens and activists prompted the state government to investigate its prison camps in 1908, violence against inmates took center stage in interrogations and court proceedings.

Though brutal punishment of female prisoners had been ongoing since the inception of the convict lease system, corporal abuse gained national attention when a white female prisoner, Mamie De Cris, was whipped by a prison warden for insubordination after refusing his sexual advances. Newspapers covered the incident extensively, and the whipping of female prisoners in Georgia was abolished as a result.

The physical well-being of inmates was not only threatened by violence. Working conditions in mills, mines, brickyards, and rock quarries were dangerous. Falling brick and slate threatened serious injury and death. Railroad laborers moved rail and tamping apparatus weighing between 100 to 300 pounds. Female prisoners were especially vulnerable to accidents. Women wore striped dresses, a feminine counterpart to the striped shirt and trousers for males. These dresses often caught fire, and many women suffered severe burns as a result.