State-Run Chain Gangs and Public Works
Illustration of a Dixie Highway route from Waycross, Georgia to Jacksonville, Florida in 1922. The Highway was a network of roads constructed largely by prison labor. It brought tourists to the South and galvanized the southern economy.
Courtesy of Okefenokee Regional Library System, Okefenokee Postcard Collection.
Map of the Dixie Highway published in the Dixie Highway magazine, p. 10, 1925.
Courtesy of Middle Georgia Archives, Dixie Highway Auxiliary, Bibb Co. Chapter.
Letter to the editor regarding the transition from the convict lease system to the good roads movement, different only in that prisoners are leased not to private businesses but allocated instead to public roads projects. Atlanta Georgian and News, Oct. 2, 1908, p. 6.
Courtesy of Georgia Newspaper Project, Georgia Historic Newspapers.
Though chain gangs had existed under convict lease, after 1908 all of Georgia’s prisoners were deployed for work on public roads. The new legislation specified that male and female convicts would be dispersed across the state, performing work to improve county roads and highways. Rather than leasing prisoners to private companies, the state of Georgia allotted a certain number of prisoners to each county.
Just as the convict lease system helped transform the South into an industrial region, state-run chain gangs brought Georgia into the modern age and jump-started its tourist economy by improving mobility via its road network. The state's newspapers and journals touted the use of prisoners in expanding America’s infrastructure and modern transportation system as both advantageous and economical. Georgia was a leader in the "good roads movement." Prisoners built so many of the state’s roads that “bad boys make good roads” became a popular saying of the time.